What can Escape Rooms learn from Game Design?

Last winter break, my family decided to visit what the internet deemed “Houston’s Best New Escape Room”. We’d been to a few escape rooms together in past years, but since this one was close to home, we couldn’t resist. Too late, however, we realized our mistake. The room was advertised as “The Chocolate Factory”, taking obvious inspiration from a certain beloved story. We were instructed that we had to find clues, solve puzzles, and obtain a golden ticket before escaping – all within 60 minutes. The premise should have been the first warning sign (Why the heck are there golden tickets to get into the factory inside the factory?) But hey, the story was just there to set up the room, right? It couldn’t all be that bad.

It was.

The experience consisted of two rooms. The first was a room painted entirely brown. Accordion pipes ran diagonally across one wall, and another wall was home to a paper plate with one word on it. I guess this was intended to be a puzzle, because the paper plate was upside down. Luckily, it was pinned to the wall in such a way that we could spin it, revealing the password to a box laying on the floor on the other side of the room. Other than one puzzle where we had to push a ball out of the pipes on the wall, I honestly can’t remember any of the other challenges. The room was so utterly lifeless and uninteresting that I don’t recall anything beyond those two puzzles.

I probably wouldn’t even remember the room at all in the first place, except for the fact I mentioned earlier – this was one of Houston’s highest rated escape rooms. For a big city, I expected so much better. I think that the fact that escape rooms like “The Chocolate Factory” are so highly rated is simply due to the rapid growth in the market. New escape rooms are popping up at such a fast rate, and many of those newly-opened rooms are nothing more than cheap attempts to make money off of a public that most likely hasn’t been to an escape room before and doesn’t know what quality looks like. Rooms are being rated highly due to the novelty of the experience as a whole rather than the actual quality of the rooms.


Escape rooms have so much potential. It’s fulfilling a fantasy that has been unrealized for so long – living out an Indiana Jones-style adventure. You get all of the thrill and none of the danger. However, if escape rooms want to be taken seriously, the industry needs to step it up. Escape rooms evolved from flash-based puzzle games, so I figured it might be interesting to view them from a game design angle and examine how they can be built to create the best experience possible.

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Can you get out in time? (Source)

Immersion and the Magic Circle

In game design, the ‘magic circle’ is a popular concept used by designers to differentiate the world of play from the world of reality. When players start up a game, they put themselves into the magic circle. The rules in that circle are different than real life, and if something doesn’t seem to fit, it’s probably there in the pursuit of fun (or whatever the designer’s ideal experience entails). When players cross the threshold into an escape room, they understand that they’re entering that same magic circle. However, since escape rooms are physical spaces that exist around players, the magic circle is much more fragile.

It’s one thing to become immersed in a game. Players realize that all of the action is on the screen, and game designers can control everything on that screen, where the laws of science and reality no longer exist. If players experience something that seems discordant, it can pull them out of the magic circle and back into reality. This destroys all sense of immersion. Things get trickier in an escape room since the story doesn’t happen on a screen; it happens all around players. Even if the rooms are based on fictional worlds, they still exist within the bounds of reality. Many escape rooms use commonly-found locks, keys, and other modern-day devices. While these make sense in the context of the puzzle, they typically don’t make sense in the setting. Why, for example, would you find a combination lock in the middle of an undisturbed Egyptian tomb? Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using modern tools and devices in a room. That’s almost unavoidable in building the puzzles and experiences. Everything that brings players out of the game and back into reality, though, destroys immersion. How can this be fixed?

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Bright lightbulbs in an Egyptian tomb. Nope, nothing wrong there. (Source)

Some rooms do a great job of creating consistent immersion by only incorporating technologies that make sense in the theme. For example, rather than using a digital clock on a wall to show how much time is left, some “old” themed rooms (like medieval, ancient Egypt, or historical themes) use hourglasses. Those can be difficult since they show approximations rather than actual numbers, but the physical timers still help build the tension that is so important in escape rooms. And rather than having a padlock with a number combination, why not use a padlock with a key? The key can probably be hidden in the same way the number combination is hidden, and (on a side note) also provides less ambiguity. Some numbers on a wall may be confusing for players (Are those numbers on the wall just decoration? Or do we use them on a lock?), but everyone inherently understands that keys are used on locks.

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Because why wouldn’t there be a big, bright LED clock in a murder shed? (Source)

Another way to get around this problem is with a framing device. Perhaps you are going into an ancient tomb; it wouldn’t make sense to have an electronic clock visible, but if the story of the room is that you’re traveling back in time to collect an artifact, the modern technology could be brought along on the trip, attached to your “time machine”, or even placed there by previous explorers. Even a simple explanation gets around very glaring disconnects in the theme and the contents of the room.

All of these solution take more work than simply expecting guests to understand that “it’s all part of the game”, but the extra thought put into immersive theming will always make a room better. Allowing players to remain in the magic circle where they’re playing rather than doing everyday tasks keeps players invested.

Replayability

At this time, escape rooms are one-and-done experiences. Once you know the puzzles and have seen the surprises, a lot of the fun has been removed from the experience. I’ve only played one room, in fact, that had some element of replayability. This room was prison-themed and started with the team being split into two groups. Each group was placed in a different jail cell; these cells were next to each other, so we could still communicate and pass objects through the bars. Each room had puzzles that could only be solved by working with the other team (like shining a flashlight through a hole to illuminate a code in the other cell). Starting the game in each different cell provided a bit of replayability, because even though you knew what was in the other cell (due to communication necessary to solve the puzzles), you didn’t experience it firsthand. Unfortunately, that branched experience was short; we broke out of those separated rooms within 15 minutes, giving us plenty of time to explore the rest of the jail’s rooms as a complete team.

I think one way to get around this would be with further branching paths of puzzles. Instead of solving a linear selection of puzzles (e.g. solving a puzzle to find a code that opens a door that leads to another code that leads to a chest…), players could be presented with several parallel challenges. Perhaps the end goal is opening a door with many locks; several challenges throughout the room (like puzzles, riddles, physical challenges, etc…) would reward keys, and not all challenges would need to be completed to move on. That would give players the freedom to do take different “routes” to success. A major flaw in this design, however, is the sense of incompleteness that would inevitably be felt by the players. It wouldn’t feel great to exit a room that’s still filled with unsolved puzzles. That could also prove confusing to players, as they might not know when to move on.

Another way to achieve a greater sense of replayability is through the use of a role system, similar to what you’d find in an RPG. If players are given distinct roles at the beginning of an escape room, each would have a different experience. For example, a room based on an alien spaceship could see players assigned the roles of engineer, chemist, biologist, and linguist. Each would have different tools that are used in various challenges in the room (e.g. the linguist has access to translations, allowing them to read the alien language found on the ship, while the engineer has a toolkit that they use to repair malfunctioning doors, allowing access to new areas). Since players can only experience a set of challenges based on their roles, they could try the room again in a different role and get an entirely new experience. It could be difficult to create roles that are equally interesting, but it remains an interesting design challenge nonetheless.

Which one will you be? (Source)

Progression

Plenty of escape rooms have a great sense of progression within the room, but very few take that progression outside. Once you’ve beaten an escape room, that’s it! Other than the sense of pride and accomplishment, there’s no long-lasting effects. This is a tricky issue to solve, as no escape rooms I’ve tried have achieved a sense of progression.

A group of great rooms from one of the premiere escape room venues, The Escape Game. However, each room is completely unrelated. (Source)

I’ve read about a few escape rooms that feature “sequel rooms”. These rooms feature a storyline that players experience one chapter at a time. In other words, players must start at chapter 1, then chapter 2, and so on. This seems to raise plenty of issues on its own. Say players don’t want to try one of the chapters? Do they miss out on the story? And what happens when they can’t book the next chapter since it’s already full? I think there are better ways to solve the problem.

Over several semesters, I worked with friends to design a series of escape rooms that we hoped would fix this problem. The idea with each of them is that they were all tied to a larger story. The rooms wouldn’t necessarily be sequential, but featured similar characters and plotlines. Some rooms even used artifacts recovered from other rooms (if players hadn’t already done those rooms, they were told that the artifacts were retrieved by other players). The hope was that players would build up their own emergent story around the plot we’d provided. They’d be able to tie their experiences together and gain a greater understanding of the fictional universe as a whole.

One of our favorite features about this style of escape room was that there could be a ‘finale’ room that could only be attempted when all other rooms were completed. This last room would feature challenges relating to each of the previous rooms, tying them all together in one last story. Our hope was that the meta-goal of finishing that last room would keep players coming back. I don’t know if it would be profitable to create a room that people can attempt only once they’ve done everything else. If nothing else, that room would have a much lower attendance. It would be an interesting question concerning finances; does the goal of reaching the last room keep players coming back? And would that be enough to justify the cost of that last room?

The Void

On a related topic, companies like The Void are providing interesting solutions to all of these issue. Rather than creating unique themed rooms for each experience, The Void creates undecorated, blank rooms that are supplemented with VR. Guests don VR headsets and explore the area. The physical space around them matches what they see. Players may interact with a touchscreen in VR filled with buttons and controls, while in reality, they’re just touching a blank piece of plastic. This allows The Void to create different experiences in the same space. Every VR experience in The Void, if designed with such intention, could use the exact same space, just with different VR overlays.

I feel that this style ties game design and escape rooms together in a very interesting way. First of all, you don’t have to worry about having immersion-breaking objects in your room. Just like in games, you can design the experience so that everything looks as if it belongs, and nothing pulls players back into the real world. The digital nature of VR also allows designers to create more replayable experiences. Perhaps certain parts of the room have scoreboards, encouraging guests to try the room several times to get a new high score. It would also be much easier to change puzzles in a digital space rather than a physical space. Hints, riddles, and other secrets could be randomized each time players enter the space. The Void is still a relatively company, so the concept of VR-integrated escape rooms has not yet been fully explored. It’ll be fascinating to see what designers come up with in the future with this technology.

Conclusion

These are just a few of my thoughts on escape room design. My fear is that escape rooms will soon be pushed into family entertainment centers alongside bowling, mini-golf, and laser tag. Many people who open them up are seeming to treat them as nothing more than a fad, when they deserve so much more than that. Some escape rooms I’ve experienced have been incredibly themed with great stories, fascinating puzzles, and even mind-boggling illusions. I’m hopeful that these features will become more commonplace in escape room design.

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