From The Play that Goes Wrong to playing just right: Henry Lewis on his stunning escape-room games
Henry, you’re one of the brains behind The Mystery Agency. For those not in the know, what is that? And what is it that you make?
The Mystery Agency is a company that sells escape-room style mysteries in a box. Players must examine ancient documents and artefacts, crack the codes, unravel the puzzles… And solve the mystery!
Sounds fun and – from what I’ve seen – they look beautiful. How many are currently in the range?
We currently have three mysteries available: The Balthazar Stone, The Vanishing Gambler and The Ghost in the Attic with a fourth – The Man from Sector Six – on the way!
Can you give us an example of the kind of puzzle inside one?
The first puzzle you face when solving mystery of The Balthazar Stone is a locked wooden pirate chest. The only clue as to how to open it is a tag tied to the outside with a number of strange postage stamps on it…
Nicely done! It’s genuinely intriguing, by the way – that’s the puzzle I first had a crack at during London Toy Fair earlier in the year. Looking at how many escape-room-style games are on the market, dare I ask what made you think there was room for more? What’s the USP?
We wanted to create something where the design and storytelling are really excellent. We’ve worked hard to ensure the components in our mysteries – as well as the storylines and atmosphere – feel truly authentic.
Well, the quality of these games is quite something. How did you go about developing each one? Was it a case of puzzle first, then plot? Or plot then puzzle?
A little of both. Usually, I start by planning out the whole thing, then fill in some detail on the puzzles. Often, though, there’s a bit of zooming in and out required to make both plot and puzzles engaging and satisfying.
And in your opinion, what’s the the best way to make sure each puzzle is just hard enough… But not too hard?
I’ve found that it can be surprisingly easy to make the puzzles too hard!
Agreed. And if just one puzzle feels too hard, it can sound the death knell for the evening’s fun!
Right. And with our mysteries, there’re no instruction manuals – with the exception, I suppose, of the hints on our website! So you have to figure out everything: where to start, which elements of the mystery connect with which other elements… You have to work out what the puzzles are first, then how to solve them. So while it’s tempting to make the puzzles more intricate and challenging, it’s important to remember how tricky even a simple puzzle can be in the perplexing context of a mystery box.
Great answer, thank you. Who makes up the rest of the team?
Kenny Wax, Mark Bentley, Paul Lisberg and I head up the business. Rob Trup expertly runs the company day to day. Natalie Yalden and Rona Kelly do our marketing and social media, and Rebecca Pitt does the fantastic graphic design on our mysteries.
And what is it that you do, Henry, when you’re not working on these games?
I mainly work in theatre and television. I run the comedy company Mischief, which is behind the Olivier-Award winning ‘The Play that Goes Wrong’ and BBC1’s The Goes Wrong Show. I also co-host the riddle-based quiz show Riddiculous on ITV1.
Busy man! And given that you’re so successful in those fields, what led to your designing a game?
During lockdown – when the all the theatres closed – I had some time on my hands. I created the first of the games for some friends. We then launched the business in the autumn of 2020.
What’s next for you?
I recently finished touring with a new comedy mind-reading show: Mind Mangler: Member of the Tragic Circle. I’m currently in New York doing Peter Pan Goes Wrong on Broadway. Later, that will go on for a run in LA.
Fantastic. Final question: what’s the most interesting object in your office or on your desk?
A megalodon tooth.
Best… Answer… EVER! Thanks, Henry. Let us know how things go with the games.
To stay in the loop with the latest news, interviews and features from the world of toy and game design, sign up to our weekly newsletter here