Game Design,  Travel

escape room design: story first, puzzles second

Because escape rooms have their roots in games, I think an all-too-common design problem is the focus on creating really great puzzles.  While clever, interesting and unique puzzles do add to the player experience, it’s not the most interesting or exciting thing about escape rooms.

Unlike solving puzzles in a book or on a computer, escape rooms are physical locations, which have immense power to transport players into a specific time and place.

Theatres have done this for centuries through set and costume designs.  Escape rooms achieve this through theming, whether it’s a haunted apartment in a science fiction future or a speakeasy in 1920s Chicago.

Like an impressive stage scene or movie set, escape rooms are all about immersing the audience.  The best escape rooms are the ones not with the most difficult puzzles, but with the best stories.

In this blog post, I will discuss storytelling techniques in escape rooms, with examples and spoilers from the following escape rooms (which may no longer exist):

  • Blind Tiger by EscapeSF, San Francisco
  • Prison by PanIQ Escape Room, San Francisco

Designing Puzzles as Part of an Escape Room’s Story and Theme

Often, 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.

So, when creating puzzles, designers should consider how they might fit into the room and help tell the overall story.

Tulleys Farm Outfitter Escape Room” (CC BY-SA 4.0) by ORpretom

A useful technique could be to design puzzles starting with the physical elements.  Using items common in the location and time where the room is set make them feel organic.  This could be a deck of playing cards in a saloon, or a communicator on a space station.  Considering how to develop interesting puzzles using these items is a good start.

If the escape room contains an overarching story, it is also useful to consider the motivations and actions of characters.  If players are detectives solving a case, what might the culprit have accidentally left behind, and how could that be used in a puzzle?

Unfortunately, many rooms are themed and decorated to the nines, but contain puzzles that don’t have anything to do with them.  This pull players out of immersion and leads to a disjointed experience.

It’s like sitting someone down in a “Wild West” themed saloon and having to solve Sudoku on a whiteboard in ultraviolet ink.

Developing puzzles with the story in mind helps strengthen the overall escape room experience.

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Escape Rooms Provide Two Stories Concurrently

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 escape room

First, there should be a coherent story set in the escape room.  On the ground level, this involves careful set design and attention to detail.  The more real the items feel, the more players will be immersed in the story, and in the puzzle solving by extension.

As mentioned, every puzzle needs to make sense in the room’s world and support 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.

For example, if there’s a hidden diary with pages folded over, there must be a reason — 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.

2. The story of the players’ experience

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 teammate 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.

Image from: Palace Games

A Good Escape Room is About Story, Not Puzzles

While designing puzzles for escape rooms is essential, it should not be the focus. In my experience, puzzles in escape rooms tend to skew towards too difficult rather than too easy.  Because escape rooms are about the experience with your team, it is more advantageous to simplify puzzles and improve physical interactions, using the space to its full potential.

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.

Escape rooms are a unique medium for location-based entertainment experiences.  By focusing on the story first and having every element in the room tie back into the narrative, designers can craft escape rooms that are memorable and immersive.