Owners with good escape rooms sometimes ask me how they could make them even better. (Owners with bad rooms rarely do, since I’m not shy about pointing out flaws.) There are plenty of straightforward answers to that that are simple to say and difficult to act on, such as build original, clever puzzles that are simultaneously challenging and perfectly fair – easier said than done.
Most games can be improved by using a bigger space and spending more on them. Spending a ton of cash is no guarantee of a good game, but it certainly gives you more options, and a bunch of big shiny custom components in a Hollywood-level set starts you off with a big advantage. But few owners are lucky enough to have unlimited funds at their disposal, and spending more only makes sense if the room will pay that investment back, so ‘spend more money’ is not very useful advice either.
Other obvious answers are to provide great customer service and to have attentive, skilful gamemasters. I’m going to go ahead and assume that’s something you’re already well aware of. However, as the clickbait-y title implies, there are certain characteristics that I find reliably make me like a game more, which may not be as obvious.
For those whose like to read the last page of a novel first, these are: surprise, beauty, and humour.
Having a hidden doorway through to a new area is one of the great staples of escape room design from the beginning, still reliably loved by players, and the enjoyment there is the thrill of surprise. Experienced players may spot the hinges on the side of the bookcase three seconds after entering the room, but there are so many more ways to play with their expectations.
I’ve seen games where the obvious exit door was a fake, and the actual exit was through a tunnel or something weirder. Or where the host gives the pre-game briefing in front of the door to the room – before pointing us to a completely different way in. Each time the surprise has been a quite simple adjustment to the game design that gave a big boost to energy and enjoyment.
Within the game surprise can come from narrative twists, from puzzles that hide things in plain sight or use familiar objects in unexpected ways. Most games use surprise in one form or another in fact, but usually without being an explicit aim. But when designing a room, deliberately looking for ways to subvert expectations – in ways that surprise not confuse – can provide a rich seam of inspiration.
In the eye of the beholder
When building a room, the aim may be to make it look realistic – along with more prosaic concerns such as finding ways to conceal wiring and ensuring the decor can withstand heavy-handed teams. Many designers aim to build something that looks cool; fewer aim to build something beautiful.
Some themes naturally lend themselves to gorgeous interiors – such as a woodland grove or a Pharaoh’s burial chamber, if done well. Others do not – although even a ghastly serial killer’s den can be given a grim majesty. But independent of all other considerations, if I’m going to spend close to an hour in a space, I’ll enjoy it more if it’s aesthetically pleasing.
This is not just a matter of throwing money at the room build. Yes, having cash to spend helps, and an extremely low budget will limit what you can do, but it’s more about a shift in focus and priorities when putting everything together. Think about ways to build something beautiful not just when you’re creating an Alice In Wonderland game, but in other themes too; pay attention to aesthetics as well as immersion when building the visuals, designing the lighting and picking the audio.
A really well-designed puzzle has a satisfying neatness to it that, to the sufficiently geeky, conveys a sort of beauty. And fairly or not, a beautiful environment instantly leads me to expect puzzles to have been designed with equal care.
Four escape room players walk into a bar
Simplest of all, and most strangely neglected, is humour. I’m playing your game to have a good time, and if it manages to amuse me then it’s succeeded. This can go hand in hand with surprise; the reaction to something unexpected and clever is often a laugh of pleasure.
Perhaps it doesn’t seem to fit in a serious game – if your players are giggling their way through your murderer’s dungeon, have you lost immersion? Well, maybe you have; but you probably still have happy, satisfied customers anyhow. And there are no shortage of great horror movies and dramas which have lighter moments. Having humour at one point can deepen the horror elsewhere in the game.
It may not be obvious how to add humour, other than in the rare game that has a jokey theme from the get-go. It depends on what suits you and your game, but there are so many opportunities. The pre-game introduction is an obvious one, particularly with a larger-than-life gamemaster. So is the clue system, preferably in character. So is any time the game uses a diary, a video, a letter, or a visual decoration, or almost anything else.
This can be ‘fourth wall breaking’, where your Egyptian hieroglyphs include hidden images of Superman or Marilyn Monroe for sharp-eyed players to spot; or where you put a message under the rug saying ‘Nothing here… but points for checking!’. Often better is when the game’s characters or situations are naturally amusing; there are several sci-fi games inspired by the computer game Portal that are good examples of that, but fewer examples in other genres.
Ultimately there’s no simple formula, and good humour is difficult to pull off, but you’ll know if you get it right from all the positive reviews. Humour’s not always appropriate, and sometimes it’s at odds with the concept for a game. But at present it’s used far less in escape rooms than it should be, and almost every time it’s used in a room that game is considerably better for it.
None of that will save a truly terrible game. But it will make a huge difference to an otherwise average one, and it can turn an excellent game into a truly great one.