Hints and Hinting Systems [Room Design]

We received a question about hint delivery from Matthew Steinman of Missing Pieces Escape Games in Minneapolis, MN, as he considered multiple different hint delivery methods for a game set in a space that wouldn’t naturally have a TV monitor.
“We have played rooms with all sorts of different delivery methods, as I am sure you have as well, but I am curious what you think maintains immersion the best… Have you come across any hint delivery techniques that have really stood out to you?”
Painting of a mouth with a word lock in its mouth. The lock reads, "HELP!"
Hints are surrender.

Hinting in character

We’ve played a handful of games where the hinting never broke character. In each of the examples below, the hints were delivered from the characters in the story.
  • The Wizard’s Apothecary, Escape Room Live Alexandria (Alexandria, VA) – Hints from the wizard were delivered through a magical wizarding device.
  • The Sanatorium, I Survived the Room (Long Island City, NY) – One of the actors gave us hints in game, in character.
  • Escape the Darkest Hour, Mission Escape Games (New York, NY) – As we tried to escape from a murderous butcher’s lair, the killer himself delivered hints over a walky-talky, which kept the tone of the game.
  • The Vanishing Act, Locurio (Seattle, WA) – As we solved a mystery backstage at a magic show, the magician’s assistant sent us hints via text message (in her breaks between acts, clearly).

Each of these games used a different hint delivery system. Each worked well within the context of the game. In all four examples, the hinting enhanced the immersion, by adding to the game’s story. We took an unnecessary hint in The Wizard’s Apothecary simply because we wanted to see the hinting system in action.

Disregarding Realistic Immersion

There are also instances where it doesn’t matter that the hint system doesn’t belong in the environment. In The Mayan Tomb at Last Minute Escape (Morristown, NJ) the ancient tomb had TV monitors, not only for hinting but for video content. The scenario was so light-hearted and playful that it worked.

In this instance, realistic immersion wasn’t the goal of the experience.

Successful Hinting

Hints should only be needed when things have gone wrong for the team.

Hints are surrender

When a team has asked for a hint, it’s generally because they have stalled out. The fun has stopped and they want it to restart.

Hints should be delivered quickly and clearly (not as another riddle) and they should be actionable. They should help players pick up momentum again. Hints, at their best, take a stalled game back to being fun.

It’s most important that the hint delivery not be burdensome to the players; they’re already frustrated at the point of requesting a hint.

Burdensome hinting

Every hint delivery vehicle has its own challenges. When designing a hint system, beware of these marks of burdensome hinting:

The hint is hard to understand

If the text is hard to read or the voice is hard to hear, it becomes a puzzle to decipher the hint. The hint is not an in-game clue. It should never be hidden or obfuscated.

The hint is not in a convenient location

If the hint is delivered in another room, far from the puzzle that’s currently engaging players, it can be hard to use the hint to re-energize on that puzzle.

If it’s too far away, the team may not even realize that they received a hint.

This hint is not relevant

If the gamemaster isn’t following the players’ progress and tailoring the hints to their situation, the hints are at best useless and at worst detrimental.

Hints need to help players regain the thread of gameplay. An irrelevant hint will likely confuse the situation.

The hint arrives at the wrong time

If a player is about to solve a puzzle, don’t break into their experience with a hint they don’t need. Gamemasters need to be paying attention to hint at the right times.

The hint is antagonistic

A gamemaster should never be mean or condescending to players over the hint system. Unless they do it really, really well and it’s part of the game.

Hints that maintain immersion

Matthew asked which hint system maintains immersion the best.

Immersion capabilities aren’t more inherent in the TV monitor or the walky-talky or the cell phone or the gamemaster in the room. This is going to vary on a theme-by-theme and room-by-room basis.

Primarily, choose a method that delivers hints well. It should efficiently set your players back on the path to success. Secondarily, pick one that fits within the fiction you’re creating.

Any of these hint systems can also further the immersion of the world you’ve built. If you want to take your hints to the next level, consider your story and characters. Who are the players? Who would be giving the hints? How would they communicate with each other?

Make your hinting system believable and make your hints actionable.

For more tips

Hinting is one component of room design. For more tips, check out our Room Design section.

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