Game Design,  Travel

the attraction escape room is palace games’ storytelling gem: review

Palace Games’ new escape room, The Attraction, was a long time coming.  When I booked it back in early 2020, I had no idea that a pandemic would postpone our date almost two years.  But nonetheless, masked and equipped with hand sanitiser, my friends and I were able to experience The Attraction somewhere between Delta and Omicron waves of COVID-19.

Located at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, Palace Games’ escape room offerings are top tier, and consistently have a high production value.  The Attraction is no exception for the level of detail it contains, but it feels rougher, less polished than the other entries in Palace Games’ catalogue.  Perhaps that’s because it’s brand new, and also due to the ongoing pandemic.

Nevertheless, The Attraction is a rather unique escape room.  Here’s my spoiler-free review, and a deeper discussion on designing escape rooms.

Image from: Palace Games

Overall, The Attraction is more experiential, and less competitive, with:

  • Stronger focus on story, forming an interactive narrative experience
  • Simpler, standalone puzzles that don’t require much collaboration
  • Many smaller discrete rooms with fewer interconnected parts

Pros:

  • Stellar storytelling with a compelling narrative thread throughout, better than most escape rooms
  • Room design is well-executed and transports the player
  • Unique puzzles that take advantage of physical objects and sets

Cons:

  • Screen-based mini games feel lacklustre and lower the standard of the experience
  • Experience is on rails, with fewer choices about which way to go or what to solve first
  • Less strategy and collaboration required to solve puzzles

The Attraction‘s Main Focus is its Immersive, Interactive Story

It’s more apt to think of The Attraction as an interactive story than a traditional escape room.  There’s no large digital clock counting down in the corner, and no real way to officially ask for hints.  This is weird at first, because it felt less competitive, but it made sense with the rest of the design.

The Attraction has puzzles, sure, but these puzzles are not the main focus.  There wasn’t so much a question of whether we would get through to the next round and escape, but more the understanding that we were going through the puzzles as part of a larger story.

This makes the storytelling of The Attraction, for better or worse, more linear than your usual escape room.  It feels more on rails and sacrifices player agency for a more coherent storyline.

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String of Pearls Storytelling Design Technique Applied to Escape Rooms

I’ve written at length about storytelling in games, and explained the string of pearls method in detail.  Escape rooms are a more literal representation of this narrative structure.  Usually, escape rooms are series of rooms, and passing from one to the next (usually by unlocking a secret exit) constitutes the completion of all previous puzzles and is irreversible.

This way, we can think of each room as a pearl, and the transition between these rooms as the string.  However, in most escape rooms, there’s very little story except for a literal doorway to pass through at the end of each room.

The Attraction is different in its handling of both the string and the pearl parts of this analogy.

1. Fewer puzzles in each pearl

Unlike most escape rooms, The Attraction tends to place only one puzzle or one type of puzzle in a number of smaller rooms.  As a consequence, the experience suffers from tamer puzzles and less variety.  This is a disadvantage for teams who are more experienced in escape room puzzle solving, because it doesn’t support more complex puzzles where multiple players have to work together.

Only the beginning felt like a traditional escape room very much in the style of Palace Games’ other rooms, where players had to work together with the whole team.  The rest of the puzzles could be independently solved and did not need a high level of intellect and collaboration.

2. More pearls, but smaller pearls

There are more rooms in The Attraction than in most escape rooms.  Each is beautifully themed and decorated, which makes them unique and memorable.  However, there is a noticeable tradeoff in size, as the rooms were quite tiny, especially if you were to try and fit in the maximum of eight players.

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3. String portions are more important

The transition between rooms is a whole other experience, and though it is necessary for how the room is constructed, it is filled with some filler screen time.  These portions also provide the story but take up a lot of time, so the lack of emphasis on “escape time” is a clever design decision.

However, the overt use of screens and simple mini-games here, despite some fun ceiling and wall projections, is the weakest part of The Attraction’s design.  It’s simply there to pass the time while players transition from one room to the next.

The Attraction‘s Biggest Strength is its Commitment to Story, at the Cost of Puzzle Quality

Years ago, I wrote a blog post about how many escape rooms focus too much on confusing puzzles and not enough on story.  The Attraction is the antitheses of these rooms, containing a compelling storytelling experience but less in the area of puzzle difficulty.

Image from: Palace Games

As in all location-based entertainment experiences, The Attraction shines in its use of physical props.  It takes advantage of the physical space by providing large set pieces that can be moved and interacted with in interesting ways.  And it provides 3D items that are fun to use and hold, including touch sensors and light-up mechanisms on par with Palace Games’ other rooms.

The Attraction also presents well-designed spaces, sets that feel otherworldly and distinct from each other.  These fold into the story well and make the experience memorable.

I think there’s a lot to learn from The Attraction, not only for escape rooms but also for other location-based entertainment experiences like theme parks or interactive theatre.

In the end, The Attraction’s biggest strength is that it knows what it is and leans into that.  It focuses on the story and lets other things, like the timer and the puzzle level, naturally take a backseat.  By focusing players on one thing at a time and guiding them through the experience, The Attraction gets its desired result: not triumph or defeat, but a sense of wonder and immersion.