The (Potential) Magic of the Single-Room Escape Game

We recently received a question about single-room escape rooms from Victor, co-creator of Sherlocked in Amsterdam. He recognized that making a compelling single-space escape room would be quite challenging and asked us if there were examples of successful ones, and what makes these successful.

Black & White, a lone person looking out a large window from behind.

When You Survey the Players

When asked, escape room players will tell you they overwhelmingly prefer multi-room escape rooms. (See the graph on page 4 of the 2018 Escape Room Enthusiast Survey.)

When most players answer that question, however, I don’t believe they are saying that multiple rooms are inherently more enjoyable. I think they are saying that most of the rooms they’ve loved – the rooms that have given them a sense of adventure, excitement, intrigue, and discovery – have multiple rooms.

It’s easier to deliver on these escape room virtues through multiple spaces.

The Lull of the Single Space

It is easy to make a mediocre single-room escape game.

When you spend 60 minutes solving puzzles in a single space, you begin to feel comfortable with the space. You’ve searched it thoroughly. You know everything about it. You won’t find anything new. You won’t be surprised. The excitement and sense of adventure subsides, slowly at first – and then quickly.

Unless…

You go out of your way to design an experience, not just a room.

The most successful single-space escape rooms make that room feel like it’s part of a broader world and story through a number of different tools.

The Narrative Twist

If the story changes, the players are in the same physical space, but they are experiencing something new there.

Let’s say that the team was put into the room on a mission to disarm a bomb. If the game ends with the diffusing of the bomb, there was no twist; there was no intrigue. However, if that bomb gets defused 20 minutes into the game and it turns out that something more sinister is afoot… that creates opportunities for surprise.

The Scene Change

If the setting changes – through lighting, sound, the addition or removal of props, or anything else – the space can once again feel new and discoverable.

Adding or removing things from the space can fundamentally change it. Additionally, large-scale reveals can create powerful moments. There are single-room games that feel like large puzzle boxes, slowly revealing big secrets and new interactions. This can be incredibly engaging. Arcane Escapes in California did this in The Hideout.

In-game: A wooden wall with pipes and a big red valve mounted to it.

The Characters Emerge

In games with actors, these characters can change the space with their presence. They will move through it and interact with it, drawing players to see it in different ways.

A live actor can also affect the setting in planned ways that a player cannot. SCRAP does this so well in San Francisco’s Pop Star Room of Doom.

In-game: view from one apartment window through another. Across the way is the popstar's blue walled apartment covered in 90s references.

The Outside World Exists

Having the room feel like it is within a broader world is powerful. This is part of the magic of Strange Bird Immersive’s The Man From Beyond.

Image via Strange Bird Immersive

Incredible things can happen when it feels like the actions that you take within the room are changing the world beyond the walls, and similarly, outside forces are affecting you.

There are many other ways to do this. The key is to build drama. If the players get too comfortable with the setting and the story, then their excitement will wane. Keep the space in flux – in reality or in their minds – and single-room escape rooms can be incredible.

Single Room Hate

Players often look down on single-room games because the single room is frequently an indicator that the game was under designed. For every Man From Beyond, Pop Star Room of Doom, and The Hideout, there are many more forgettable single-room escape games.

We’ll never knock an escape game just for being a single room. We’ll argue against anyone who thinks that one room is an automatic indicator of bad quality. That said, we understand why an escape room player might draw the conclusion that single-room games offer a lower quality experience.

8 thoughts on “The (Potential) Magic of the Single-Room Escape Game

  1. This seems to be a perfect topic for a talk at RECON. I would like to believe a single room could be made into a great experience – I just have not experienced one. The ideas in this blog have started me thinking about the concept – something I would have summarily dismissed previously. Let’s hear more!

    1. RECON is going to be about enabling creators to make great games, regardless of the space they have to work with. The RECON speakers be talking about the many tools in your toolbox, as a creator, including this one. And of course, the various way to make a single-room game exceptional, will also help make multi-room games exceptional.

  2. Thank you for this insightful analysis—and the shout out! No one has ever said about “The Man From Beyond,” “Yeah, it was good and all, but I was disappointed there wasn’t a second room in the game part…” The metaphysics of the story literally goes against that design choice.

    What designers always need to plan for from the beginning is change, which is what you show us here can be done in other ways than new rooms. Change is the magic that enthusiasts crave. Otherwise the story of the escape is “we solved some puzzles and then we got out”—hardly a story worth remembering.

  3. If you’ve played every game at a location, and a new game opens, would you be disappointed if you came to expect multi-room experiences and the new game was a single room?

    1. We would like to see more companies reserve a small amount of space for small, artistic, and creative games. These might have a lower budget, but take more creative risks. For creators, if you’re using a smaller footprint to do this, and you’re worried that your clientele will be disappointed by it not being a blockbuster, charge a few bucks less for the artistic experience and label your others premium. What would be disappointing is if that smaller single-room game was just an assortment of puzzles, locks, and boxes in a small room. In can add that at Arcane Escape – an example used in this piece – The Hideout was their second game, and decidedly a step up from their first, multi-room experience.

  4. My first build – The Mad Scientist’s lair – is a single room. Experienced players tell me the room is one of the best they have played. We do have fun and challenging puzzles, and some fun reveals, but I suspect real magic is the “Dr. Jim” effect. He meets you at the door, all excited that you have come to help further his research and change the world!

    I try to incorporate all I learn from Dave & Lesa, and I have said before I feel they get huge credit for my success. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember more than one post highlighting the value of heart. I love my games and I love to play with my guests – hint: “play” and “toy” are interchangeable ; )

    I have a question. My inner mantra is thus: “I want my guests to feel they got more than they paid for”. As I muse on the games I have played, I realize that has never happened to me, and to be honest I’ve often felt I got less than I payed for. Can we add that question to a survey? would it yield valuable data?

    1. Thanks, Jim, for your kind words 🙂

      Interesting question. Value is a hard thing to assess. It’s personal and subjective. It’s also determined by outside forces in markets, which vary.

      Maybe another way to approach this question is: does the game meet / surpass / fall short of expectations?

      Come on out to RECON! This is the type of things we’re going to explore from the stage and in discussions. I feel like you’ll add a lot of this conversation.
      https://www.realityescapecon.com/

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