Game Design,  Travel

dissecting and designing dark escape rooms

There’s a specific group of friends I enjoy going to escape rooms with.  I’ve got my puzzle enthusiasts, those who love Sudokus or a challenging level of Baba Is You.  There are one or two who fancy themselves detectives and want to live out their Sherlock Holmes fantasy.  And without exception, the ones who consistently show up and have a good time are people who enjoy games – video games, indeed, but especially social games like board games or Dungeons and Dragons.

So it’s fair to say that nowadays, my friends and I arrive at an escape room facility with expectations.  We’ve been to enough escape rooms separately and together that our pooled knowledge of the types of puzzles and the rough method of solving them is often comprehensive enough to get us through to the obligatory “We escaped!” team photo on the other side.

The obligatory victory pic!

It’s therefore refreshing to visit an escape room that is different – not necessarily better, more difficult, or vice versa, just executed and designed differently.  At least it gives me something to write about.

Design challenges for gameplay in the dark

I visited an escape room that was played in complete darkness, which was a first for all of us on the team, and it got me thinking about the particular challenges of designing an escape room in the dark.  The room was Omescape’s “The Apartment Next Door” at their Sunnyvale location, and I’m going to refer to its broad design strokes without giving anything away (don’t worry, no spoilers here).

Image from: Omescape.

Removing the players’ ability to see automatically restricts the design, by a long shot.  Without sight, players are left with the senses of smell, taste, hearing and touch.  For safety reasons, designers probably don’t want players smelling or tasting anything in an escape room setting, so puzzles have to be designed around the two remaining senses: hearing and touch.

This is difficult!  Having players solve puzzles in pitch black heavily restricts the design space.  It means that from the outset, designers have to:

1. Design puzzles around props, furniture and space layout, for safety reasons

  • Since players cannot see, the room has to have a layout that accommodates all the players and furniture that is not a tripping hazard.  In fact, some of the furniture in the room had padding on the outside to prevent us from accidentally walking into it and hurting ourselves.  Props should also be identifiable where necessary, and not too heavy.  For example, designers may replace porcelain plates or glass jars used in a puzzle with lightweight plastic versions.  This limits the puzzles to having players only attempt what is deemed safe in the given environment.

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2. Lower the difficulty of the puzzles

  • Because players primarily rely on hearing and touch, the puzzles need to be more straightforward.  What can be made obvious in the light using visual cues such as colour, focal points, or graphic design, needs to be exaggerated a hundredfold in the dark.  The depth and the quality of the possible puzzles suffers due to this.

3. Use a linear route through the space

  • Some escape rooms require you to cross back and forth through a space while unlocking adjacent areas, often using clues or artifacts from a previous area.  This is almost impossible in the dark, so designers have to shoehorn players through a single, linear route that requires little or no doubling back through an explored area.

4. Have potentially immersion-breaking game master interruptions

  • Small items like keys are important in escape rooms, but when these and other parts of puzzles are dropped in the pitch dark, they end up being impossible to find and can become dangerous for teammates.  At this point, the game master has to break the flow of the game, and verbally direct a player who is groping about on the floor, to where he or she dropped the item.  When this happens, the immersion is ruined and replaced with the frustration of trying to find something in a blackout.
Omescape’s Sunnyvale location. We suspect that the game master was heavily involved in running the room due to the danger of it being completely dark, and because very few things seemed to be automated. We were, of course, being closely monitored at all times.

Puzzles should serve the escape room’s narrative

Finally, the biggest challenge has to do with what I feel like the core of an escape room is: the story.  To me, a well-executed escape room focuses on the narrative it allows the players to participate in, including a strong reason for why they are there and why they are solving the puzzles that are presented.

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The problem with the all-dark escape room is that there’s very little you can do with a narrative told in the dark.  Not only are you probably skewed towards a haunted or horror theme, but also, you can do very little to help your theming since players can’t see anything.  To avoid unnecessary confusion, pretty much everything players interact with (i.e. pick up, since they can’t see) needs to be involved in the story, so you can’t have items just obviously there for decoration, whether it’s drink bottles in a western saloon themed escape room, or maps on the walls indicating the movement of troops in a war room.

My experience at “The Apartment Next Door” highlighted the pitfalls of trying to create a design room to be played in darkness.  With all the restrictions and challenges I’ve mentioned, the main tools at the designers’ disposal would have been localised sound and textures… and that’s about it.  Not much breadth for designing puzzles.

Found this escape room board game at the mall, which is not what this post is about, but it’s marginally relevant because of the target demographic. Ok, it’s a stretch.

Total darkness takes away more than it adds to an escape room

When stringing this together as a series of puzzles, the escape room relied on a voice giving instructions over the sound system.  Although this voiceover was themed as part of the story, there was at times too much exposition and no way to fast-forward or skip to parts that were helpful.  Even worse, the voiceover was treated as a narrator describing exactly what to do, so the entire gameplay experience was not so much solving the case in Clue as it was following instructions in a blind version of Simon Says.  There was minimal puzzle solving due to this format, which really left me unsatisfied.

The darkness automatically introduced a sense of unease, so that you were automatically spooked out when reaching out to touch things or going around a corner.  Although this connected with the theme, it was not what I had signed up for.  The whole experience was more like finding our way through a haunted house than working together to solve puzzles and escape.

Light can be used effectively as part of a puzzle.  “Conundrum Escape Room” (CC BY 2.0) by SparkFunElectronics

Adding light gives control to the players

I thought a dark escape room was risky, but a completely dark escape room is not necessarily the best fit for the genre.  I think that the inclusion of light in some form is necessary to make an escape room engaging beyond the point of wandering in a dark room finding items and playing Hide and Seek.

There are many rooms that play with light to enhance their puzzles.  Leaving areas that are dark, or illuminating different items and locations, can draw attention to objects or parts of the room.  Additionally, lighting can be used as a part of the puzzle, or players can be separated so that someone in complete darkness needs to find their way based on memory or based on clues from a teammate.

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The inclusion of light, even just giving players a flashlight, widens the design space immensely.  Most importantly, it allows players to feel in control, and able to look for clues and solve puzzles using their own smarts.  This is very important to the puzzle fans and detectives who make up my escape room crew, and especially to the gamers who enjoy escape rooms the most.

In an escape room, you want to give players control, while in a haunted house, you want to remove their sense of control.  Turns out complete darkness makes us feel helpless, which takes away from the spirit of escape rooms, and leaves us, quite frankly, in the dark.

More entertainment experiences in the dark

The Tactile Dome at San Francisco’s Exploratorium.  Image from: Exploratorium.

If you’re so inclined, check  out these dark attractions:

  1. Dining: Dark dining restaurants serve food that the guest does not see, on the claim that this improves your gastronomic experience.  It’s often pricey based on the fact that it’s a novel experience, so I’ll let you be the judge.  Restaurants include Opaque in Santa Monica (and soon San Francisco) and Dark Table in Vancouver and Calgary.
  2. Museum: Try tactile experiences like the Tactile Dome in San Francisco’s Exploratorium, which has guests wander through a maze-like interior, crawling, climbing and sliding through a sensory dome.  Admission is $8-15 on top of the regular ticket price, limited to an hour where re-entry into the dome is permitted, and reservations are required.
  3. Escape Room: Omescape’s “The Apartment Next Door” in Sunnyvale, which I visited and is the basis for this article, has a loose premise of welcoming you as prospective renters of a creepy apartment.  Teams of 2-6 can play for $30-40 per person for 60 minutes, with cheaper individual prices for larger groups.