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, by using clues and solving puzzles. These rooms are based on escape the room video games, and have grown in number and popularity since the early 2000s.
Rooms come in all varieties that present different challenges, from story-focused adventures to puzzles that take place entirely in the dark. Some of my favourite escape rooms are the offerings from Palace Games in San Francisco, which I have compared and reviewed, spoiler-free.
As much as this sounds like an excellent platform for stellar game design and storytelling, the opposite is generally true. Perhaps because of their nascence, escape rooms, in my experience, have often fallen short of their premise to engage players in exciting puzzle solving and teamwork.
In this blog post, I will outline some common problems in escape room design. Next time, I will do a case study on The Great Houdini Escape Room by Palace Games at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, an escape room that addresses these problems in creative ways to create a compelling experience.
There are specific examples and spoilers ahead from the following escape rooms (some of which may no longer exist):
- Trapped in Wonderland by Trapped, Vancouver
- Blind Tiger by EscapeSF, San Francisco
- Prison by PanIQ Escape Room, San Francisco
Common Problems with Designing Escape Rooms
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. The whole experience becomes 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.
One example was 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 up to 12 people. 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. Instead, 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. None of us noticed the torch, and if we had, we might not have known what it was or how to use it.
Placing the torch 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. If so, we could spend more time on that rather than on 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 players they 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 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, or show up near misleading city names.
Designing Better Escape Rooms
In my next post, I will discuss in detail an escape room that has come up with inventive ways to solve these design problems. While no design is perfect, escape rooms have come a long way and are continuing to evolve and improve. It’s exciting to see new puzzles, methods of interaction, and storytelling that show off what good design can bring to the simple concept of a locked room.