Walkie-talkies are a funny method of hint delivery in escape rooms. A lot of companies use them. More than a few players hate them (and with good reason). There is potential to do some great things with walkie-talkies… if they are done deliberately and thoughtfully (and this is rare).
Before we dive in, let’s establish an understanding of hint systems:
What Can/ Should A Hint System Do?
In any escape game, the hint system must:
- Provide a means for players to get unstuck and continue their adventure
- Allow players to communicate with the gamemaster in the event of a game failure or emergency
In a great escape game, the hint system can:
- Be intuitive to use
- Integrate the gamemaster or hint giver into the narrative and world
- Make receiving hints a delightful part of the experience
With that in mind, let’s talk about walkie-talkies.
The Case For Walkie-talkies
In principle, a walkie-talkie is a great, immersive hint delivery mechanism for many escape game scenarios. Anything set in the last century or so can narratively justify the use of a walkie-talkie.
Additionally, it’s easy to make the gamemaster into an unseen character over a walkie-talkie.
This can make the walkie-talkie a useful tool for escape room design.
Let’s examine where walkie-talkies fail. Then we’ll look into how to incorporate them well.
Where Walkie-talkies Fail
There are two reasons that walkie-talkies tend to annoy me as a player: user interface & uncertain communication.
The overwhelming majority walkie-talkies that I’ve encountered in escape rooms are too convoluted. They are a mess of buttons, dials, and dust covers that look like buttons.
This leads to gamemaster instructions like:
- “Twist this… and you turn it off.”
- “Press these and you’ll change the channel. If you do that we won’t know when you’re asking for a hint.”
- “This, on the side… this is the button you need to press to talk. Don’t press the thing that looks like a button on the other side… or the button above this one.”
- “And when you’re done speaking, you have to release the button or I can’t respond.”
All of these instructions are problematic. In any other game interaction they would be considered laughable, but for some reason they are fairly normal when it comes to hinting. I find this funny because hinting is critical. Hinting isn’t just part of the game, it’s a necessary aspect of customer service.
That last bit of instruction, “…when you’re done speaking, you have to release the button or we can’t respond…” is a problem.
Although mechanically it’s not hard to do, that interaction creates uncertainty.
Most obviously, you have players who will death-grip the “push to talk” button. When a player does this, there’s nothing the gamemaster can do other than wait.
The less obvious problem is the question of, “when have I said enough?” Walkie-talkies have an etiquette and a jargon that professionals will employ. Amateur escape room players… not so much.
It gets awkward when you have to ask a question or start describing where you’re stuck. Players keep rambling to get enough information across in order to get the optimal hint (having to ask specific questions to get specific hints usually sucks, but that’s a topic for another day). This kind of thing also creeps up when something goes wrong in the game and the team needs support from the gamemaster to fix things.
The easy solution to this for an escape room is to have attentive gamemaster and only require the players to pick up the walkie-talkie and say, “we’d like a hint.” Honestly, this is usually fine, except in those edge cases where something has gone wrong.
How To Walkie-talkie Right
When a room only has a live microphone in it, and the gamemaster hears everything, this is a user interface for the players:
The players speak. They are heard. The gamemaster can respond.
We don’t usually think of this as an interface, but it is an interface. And it’s fantastic.
I’ve encountered escape games (and I cannot remember which) that had a hot microphone in the room, but the gamemaster responded through the walkie-talkie. This effectively removed all of the previously stated challenges from using walkie-talkies in-game.
This was a significant improvement from a player perspective because it gave the immersive walkie-talkie effect, while removing almost all of the user interface encumbrances.
The one downside was that the gamemaster still had to give the same, “don’t touch the dials” instructions; this wasn’t a big deal.
Modifying the Walkie-talkie
There is an opportunity to modify the walkie-talkie and disable the various buttons and dials so that only the “push to talk” button works… or better still, that it’s just a housing for a speaker and a wifi antenna.
Turning the walkie-talkie into a dumb output device seems like an opportunity for a prop builder.
The coolest part about doing it this way is that you can just leave the walkie-talkie in the room for the team to find. They can pick it up and push whatever button they want and it will just work. Anytime you can remove interface explanation from the experience, you’re improving upon it.
Most uses of walkie-talkie in escape rooms are mediocre.
Sometimes they are included thematically. A lot of the time, they feel like corner cutting. Walkie-talkies were just a cheap easy way to avoid having to run wire and set up microphones (and often cameras).
A gamemaster should always have eyes and ears on their players for their safety as well as the safety of the game itself.
Setup the microphones and cameras; they are an essential part of safe escape room design.
If you want to use walkie-talkies artistically to build your world, then do so… but don’t do it at the expense of safety or the experience.