What makes for a great escape room?
Escape rooms have exploded across North America within the last few years, and Calgary is no different, with the number of facilities quadrupling since Escape Capers opened in 2015. As one of the local leaders in gameplay and puzzle design, people often ask us what’s the difference between a good escape room, the best of the best, and those that are rather mediocre.
Well wait no more: here are the top 10 things that go into an amazing escape room experience.
1. Fun Story / Setting
This is the first thing people are going to ask you: what’s the story? Are you trapped on a space station that’s about to explode? Mankind’s last hope during a zombie apocalypse? Poisoned by a madman? Our personal favourite saw us transported to the mystical “Kingdom of Cats”, where we competed in a tournament to be declared the wisest cat in the land! (Or risk banishment should we fail!)
Of course, it’s certainly possible to have a fun time at an escape room even if this part of the game is weak or “wallpapered” onto the game. But a fun story will really add to the experience, be it because of the unique setting, quirky characters, or interesting goal it provides.
2. Atmosphere / Immersion
So you’ve arrived at the room, you’ve heard the backstory, and the moment comes when they finally open the door. What’s the first thing that you think?
A great room will have you thinking “Wow, this looks amazing! It totally feels like we just walked into a ______”. While a poor to average room will have you saying “Is this it? I guess it sort of feels like a ______”. Ideally, you should feel like you have entered into a whole new location. Furniture, decor, lighting, music; even the smells and temperature of the room can be part of making it a believable experience. Of all the elements, this is the most immediately noticeable, and cheap tends to feel cheap.
3. Appropriate Team Size For The Room (And Vice Versa)
The game begins and your team spreads out across the room. If there are 3 of you, is the game sufficiently contained that you are not overwhelmed? If there are 8 of you, is there enough to do to keep the entire group engaged and entertained?
One of the things that can ruin a great escape game is simply having too many cooks in the kitchen without enough to eat. Sadly this happens all too often, as most escape room companies set their room maximums based on the physical size of the room instead of on how many people they can reasonably entertain given the game design.
(If you need a quick refresher on appropriate team sizes for linear vs non-linear rooms, be sure to check out our What Makes Us Different page.)
4. Good Story To Gameplay Connection
Now we’re getting into the game itself. A great room will take the elements of the space and story, and use those to create the core pieces of the gameplay to come. There’s context, and a reason why you’re doing the things you are doing. This sort of cohesiveness is fairly rare, as it’s a challenge to design a room that has context for why there is a trail of clues and codes to follow, special items you need to unlock, and so on.
On the flip side, some rooms will ignore this completely, and you’ll get a jigsaw puzzle in an Egyptian tomb or a laser maze in the old west. It’s a relatively minor sin to commit, but players appreciate the cohesiveness when it’s done correctly.
5. Some Searching (But Not Too Much)
One thing that’s fun about an escape room is all the moments of discovery. And searching and finding things is a big part of this. “Oh, I found a key!” “Hmm, what’s this for?” “Hey, come look at this!” are all a bunch of little victories along the way, and a way that someone can contribute even if they’re not especially strong at the puzzle solving part of the game.
Unfortunately some rooms take this to extremes, which can become tiresome after your first few times playing. Opening a drawer or searching under the couch cushions? Fair game. Having to poke and prod every little crook and cranny for something the size of a dime? Annoying and unfair.
Occasionally escape rooms will feature directed searching, where an item is hidden such that you could find it at any time, but probably won’t until you find the clue that points you exactly where to look. This creates a fun moment for guests, finding the key that was hidden right under their noses for the entire game.
6. Fun Puzzles / Fair Puzzles
This is what escape rooms are all about. You’ve found all the clues, now you need to figure out what they mean and what you should do with them. A great puzzle will hide its meaning or answer in some manner. So when you first find it, you know that it is important, but you’re not sure what to do with it. Then all of a sudden you get a burst of insight, an “AHA moment”, and you know what to do (and feel like a hero for figuring it out).
This isn’t the only kind of puzzle there is of course. Sometimes puzzles are fun because of what they make you do. We once found an actual bow and arrow in a room, and had to knock a target off its perch from 6 yards away. It was a pretty great moment. (For more info on different puzzle types you can check out this Blog by a fellow enthusiast.)
A caveat of this is that the puzzles should be “fair”, i.e. solvable by the common person in a reasonable amount of time. If there’s a code, there should be a way to decode it. If’s there’s an obscure fact that’s important, you should be able to find the answer in the room. If there’s a physical task to complete, even gramma should be able to do it if you gave her enough tries.
Unfortunately some escape room companies intentionally build in “unfair” puzzles to keep escape rates down, believing that a low escape rate is appealing to prospective players. Things like hiding crucial elements really, really well or forcing the players to make tenuous connections with very few clues are common. In our experiences, escape rooms that have an escape rate in the single digits usually include one of these elements.
7. Puzzles That Make Sense / No Red Herrings
One of the biggest differentiators in escape room quality is this: do the puzzles make sense given the clues that are available to solve it? That is to say, when you solve the problem do you say to yourself “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that sooner?” or do you say “Wait, what? Why is that the answer?”
“Random” puzzles can evoke the latter. An example of a “random” puzzle is you find a note in the room and it was written in September 1955. “1955” then opens a lock in the room for no reason at all: it’s just random. The trouble is that when the answers are random it means you will have to waste time trying all sorts of things that you don’t think should work and probably won’t. Unfortunately this is the most common type of puzzle you’ll find in an introductory or first generation escape room.
Red herrings are elements of the game that are intentionally placed in the room to deceive you. Now sometimes players will use this word to describe ANYTHING in the room that isn’t used to solve a puzzle, but we disagree with that assessment. Some stuff in a room is just decor, while other stuff could have been important except there’s no reason to think it is. A true red herring is something that screams out “I AM SUPER IMPORTANT” when it’s not actually useful at all. The worst ones will actually have false clues that point to them too.
Whenever you have random puzzles, puzzles that don’t make sense, or red herrings, the room is forcing you to waste time on things that aren’t going to be productive. A great escape room won’t do this to you, because nobody gets much satisfaction from figuring out that something ISN’T the answer.
8. Surprises / Cool Stuff
This is a very broad category, but one of the best things about an escape room is you never know what’s going to happen. From finding hidden safes, to secret passages, to demonic messages that glow in the dark, almost anything could happen to you and your group.
This is also where I would classify “tech”. Many companies like to promote their use of technology, and tech certainly can add to the experience because it does allow you to do things you couldn’t do otherwise. Imagine you place a ancient artifact on a sacrificial alter and the lights start to flicker and a cold wind blows along your ankles. Awesome right?! Totally. But tech is only one of a designers tools, and as Michael Bay has taught us, special effects alone do not make a great experience.
9. Good Flow
When we talk about flow, there’s both a gameplay element to it and a physical / spatial element to it. A poor spatial flow would use the physical space poorly, so even though you’re in a 200 square foot room, the majority of the game takes place around a single 4 foot table. A great flow will have you moving around the space constantly, as there are many different areas to explore as the game progresses, and you feel like the game area is just filled with things to do.
In terms of gameplay, a great flow will provide variety in the challenges you’re encountering. Spatial reasoning, perspective shifts, word play, attention to detail, manual dexterity, memory, or any of your five senses could be called upon to solve a puzzle. And there will be a good mix of challenges so you both feel like you are making progress, but also that nothing is coming too easily.
One other small thing that’s key to good flow is knowing what to do with the puzzles you have solved. For example, one cardinal sin of a poor escape room is having multiple identical locks with no indication of which lock belongs with what puzzle. The worst we’ve ever seen was 7 identical locks at once, which meant every time we thought we had an answer we had to try it 7 times. It was a mess.
10. Good Hint System
Being stuck and working a problem out is part of the escape room challenge. But usually if a team is stuck for more than 10 minutes, it’s unlikely they can get unstuck on their own, and most teams would prefer to get a nudge and get to work on the next puzzles instead of staying stuck until they solve it.
A great escape room will provide a system that is both as unobtrusive as possible (so it keeps the players immersed in the atmosphere of the room) and can give them as small a clue as needed (so they can still get that AHA moment when they figure out what they have to do). It should also be timely, so that once you do need a clue, you’re not stuck waiting around as valuable seconds (or worse, minutes!) tick by.
There are a wide variety of hint systems being used. From a staff member entering the room and just telling you the answer, to walkie talkies and television sets, to prepackaged hints which can be slipped under the door in an envelope. We find having an “in-character” host join your team in the room to be the most effective as it does keep your group truly immersed in the locked room experience. Plus it allows us to be very subtle in our guidance and customize our clues to your team’s particular ability and circumstance.
So what did you think of our list? Comment below with the top 2 things you think we missed and we’ll feature our favourite replies in a future blog post.