An Exploration of Escape Room Hint Systems

I firmly believe that escape room experiences live and die largely based on customer service.

Amazing escape games can feel cheap and cruel when paired with poor customer care. At the same time, mediocre games can feel oddly charming when administered by a passionate and caring gamemaster.

With that in mind, I want to explore hint systems, the most persistent customer service touchpoint.

There are a great many ways to craft and administer hints. I’m going to do my best to look at the pros and cons of as many as I can. Before we dive in, I want to establish a few baselines.

An orange life ring floating in a pool.

Hinting Baseline

Definitions

I often hear the words “clue” and “hint” used interchangeably. I don’t think that this is a great idea. We’re particular in how we use these two words on Room Escape Artist.

A clue is a detail or component within the game that the players should interpret, combine, and solve in order to escape.

A hint is an additional piece of information from outside of regular gameplay delivered by the gamemaster or an automated system to assist a team in forward progress.

A detective finds clues. Hints are given by someone who knows more than the person solving the mystery.

Put more simply: hints are surrender; clues are the game.

The act of calling for a hint is a sign that the team is:

  • no longer having fun and wants the fun to come back
  • feeling time pressure and wants a speed boost
  • seeking to bypass something (either because they don’t want to do it or they can’t do it)
  • frustrated because something isn’t working properly

Whatever the reason, they’re calling for air support. It’s the gamemaster’s job to step in and ensure enjoyment.

Intent of Hint Systems

I’m also going to state my assumption that every escape room has built their hint system with the intent of helping pace the players through the experience.

I assume that a hint system is primarily there to ensure that players can enjoy their time in an escape room. It’s plausible, and encouraged, that the hint system could add to the theatrics of experience in some way. However, if your hint system is functioning as an obstacle unto itself, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Hint Frequency

It’s ultimately up to individual designers to determine how many hints they expect an average team to take in their games… but I suspect that companies with lower hint rates are usually doing a better job.

If a puzzle requires the same hint 50% or more of the time, that puzzle needs refinement. You’ve basically created an elaborate coin toss system… so that should be fixed.

If a puzzle almost always requires a hint, it’s not hard; it’s broken. Fix it.

Hint Delivery Mechanisms

With that in mind, let’s look at the pros and cons of some common hint delivery mechanisms.

I’ll state up front: My opinion on the “best hint delivery mechanism” is that it’s the one that fits the environment/ narrative most organically while allowing the gamemaster to properly support the team.

TV Screen

The wall-mounted television quickly became the industry standard hint delivery vehicle early on. When the players ask for a hint, the gamemaster triggers a hint to appear on the screen. It’s simple, intuitive, and easy to explain.

It caught on like wildfire because of systems like Escape Room Master and, more recently, Mythric Mystery Master (M3). These systems offer out-of-the-box game control functionality with minimal effort and expense.

It’s good, fast, and easy.

I only have one knock against this. Often the television and screen interface are wildly out of place in the set. Ideally, the television is mounted in a way that fits the environment and the interface is customized such that it makes sense in-world. Sometimes this is easier said than done.

Additionally, font selection, font size, and color contrast can make or break a screen-based hint system.

Written Notes

The first time that we started seeing written notes slid under a door was in Buffalo, NY… where we saw a lot of companies doing this.

Hands writing a note on a notepad.

Initially, I thought this was the laziest, cheapest thing that I had ever seen. As the games went by, however, I started to appreciate 3 things about written notes:

  • The hints were always good because the nature of the system requires an attentive gamemaster.
  • It could be (but often wasn’t) delivered in character.
  • The team didn’t need to take the hint as soon as it was delivered because they were either folded, face down, or delivered in some container. We could elect to wait a minute and see if we would solve the puzzle naturally. I came to really appreciate this level of control.
  • These hints can be prewritten and delivered elegantly.
A hand holding a handwritten note that reads, "phone a friend."

The downsides to written notes are that:

  • By my observation, most players think it’s cheap and won’t notice the virtues that I’ve mentioned above.
  • It usually comes with a time delay. If the players don’t understand the hint, it’s a pain for the gamemaster to help the team work through it in real time.

Walkie-Talkie

I’m not going to dive too deep into this one because I wrote an extensive piece specifically on hinting with walkie-talkies.

The short version is: walkie-talkies can be thematic and they are super cheap to setup. However, they have a terrible interface, require practice to handle them properly, and tend to have mediocre speakers.

The best way to use a walkie-talkie usually involves doing some surgery to them.

“God Mic”

This is a cute name for hint delivery through the room’s PA system. The gamemaster speaks into a microphone and it sounds to players like the “voice of god” coming from up high. The speaker can also be mounted in other objects, which is usually preferable.

A microphone with the words "Speak Up" scratched into it.

This is fantastic when the gamemaster is comfortable voice acting and the speaker is mounted in an object that the character should be speaking through.

One key downside of the God Mic (or any other spoken word system) is that it requires the gamemaster to always exercise control over their tone of voice. Any hint of sarcasm or disdain will make things uncomfortable.

Additionally, if someone doesn’t hear the clue, it needs to be repeated in its entirety. This can get especially difficult if the team’s native language is different from that of the gamemaster.

In-room Gamemaster or Actor

Just like the God Mic… but without the tech. A gamemaster or actor is there, physically present in the game (or summoned) delivering hints as needed.

Having a good actor in the space can be magical.

Having a regular out-of-character gamemaster in the space… well… that’s less than magical.

All of that being said, there are many nuances to actor performance that can improve or detract from the experience. It’s a world unto itself.

Escape Room Boss

Then there’s Escape Room Boss… which I already bludgeoned like a piñata at a frat kegger.

Hint Triggers

Now that we’ve established what a hint is and the methods of delivering them, we can talk about the thing that I actually set out to write about: hint triggers.

Player-Requested

The one, the only, the original hint trigger. A team is stuck… so the team asks for help.

Upon requesting a hint, the gamemaster delivers a scripted or custom hint.

A hand reaching up out of dark waters.

The big variable with this system is quantity. Are they:

  • limited to the traditional 3? (which is laughably arbitrary for how common it is)
  • capped at some other number?
  • unlimited?

This system is good because it ensures that the team never feels undercut by the delivery of a hint for a puzzle that they were “about to solve.”

The downsides here are that this system can fall apart if a team has the right mix of pride and incompetence… and the gamemaster can be stuck watching a team give themselves a miserable experience.

Similarly, incompetent teams can burn through rationed hints and find themselves twiddling their thumbs in the later portion of the game.

Gamemaster’s Discretion

The gamemaster watches the team play and when the gamemaster thinks that the team needs a nudge in the right direction, they deliver it.

The upsides here are pace control and engaged gamemastering (which I am told makes the job a bit less boring). Additionally, the hints aren’t tied to a team’s ego.

It is also possible to deliver the hints through an actor or interface such that they don’t feel like hints to most players; they are just part of the experience.

The downside of hints triggered at the gamemaster’s discretion is that the gamemaster can botch the delivery. If they give too many or too few hints, it ain’t good. If the gamemaster delivers hints just as someone is solving the puzzle, it can undercut the moment. Speaking from experience, this feels bad.

This surprises a lot of folks, but assuming a competent and attentive gamemaster, this is my favorite hint trigger by a wide margin.

Time Release

Time-released hints usually work by setting up goals. If a team hasn’t solved a particular puzzle by a certain time on the game clock, they receive a hint. Each hint has a release time and the hint is only released if the team hasn’t solved the corresponding puzzle.

The upshot is that this is fair and easy to administer, or even automate.

An hourglass with blue sand sitting atop pebbles.

The downsides are numerous.

For one, a hint mindlessly delivered can come with the same undercutting potential as the gamemaster’s discretion… but that’s just the start.

Fully automated hints are usually imprecise and can provide the team with information that they already have, which is frustrating. Similarly, the hints could avoid the nuance that the team is missing, which leads to all manner of rage.

A team that’s just slightly slow can find themselves being dragged through the experience with endless hints.

Or maybe the worst-case scenario: a good team finds themselves way ahead of the time curve until the last puzzle. When they finally need a hint, they find themselves waiting for 30 minutes, spinning in circles, until the time trigger hits.

Automagical

Automation is an interesting beast. The basic concept is that all puzzles are electronically tied to a computer that is aware of what the team has accomplished, what the team is working on, how much time is on the clock, and possibly how well the team is performing. Based on all of this information, it doles out hints either at the players’ request or at its own discretion.

Depending upon how this is executed, it can have the pros and cons of any of the other hint triggers.

A friendly looking robot looking up into the camera.

To execute this smoothly, puzzles need to have regular machine-readable checkpoints. If any puzzle goes too long without the computer knowing what’s happening in the room, the hints will be off-base.

It’s absolutely possible to build compelling games that are fully automated.

One added benefit of automation is that the game can also adjust difficulty by adding or removing content, which will allow all teams to finish the game regardless of skill.

I think that this is one of the futures for escape rooms. The companies that build the infrastructure to properly support this will have a significant leg up on their competition, if only because they’ll save on labor costs.

I suspect that I will explore automation in more detail in future posts.

Closing Thoughts

The best hint system is ultimately the one that fits a game’s narrative and a company’s ability to execute it predictably.

It’s also perfectly acceptable for a company to mix and match systems, adjusting for the individual needs of a given team.

A game’s success will frequently be built on its hint system.

My general advice: do not let any team sit and stew for too long on any one puzzle. Escape rooms are timed adventures and pace matters a lot.

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5 thoughts on “An Exploration of Escape Room Hint Systems

  1. As always, a thoughtful article! One nuance to the “Gamemaster’s Discretion” that we often use is that instead of delivering a hint at the GM’s discretion, the GM asks the group whether they want a hint when the GM thinks they would benefit from it.

    This generally works well, as the group a) has the option to accept or decline, and b) we are indirectly letting them know that they may be off-base simply by asking. That second part is often overlooked, and works well to redirect a group without them feeling like they “surrendered”.

    1. I really like this system; we use it (in a non-verbal manner). Almost everyone takes the hint right away, as they trust us to know that they’re behind, but since you don’t have to it avoids the “pushy” feeling that you can get with “nudges” –which I find are often a little too aggressive.

  2. More games need to read that one line, “If a puzzle almost always requires a hint, it’s not hard; it’s broken. Fix it.” It’s so frustrating to talk to GMs after a game and to hear them mention that most groups need a hint on a hard part.

  3. One piece of advice I leave to anyone looking to design an escape room: for the love of God, DON’T hard-limit hints. If you absolutely must, however, then DON’T make the player earn them. I was recently in a room where in order to get a hint, you had to find “hint coupons” scattered throughout the room. This system had three significant flaws:

    1. There were only three coupons in the room, which meant you only got a maximum of three hints throughout the entire game.
    2. The hints were distributed in such a way that only one was available at the very start; the other two required a certain amount of progress through the game in order to “unlock” them. This led to a rather vexing Catch 22 where in order to get a hint for a puzzle we were stuck on, we had to solve the puzzle we were stuck on (and thus needed the hint for).
    3. Worst of all, if you ran out of coupons, that was it: no more hints period. We had burned our previous two hints on particularly obtuse puzzles, and when we got stuck on the third, all we could do was wander around helplessly until time ran out, which did nothing but sour the entire experience. Even worse, as we found during our post-game debriefing, had we have had that much-needed third hint, the rest of the game would have been a breeze, which made it come off like the puzzles requiring hints were deliberately set up to be game-ending road blocks.

    I’m all for limiting the number of FREE hints, with future hints incurring a time penalty, but please, please, PLEASE don’t hard-limit hints. All that accomplishes is putting groups into hopeless deadlocks where absolutely no one is having fun.

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