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A Magazine for Sheffield

'Interactive North of England simulator' Escape The North comes to Sheffield

A live-streamed adventure puzzle game that's "a little like an escape room, a little like a video game and a little like Knightmare." Intrigued? Confused? Read on.

Escape The North Main Image

Escape The North is an 'interactive North of England simulator', an online game show which takes place on popular streaming platform Twitch every week.

Audience and players tune in and take part, with some of the North's greatest alternative comedians at the helm, backed by purpose-built software that the group call Motherbrain.

The team behind this novel, genre-breaking virtual comedy adventure puzzle experience filled in the blanks for us, ahead of the launch of Season 2: Sheffield this Friday, live-streamed on Twitch from 8pm.

I've tried to describe Escape The North to a few people and I've come a cropper. How do you explain what it is to the unsuspecting population?

It’s admittedly very tricky! Which is never a good marketing strategy.

It’s a little like an escape room, a little like a video game, it’s a little like seminal 1987 adventure game show Knightmare – except you can play from home in your pyjamas.

Escape The North is a livestream adventure puzzle game. Teams of three play via webcam on a computer or phone, and players interact with the game by talking to characters and saying what they’d like to do moment by moment. The game is broadcast live on Twitch.

The game is set in an absurdist dystopian North of England and all the characters are played live by comedians, so every time you talk to someone in the game it’s a real person responding. It’s an indie game show for 2021.

Who is involved and what was the inspiration behind the project?

The core team is Lloyd Henning and Peter Sutton (aka Foxdog Studios), Jack Evans, Jain Edwards, Jim John Harkness and Sean Morley, with occasional guest cameos from other comedians and actors.

We all started working together before the pandemic - starting with a big panto in Christmas 2019 - and we were just starting up a regular comedy club in Manchester which in turn got featured in The Guardian. At the time we felt like we had some momentum behind creating a lil’ scene of weird northern comedy. Sadly all plans were scuppered by a little thing called Germ Hell.

We were pretty desperate to try and keep some of that energy going and do something online, but webcam comedy for the most part is kinda stilted, and making something work through a screen is so different. The idea of making a game that audience members could play was really exciting - but also very ambitious.

ETN Screenshot1

Players wrestle with moral grey areas inside a broken clocktower.

Escape The North

Luckily, Foxdog Studios are tech/IT comedians and built this piece of software we called Motherbrain that allows us to do all kinds of ridiculous things, up to and including allowing us to play animals and other non-human characters.

We really wanted something interactive and novel, but still hold onto this idea of creating something weird and northern. So Escape The North was born, a surreal North of England simulator.

What have been some highlights of Escape the North so far?

The real highlight has been how much people ended up taking to it and forming a community around it. There’s already a fan club, a fan wiki - there’s even an Escape The North tattoo in the world. It hit cult status in record time.

One of our favourite things is how unpredictable the game can be both for players and for us running it. We’re always building more on the fly each week, so characters and areas develop based on what we feel people are responding to.

In Season 1 (Manchester) the community were clearly very taken with a little worm we’d included as a red herring in one of the tutorial areas. It’s catchphrase was, “I’m having a lovely time”, but it was just a little worm and had no way of helping with any puzzles or challenges in the game.

It didn’t really serve any purpose. But since the community liked it so much, this throwaway worm character ended up becoming a de facto mascot. We built a whole series of episodes about rescuing the worm from hell - and that’s just something you can’t really do at a comedy club.

ETN Screenshot2

Players work as tax auditors inside worm hell.

Escape The North

How do your backgrounds in comedy feed in? Is improvising a big part of the game?

Improvising is a huge part of the game. The way the game works is that the players can move around this bizarro replica of the city that we’ve built and then speak to people (played by us) and interact with objects. We have no idea what they’re going to do and there’s no possible way of trying to accommodate every whim they might possibly have.

In a lot of actual video games, there are usually some limitations you need to learn. For instance, you often can’t try and climb through a window or pick up any old bit of scrap you see on your travels. Players only have pre-recorded dialogue to say, so you can’t ask them about their favourite type of yoghurt or try to buy their shoes. In Escape The North, we do our best to facilitate these idle whims as best as we can.

In one episode a player wanted to visit a bureau de change to exchange some currency. We hadn’t built a bureau de change, but we quickly photoshopped some bureau de change images together and one of us put on a tie and got ready to be behind the counter. That’s exciting. People can play a game that is literally being built as you play.

ETN Screenshot3

Mysterious mushrooms are cropping up across the streets of Sheffield...

Escape The North

What can viewers (and players) expect from the new season, which is based in Sheffield?

In Season 2 of Escape The North, players control the Mayor of Sheffield and are tasked with looking into the mystery of giant mushrooms that are sprouting from the ground across the city. Why are the mushrooms growing? Are they actually a risk to anyone? How can you make them go away?

The players (Mayors) must explore Sheffield - currently we have The Steelworks and The Crucible and The Ski Village as playable areas, with more being built for future episodes - and work out the truth behind the mushrooms. There’s a new element in Season 2 where the mayor must stay 20 points ahead in the polls otherwise they’ll face a no-confidence vote and a new mayor/team will come in and take up where they left off.

Hopefully this element of public scrutiny will add a little extra spice to an already convoluted game experience.

Learn more

Escape The North is live on Twitch every Friday from 8pm.

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