forget escape artists, we need some escape storytellers

Game Design, Location-based Entertainment / Wednesday, June 21st, 2017

Warning: This article contains spoilers from the following escape rooms (some of them may not exist any more):

  • “Trapped in Wonderland” by Trapped, Vancouver
  • “Blind Tiger” by EscapeSF, San Francisco
  • “Prison” by PanIQ Escape Room, San Francisco
  • “The Great Houdini Escape Room” by Palace Games, San Francisco

Escape rooms are physical puzzle game environments where you get locked in a room with a group of friends and have a time limit within which you try to escape the room, by using clues in the room. These rooms are based on escape the room video games, and have grown in number and popularity since the early 2000s.

As much as this sounds like an excellent platform for stellar game design, the opposite is generally true. Perhaps because of their nascence, escape rooms, in my experience, have more than often fallen short of their premise to engage players in exciting puzzle solving and teamwork.

The promotional image for “Blind Tiger” at EscapeSF looks a lot sexier than what the room actually is. It does provide some hints of certain puzzle elements used in the room if you really look carefully, but the man and the woman are not included.

Some problems with escape room designs:

1. Too many locks

Locks are fine, but they are certainly not the only way to get through a closed door. In many escape rooms, however, especially ones with lower budgets, there is an overuse of locks to the point that the whole experience is a series of puzzles looking for keys and combinations of letters and numbers to proceed to the next stage, in which you find another lock.

A particularly annoying puzzle is one where there is a chest locked with two or more locks, like the one in “Trapped in Wonderland”. There was a nondescript chest in a room with two combination locks on it, each requiring a three digit number. There were numbers on the wall and no instructions, so feeling lost, I brute forced through the combinations on one lock and eventually opened it using that method. First of all, there was no reason there should be a chest in the room, or random numbers painted in some flowers on the wall. And a sure sign of frustration is trying every combination on the locks, definitely not good puzzle design.

The problem with just using locks is that it creates an extremely linear experience, and requires no puzzle solving skills because the answer to what you need to find (a key or a combo) is painfully obvious from there being a lock present. The entire game flow of “Prison” involved retrieving a key, finding another lock, and then searching for the key to that one, which made it not only easy, but uninteresting too. One or two locks where it makes sense is fine, but an entire experience moving from lock to lock is boring and repetitive.

2. Random puzzles that have nothing to do with the room’s world

One of my biggest pet peeves in escape rooms is puzzles that don’t make sense within the context of the room’s world. For example, in “Blind Tiger”, a prohibition themed escape room where the goal was to find a ledger of names belonging to a crime boss, there was a puzzle that involved looking for magnetic letters of the alphabet around the room that spelled out certain names, unrelated to the ledger names. These letters were small, black and hidden, so none of us found them until we got a clue to do so. Why there would be magnetic letters hidden amidst bar furniture in a speakeasy beats me, and how we were to know to look for them is another mystery. This broke the immersion of the prohibition era world of the room, and gave us a puzzle that pulled us away from the natural story of the room. A better way to get at the names could have been in a newspaper article with letters circled, perhaps, or in an address book left by a patron on the bar counter.

3. Insufficient or poor use of multiple players

One of the caveats of escape rooms is that you absolutely need a group of people to go, from 2-3 at their smallest to the 12-person “Great Houdini”. Escape rooms claim to be great team building exercises, and yet, they consistently include a larger number of small puzzles over fewer puzzles that require multiple players to solve. More puzzles does not mean everyone’s going to disperse and do something on their own, because that’s not how we work. The consequence is that everyone usually crowds around a single-player puzzle rather than dividing and conquering, which is more natural to us for solving problems but really impractical in an escape room. This happened with “Blind Tiger”, when there was an obvious puzzle involving a typewriter, everyone stopped exploring the room and gathered around the instrument of interest, each of us coming up with ideas of what keys to press and having to share usage of the typewriter. This was more convoluted than it was helpful to our progress, and exemplified the idea that interactions need to be designed to facilitate teamwork, requiring, instead of encouraging, multiple players to participate to successfully solve a puzzle.

4. Poor set design

Because escape rooms are physical spaces, many theatre techniques should be used to help direct players. Sound effects can draw attention to an important part of a puzzle, or a light shining on an object can indicate that it is important. Even the use of lines and colours can draw the eye to certain locations in the room, or subtly provide hints. However, these techniques are seldom used in escape rooms. For example, in “Trapped in Wonderland”, part of the puzzle was in ultraviolet ink that needed to be revealed using a blacklight torch, which was visible in the room. None of us noticed the torch, and if we had, we might not have known what it was or how to use it. Placing it in a more visible location, perhaps near the board we were supposed to use it on, with maybe a spotlight on it or some visual decoration, would have made this part easier and sped us along to the real meat of the puzzle which was written on the board, so we could spend more time on that rather than searching the room. Lessons from theatre and games can help escape rooms implement indirect control to provide hints to the players without having someone come over the loudspeaker, giving players agency and a sense of discovery at finding the correct clue for the next step.

5. Confusing or no indications of progress

There are typically two states for each puzzle, unsolved and solved. However, game designers have many techniques to show that you are making progress towards an answer, using sound effects, or art cues. In escape rooms, however, it’s difficult to tell whether you are proceeding on the right path, and room designers don’t seem to consider the multiple checkpoints between the unsolved and solved states that can give players validation and give them clues on how to proceed. Sometimes, the indications of progress are confusing, such as in “Blind Tiger”, when, typing names into a typewriter, we noticed that lights on a map would turn on, lighting up portions of a line. This made us think that the map and the route indicated on the map was part of the puzzle, and maybe we were supposed to type in cities where the lines lit up, “Austin”, or “Detroit” as some of the code words. The host told us later that the lights were only an indication that we were typing in the correct names, and the map didn’t mean anything. This could have been better communicated if the lights didn’t form a line across a map, then.

Escape rooms come in many formats, with this one, “Prison” at PanIQ, starting you out by dividing your party into two and having you locked in adjoining jail cells.

A good escape room is about the story, not about the puzzles.

It seems that escape room designers are so concerned about the puzzles that they focus solely on what they want players to solve to get out of the room, rather than what kind of experience the room is about. Rooms may be themed and decorated to the nines, but then puzzles that don’t really have anything to do with the atmosphere of a room pull players out of immersion and lead to a disjointed experience. It’s like sitting someone down in a “Wild West” themed saloon and then giving them a Sudoku on a whiteboard on which they have to shine blacklight to reveal the ultraviolet numbers, which sounds ridiculous, but is frankly what a lot of these escape rooms are like.

Escape room designers must be aware that in every design, they are crafting two stories, and need to pay equal attention to both:

  1. The story of the room
  2. The story of the players’ experience

What I would like to see is a coherent story of a room, entrenched deeply in its world, where every puzzle makes sense and supports the narrative. Puzzles should not only fit the theme and time frame, but should also have a reason in the story or at least a way for players to imagine there is one, like why there’s a hidden diary with pages folded over – maybe a secret affair, or a person that was unjustly imprisoned. Likewise, solutions to these puzzles should advance the narrative, by uncovering details that add to the room’s world, like finding a way out of a jail cell that led into the locked prison office and another set of puzzles in “Prison”.

Designers need to consider the story of the players’ experience with equal attentiveness. Setting up a variety of puzzles allows different members of a team to take the lead, and gives different players with different strengths and knowledge the opportunity to shine. What players take from an escape room experience is the story of their interactions with their friends. The memories of a certain puzzle are not as relevant as the memories of how they solved a puzzle and what impact it had on their team. For example, during “Blind Tiger”, my friend Ryan was adamant that knowing shapes would come into play, and at the end, there was a moment when figuring out that a stick of dynamite fit in a triangular hole under a safe that he was vindicated. I don’t really remember how we found the dynamite, or what was in the safe, but I remember that moment when Ryan exclaimed, “shapes!” and knew immediately what to do. Moments like these are core to good experience design, and a great way to include them are by providing different puzzles and cool physical interactions, rewarding exploration of a tactile space.

While designing puzzles for escape rooms is essential, it should not be the focus. For me, puzzles in escape rooms tend to skew towards too difficult rather than too easy, and because escape rooms are about the experience with your team, I feel that it is more advantageous to simplify puzzles and improve physical interactions, using the space to its full potential. Elements like automated or computerised parts of puzzles are a great way of doing this (doors swinging open automatically, lights lighting up at the solution of a puzzle), but even simple sound effects and design for spectacle (think scale, grandeur, and dry ice) would add a lot to the team’s narrative of solving a room.

This rare glimpse of the inside of “The Great Houdini Escape Room” at Palace Games showcases the attention to detail in set design, theming, and player feedback for a team’s progress through the puzzles.

An escape room done well

While not perfect, Palace Game’s “The Great Houdini Escape Room” was the most memorable and satisfying experience I’ve had with escape rooms so far. Here’s how it deals with the five problems listed above:

1. Many different locks

There were definitely locks, but a variety of different types of locks. A set of combination locks relied on using a two-sided decoder, and revealed gems that opened another door when placed on the correct positions on a painting. There was also a group of keyed locks but the variety in the size and shape of keys kept our interest. You can’t avoid locks altogether, as it is a locked room you need to escape from, the challenge is to add more variety in how you unlock them.

2. Justified puzzles that have nothing to do with the room’s world

There was a clever way the “Great Houdini” got around having lots of random puzzles in its room, by using a simple bit of storytelling that the room was indeed an escape room that Houdini designed to test the mettle of some of his famous luminary friends. Solving puzzles for Helen Keller (using Braille, of course) or Luther Burbank (weighing vegetables on a scale) made sense in the world and didn’t require much more buy in on our end.

3. Good and necessary use of multiple players

Twelve is a crowd for an escape room, so there were moments where I noticed some of us were unsure what to do or how to help. However, there were also moments where real teamwork and communication was needed, such as when we had to link arms across the room to turn a light on, when we had to physically close someone in a box to open a secret passageway, or when we had to shout through the walls to pass information that the other side needed to use the decoder. Designs for puzzles that absolutely required more than one person were common in this escape room, and it was one of its strengths in my opinion.

4. Stellar set design

“Great Houdini” is a high budget escape room set in the Palace of Fine Arts, so it was no surprise that the room is artistically and thematically decorated. What impressed me most, however, was the level of set design thought that went into it. There were specific lighting choices that highlighted important parts of the room, and helpful diagrams that showed us the order in which to solve the puzzles. Additionally, there were helpful hints on room elements, like photographs to show which corner of the room was intended for which character, around which that character’s puzzle was located. My favourite was a poster for a Houdini act of placing a person in a box, that was on a cupboard in the corner, and in the room, physically closing someone in that cupboard led to mechanical opening of a secret passageway.

5. Consistent indications of progress

Feedback on progress through the long experience was important, to know that we were on track and moving forward. In “Great Houdini”, there were very clear indications of our progress. There was a clear goal for each stage of the puzzle written down on a piece of paper, and when each stage was complete, special effects that couldn’t be missed filled the room: the sound of bubbling water, or all the lights going out, or a loud thud. These signs were satisfying because they gave us positive feedback that we were doing well and succeeding at the challenges presented to us.

The quality of an escape room is determined by how well it merges its story with interactivity, while maintaining players’ suspension of disbelief.

Most of all, “The Great Houdini Escape Room” follows a coherent narrative because it cleverly does not claim to be anything other than it is. Its world is the turn of the century world’s fair, where legend has it Houdini made an escape room to challenge some of the brightest minds of the time. An escape room claiming to be an escape room gave it the liberty to place ostentatious puzzles everywhere without having to theme them too much or have them make sense in a particular story, like having to find a ledger, or get out of Wonderland, or break out of a jail. Consequently, the players don’t need to suspend their disbelief as much as with other themes.

Whether escape rooms will last or fade out like drive-in movie theatres remains to be seen. Drawbacks are the cost of attendance ($400 for an hour and a half pop at the “Great Houdini”, split among 6-12 people) and maintenance of these rooms, and also the fact that it is a one time deal, since you probably won’t ever want to pay a repeat visit to an escape room that you’ve already tried. The future of escape rooms depends on better design that focuses on story rather than on puzzles, because after all, the real escape we are craving by buying into these experiences is an escape from the ordinary drudgery of reality.

Because of the secrecy of the escape rooms themselves, many companies have a photo area where you take photos with your team along with signs like “We escaped!”, “Part of the 5%!” or the promotional hashtags and website for the location.