Allowing for player improvisation in an escape room (or MacGyver-ing) creates some of the most incredible moments that this form of entertainment has to offer.
The Benefits of MacGyver Puzzles
Speaking as a player, many of my most memorable escape room experiences stem from being presented with a challenge and the opportunity to craft our own solution using our wits and the items that we could scavenge from the gamespace.
While these types of interactions make me feel like I have freedom, there are usually a select few solution options available, sometimes even just one… and that’s fine. The fun comes in discovering and executing the “hack.”
Unfortunately, there are a few ways that this can go wrong.
I’m going to use two approximations of real life examples without naming the games or companies or providing the specific solution. If you’re hyper-sensitive to anything resembling a spoiler, turn away now.
Before entering a room escape, we were explicitly told that we weren’t allowed to bend anything. It was a pretty strange and unusual rule… but sure… we wouldn’t bend anything.
Early in the escape room we found a bottle mounted to a fixed surface. It had a key in it. We began searching for a means to get it out.
We eventually found a box of paperclips, and one of our teammates began assembling a paperclip chain. When his chain was long enough, he was about to bend a final paperclip into a hook. I stopped him and reminded him of our unusual “no bending” rule.
A little annoyed, he stopped and we searched the room for something else we could use as a hook. We eventually found the item that had been hidden in the gamespace for us to attach to a paperclip chain and retrieve our prize.
Where This Went Wrong
- The rule was strange, easy to forget, and came into play late enough in the game that most of the team had forgotten it.
- We had to debate whether bending a paperclip really constituted a rule violation. Sure, it would be destroying an item in the room, but it was a damn paperclip. You can buy a thousand paperclips for less than $7.
- Had I not stopped my teammate, we certainly would have been chastised by the gamemaster, who was heavy-handed about rules and control.
- This killed the momentum of a puzzler on the path to a good solve. Ironically, the “real solution” was the same thing. We just needed to search like crazy to find something that was already in the shape of a hook.
- This eliminated the opportunity for creativity. What started off enjoyably was bogged down by a cruddy rule.
One True Solution
We were making quick work of an interesting game. Our team was solving along until we hit a snag: a gate blocking us from reaching a critical item.
Upon closer inspection, I realized that the gate was firmly fixed in place. I was confident that there weren’t trap doors and the gate had no locking mechanism (mechanical or magnetic). There were, however, small gaps in the gate.
I looked around the gamespace for something long and narrow that could reach through the gate and found a curtain rod. It was mounted low enough that I could reach it effortlessly and it was fixed to its bracket with a brass thumbscrew. I unmounted it, reached in through the gate, and easily pulled back my prize.
It was close enough that I could reach it with my fingers when the gamemaster chastised me for “using the wrong item.” My solution was dead on; my tool was incorrect.
Even though I had completed the challenge already, I went searching for the “right tool.” It took me less than a minute to find it. Ironically, I had to disassemble a different item in the room. I only knew that I had the “right tool” by observing the wear on it.
I feigned like I was using it to retrieve the item. (The gamemaster’s camera angle didn’t let him see that I had already finished the puzzle before he slapped my wrist.) Then I moved on.
Where This Went Wrong
- The company wanted this puzzle solved in a specific manner, but didn’t use clues to indicate what the right solution was. It was left to the players’ imaginations.
- My solution worked and was non-destructive.
- The gamemaster didn’t have enough camera coverage to realize that I was already done with the puzzle. (The only reasons that I persisted in finding the right solution were to make sure that I knew what it was in the event that we found other relevant cluing… and because I was curious as a reviewer.)
- Like in the last example, my momentum, feeling of success, imagination, and enthusiasm were needlessly shut down.
Rules are important to protect the players, game, and gamemaster.
Rules are a terrible way to “fix” a puzzle with multiple solutions.
If a player is respecting the gamespace and having fun, let them explore and solve how they see fit.
If they destroy a single paperclip that costs $0.00648, maybe that’s not a problem.
Fun is more important than technically correct or intended solutions.
I find it both hilarious and disappointing that a game master would make a rule specifically for the purpose of getting around bad game design or around an unintended solution. If a game master ever told me I was “doing it wrong” like that, I would tell them I had not received a script or stage directions in advance.
I was in a lobby recently that was a fun kind of pre-game mini room. There were two large, obvious metal panels on opposite walls and both had undisguised, obvious wires running from them. Wouldn’t you think to form a human chain? (Spoiler alert: yes you would.) So we did and unlocked the final box of the mini game. GM walked in, closed the box, and went back into the staff room. Turns out that human chain was “supposed to be” the final puzzle in the lobby mini-game.
This industry is so young that some owners/GMs/designers are still way too precious about their vision. This applies to design elements, to IP and “trade secrets” (big fat air quotes there since 90% of the stuff out there is basically an off the shelf prop themed to match that scenario), to the so-called correct way to solve a puzzle. If you want to engage me as a player in your story, then you need to prepare for me to engage it. Sure, we need rules like no standing on furniture, no using force, no outside flashlights, etc.; but a rule that asks not to make an obvious in-game move that trivially bypasses a poorly thought out puzzle does not inspire confidence.
I agree with Marc. Why do we do escape rooms? To have FUN! Why did I build my escape room? Same reason! I enjoy watching my guests solve my puzzles, and when they find a work around, or alternate solution, I tip my hat. Who doesn’t love outsmarting the Master?