The 10 Commandments of Escape Rooms: Part 2
Updated: Sep 19, 2018
This is the second in a two-part list of “rules” that I think should be relatively basic for escape room creators, but we see them hurt gameplay pretty regularly. If you want to read the first part, you can check it out here
6. Thou shalt number items that come in large sets.
When we start to find similar looking items in a room, we usually try to put those together to solve a puzzle. It’s very common to see a set of four props that are the same except for maybe color. A good room wants you to collect those things and somehow turn each prop into a number. When you have the numbers and the order, you can turn that into a combination. Super easy, but not unsatisfying. The problem happens when you stumble across a fifth prop in the set…and then the sixth one. When a puzzler had four of a set, they could enter it in any four-digit lock they’ve found. However, once I get past four or maybe five in a set, I have to wonder how many of these things I’m going to find. Now I have to set this puzzle aside, because I have no idea if I have all the pieces I need. This leads to me coming back to the same puzzle repeatedly and trying to figure out if I’m done. That’s a big use of my time, but it’s not a fun use! The solution to this problem is simple: when you have large sets of similar items that provide the solution to a puzzle when you collect them all together, give the puzzler some way of knowing how many there are. At the very least, you could label each one as something like “4 of 8”. If you want to step it up, put another clue in the room for the puzzlers to find that describes the total number of props in this set. Some people will probably say that this makes the puzzle too easy, but we think that this eliminates a frustrating part of puzzles that just get in the way of fun.
7. Thou shalt not use low light as a replacement for difficulty.
Low light can be a very important part of escape rooms. We’ll be the first ones to admit that darkness is effective in creating immersion and providing the tension that makes games great. The problem arises when low light makes a room more difficult, but doesn’t otherwise add to the atmosphere. Spinning a lock in low light is not fun. Trying to read a clue in low light is not fun. Tripping over props in low light is not fun. When we encounter low light in an escape room, Team Bluefish wonders if it isn’t just trying to cover up poor puzzles. If you want low light in your game, you should consider giving players other means of creating a reasonable amount of light (I’m not talking about a single pocket flashlight that needs its battery changed, here). If that fails, make sure you have an escape hatch written into your story, where you could add light somehow from the control room. Low lighting makes some games great, but many times it feels like it adds difficulty for no reason.
8. Thou shalt not steal time from players by making them watch or listen to un-skippable media.
Team Bluefish has gone through many rooms where the players need to watch part of a movie, or listen to an audio clip to get a clue. That’s fine, but it’s extremely important to calculate how much time you’re asking the players to use to set up a clue. For example, we recently had a clue on a DVD of an actual movie where we had to navigate to a specific timestamp on the disc. First, you have to wait for the TV to warm up, then you wait for the DVD to be read. Then you wait for the menu to appear on the screen (We hope for the puzzlers sake that there weren’t any previews). Finally, you spend the time playing with the different flavors of fast forward (afraid the whole time that you’re going to fly past the clue). And then a character says a number on the screen. Yay! No, no, no. There’s a bunch of time wasted there, but on top of that you’re adding unwanted difficulty because you’re making the players figure out how to play a movie. That can be nearly impossible! Every house I’ve ever been to has a list of steps that must be followed to turn on the TV, or the machines will rise up and start judgment day a little early. When you introduce a puzzle or clue into your game, the first thing you need to do is imagine that you’re playing the game and you have thirty seconds left on the clock. Being close to the end and having to wait on a game piece is just about the most infuriating thing a player can come across; don’t let it happen to your game.
9. Thou shalt associate each combination with the lock that it belongs to.
This is another pretty easy one that somehow gets missed a lot. Escape rooms are meant to be fun. You know what’s not fun? Coming up with a brilliant idea for a four digit code, and then seeing that there are five different seemingly identical locks that the code might go to. Spinning locks is not the fun part! It gets old real fast. Additionally, escape room locks tend to wear out quickly due to heavy usage, so the experienced player will know that there is additional overhead to each lock, because you have to make sure that the lock isn’t just stuck if it doesn’t open immediately. There are a couple of easy solutions to this problem. The first— and easiest, in my opinion— is to try to make your locks different sizes and combination lengths. If the five locks I mentioned earlier only include one (or maybe two, at most) four digit locks, I’m not going to waste a bunch of time on the non-matching locks. Another way to solve this problem is to color-code or number or otherwise identify both the lock and the combination that unlocks it. Some people will say that this makes the game too easy, but really all it’s doing is allowing the players to focus on the fun parts of the game.
10. Thou shalt not make players use the trapdoor more than once.
Old and new players alike tend to be pretty excited when a door opens to the next area of a room. The effect is even cooler when the path opens in a way that the players did not expect. Sometimes the back of a fireplace opens up, or maybe an air-conditioning vent proves to be a false door. Very cool, and a good way to re-energize players who think they’re getting towards the end of the game. What’s not cool is when we have to keep going back and forth through a secret passage that isn’t really meant to be used frequently. This half of Team Bluefish tends to get sore knees, and crawling is the one surefire way to ignite that pain. When a door opens, I’m always excited to go through it, but close on the heels of that excitement is the question “How many times am I going to have to go through this door?” It’s totally fine to have players need to interact with objects in both rooms, but it’s important to not force players to use an uncomfortable route, or require any physical activity to move between rooms. If the door isn’t something that you could reasonably expect your grandmother to walk through by herself, you should consider either rethinking your door, or warning players up front what sort of activity is required. It’s really unfortunate when someone has difficulty experiencing your full game due to mobility reasons, and that is a situation that you should always be considering and be prepared to avoid.
Did I miss an important one? Of course I did! These were just a list of things that I think should be on the minds of all escape game creators. But there are definitely more! I’d love to hear what other people think should be the “rules of designing a game,” so feel free to scroll down and leave us a comment!