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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.