Here’s the scenario with most escape rooms: players arrive in the lobby, a game-master (or briefing video) gives them a vague backstory, and then comes the most unoriginal phrase you could possibly imagine: “Your mission is to…”
Personally, when I play games with a setup like this, I’m immediately pulled from the story. Why? Because before the escape game has even started, the game-master has spelled out the entire story. If my “mission is to solve the mystery of the stolen hedgehog,” the absolute MOST I can expect from this game is that we shall solve the mystery of the stolen hedgehog. If I’m to “find the lost treasure in the hidden tomb,” the most poetic and poignant this room will ever get is the moment we find said lost treasure. The ending is given away before the game has even begun. It’s legitimately like watching The 6th Sense, and saying “Your mission, by the end of the movie, is to figure how Bruce Willis died.” It misses the whole point, and the mystery (read: fun) is completely destroyed.
In motion pictures, the 4th Wall is often broken for a reason, whether it’s comedic effect, discomfort, or viewer disorientation.
In the case of escape rooms, there are literally 4 walls for a reason. A designer/constructor has painstakingly built each and every wall to make players feel trapped, enveloped, and immersed. Why, then, does it make sense to hinder that sense of story and immersion before players have even stepped inside the room? When every beat of the story is spoon-fed to the players, there’s hardly room for surprise and excitement, and little opportunity for players to feel like the stars of their own adventure.
When we design rooms, our goal is to maintain that 4th Wall. Rather than treat the game players like, well, game players… we’re instead treating them as visitors, tour groups, volunteers, essentially nobodies. There’s no mission; they have no particular job; they’re just living inside whatever world we’ve handed them. In the case of Puckleberry Candy Factory, these are people who have come to tour America’s favorite candy land. The briefing video consists of an out-dated, phoned-in greeting from Mr. Puckleberry himself, along with a history of the factory. It’s not until they’ve entered the room that all hell breaks loose. In fact, the players aren’t even instructed to do anything when the first alarm goes off. It’s up to them to react and decide what their next move should be.
It’s similar with our ICARUS project, in which players are actually treated as volunteers, testing out a new generation of airline space travel. There’s no reference to the fact that something may go wrong on board. The briefing video welcomes the volunteer team, thanks them for their time, and congratulates them for being the first to test the ground-breaking new technology that promises to change the planet as we know it. Everything is routine, nothing out of the ordinary. All that pre-game stress and concern — we let that bubble up inside players on its own. It’s not until they strap in and take off that the ship malfunctions, and at that point, it’s far too late. They’re on their own to figure it out…
Alfred Hitchcock did it best in Psycho, giving viewers 30 minutes of setup for a movie that doesn’t exist. We spend the entire time thinking this film is about our lead female Marion Crane, until she’s suddenly murdered. Now what? Well, sorry folks, this movie’s not really about her at all.
That’s how escape rooms are best served. Early twists are mind-churning. They’re slightly confusing, which can generally lead to added adrenaline and panic. But most importantly, amongst the disorientation, it allows players to lose themselves in the story.