Game Design,  Travel

the great houdini escape room: game design review

My last post was dedicated to identifying some of the most common design blunders in crafting escape rooms.  This post follows up with a design deep dive into a well-executed escape room, The Great Houdini Escape Room by Palace Games in San Francisco.

Palace Games, located at the Palace of Fine Arts, boasts several excellent escape rooms (Houdini, Roosevelt and Edison), which I’ve compared in a previous spoiler-free blog post.  My write-up of their latest offering, The Attraction, is also spoiler-free.  But as this is a case study of The Great Houdini Escape Room with specific examples, meant to highlight game design concepts, it will contain spoilers for the room.

Addressing the Most Common Escape Room Design Mistakes

While not perfect, Palace Game’s The Great Houdini Escape Room was a memorable and satisfying experience. Here’s how it deals with the five design problems listed in my previous post.

Image from: Palace Games

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 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) 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, like 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. Designing for puzzles that absolutely required more than one person was one of Great Houdini‘s strengths.

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.

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. Image from:

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.

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 Future of Escape Rooms is Storytelling

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. 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.  Also, there’s the consideration 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.