The Escape Room I Didn’t Know I Wanted – Part 2 – Design

Introduction

Lisa: This is the second piece in a three-part series by Diane Kobrynowicz and Sarah Mendez about taking risks and finding community through escape rooms. If you’re primarily interested in building your own amateur escape room, start right here. That said, I recommend you read these pieces as a series, starting with Part 1.

Here is Sarah’s story, in her words.

Problem: Not Enough the Escape Rooms

If you’ve been playing escape rooms for a while, you’ve probably experienced the following existential dread: “what will I do when I’ve played them all?” Whether this fear arises from financial limitations (“I’ve already spent my entertainment budget for the year!”), an inability to travel beyond your local sphere (anyone else got young kids?), or you really truly have played them all, finding ways to sustain this hobby is a puzzle in its own right.

Solution: Build My Own Escape room!

Last July, my husband Jonathan and I had just spent our ninth anniversary on vacation playing nine escape rooms in one weekend. While he was pleasantly exhausted, I was absolutely energized.

A wall of different masks.

Alas, as we headed home, I knew this wasn’t infinitely repeatable, mostly for logistical reasons. We have two young children and are therefore limited in our travel options. Our list of unplayed escape rooms in our nearby metroplex was running short. We’d already exhausted the escape-room-board-game market (Unlock!, Exit: The Game, Escape Room The Game, Escape Room in a Box, Escape the Crateyou name it and we probably own the entire series). It felt like we would need to find a new hobby soon.

However, the car ride home gave space to creative thoughts: perhaps I could explore this from the opposite side, as a hobbyist designer rather than as a player. What a fun challenge to create even a fraction of one of these experiences for my friends! What a promising outlet for all of my escape room mental energy! So, on the car ride home from our anniversary outing, I committed myself to creating my own full-scale, reasonably immersive escape experience for Halloween: The Portal of Doom.

What ensued was three months of drafting puzzle flow charts, rummaging through thrift stores, and building as much as possible out of cardboard, packing tape, and plastic table cloths. I started by loosely following the development recommendations on Lock Paper Scissors, disciplining myself to focus on story first. I insisted on designing my own puzzles, constantly questioning how every puzzle fit into the story to ensure that I was driving toward an actual experience rather than just a room full of locks. This was a legitimate use for my infuriating attention to detail.

The design experience satisfied my escape room cravings… and not only because I made new friends.

Why Building a Room Was Satisfying

The Convenience of Home

I could enjoy this project without leaving home, all evening (after the kids went to sleep), every evening, with no babysitter required! The act of designing and creating a room gave me a daily outlet for my interest for three months. I couldn’t have realistically filled this by playing escape rooms.

2 people looking at photos and blueprints outside fo a tent.

Multiplication of Enjoyment

Playing a particular escape room is a one-time thrill. It provides a couple of hours of fun (one to play, one to debrief over frozen yogurt…because that’s what you do, right?).

Repeatedly hosting my own room over several weeks multiplied this enjoyment. As a reward for the development effort, I got to see people bond over and celebrate my creation. I also got a lens into how everyone brings their own experiences and perspectives to a common goal, yielding diverse sets of questions, aha moments, and sticking points.

When people thought in the same the way that I’d intended them to think, it was exhilarating and validating. When they didn’t, it reminded me how the same stimuli can naturally evoke different perspectives, not just in gaming but also in life.

New Value in Old Skills

Designing an escape room required a surprisingly vast array of skills.

  • logic and deduction for puzzle development
  • aesthetic creativity for environment design
  • content strategy and writing for carrying the story through in an engaging yet instructional way
  • manual construction for instantiating the vision

For me, it offered a reconfiguration of several professional talents. As a content strategist, I often repeat the adage that it’s all about getting the right content to the right people at the right time. To my newfound delight, this is exactly what an effective escape room does!

To create an experience with an appropriate amount of challenge, players needed to be able to find information (but not too easily), associate it with the right puzzle (but not too obviously), and reason through the intentional gaps in what they’d been presented (with sufficient support if they got stuck). This amounted to a tightwire act between too little and too much content placed in perfect proximity to where it needed to be used.

If that weren’t challenging enough, infusing the puzzle materials with story connections was necessary to ensure the aforementioned coherence. Orchestrating these elements had ten times the puzzling challenge as actually solving them!

Deepening Appreciation

Creating my own escape room has only deepened my admiration for every escape room I encounter. If I’d ever spent any time thinking about it, I probably could have imagined the planning, design, attention to detail, and manual labor involved in creating a full experience. However, I now know the reality of this effort, and I will bring that understanding to every escape game I tackle in the future.

Many thanks to everyone who has ever contributed to the escape rooms that I’ve enjoyed!

Connecting to Community

As a newish enthusiast, perhaps the most unexpected outcome of this whole endeavor was connecting to the community that exists around this hobby. I’m an introvert by nature, so my previous escape room outings often involved only my husband.

I never viewed escape rooms as a way to meet more people.

After seeing how much our friends enjoyed the experience I’d created, however, my husband secretly reached out Room Escape Artist to express his pride in my efforts. Lisa connected us to local enthusiasts whose willingness to give us a chance made us feel immediately welcome. They, in turn, have connected us to more local opportunities to puzzle and interact with puzzlers!

Tips for Designing an Amateur Escape Room

A white cloaked skeleton holding a scythe.

Here are some simple things I learned that made a big difference. I was shocked that some of our biggest compliments were about the immersiveness of our experience…in a garage!

Commit to a Story

Even without professional set design or technological bells and whistles, you can still achieve a surprising amount of immersiveness from engaging story elements. If you can assign a reasonable motivation for everything you ask people to do and communicate that motivation well, you’ll make up for what your game might lack in aesthetic polish.

Hide Irrelevant Things

If you’re not careful, your garage will seem like a pile of red herrings. Fortunately, it’s easy to hang plastic table cloth material over all the stuff that should be ignored.

Incorporate Fun Lighting

We used Gemmy Fire and Ice Lightshow lights to set the mood for different sections. I also established ways for players to turn on lights for different sections, which added to the feeling of discovery.

Consider Physical Puzzles

We had people cross a kiddie pool using stepping stones, build a bridge out of burlap, and navigate a physical maze constructed from pool noodles. These gave a tangible sense of progression through the story.

Create Hidden Rooms, Cubbies, and Reveals!

We used our tent and sheets to partition the garage into multiple sections. We also pulled a fake-out with the backdoor to the garage. Many teams thought they were done when they figured out how to open that door, but it revealed a giant maze and a bonafide Big Bad at the end!

Sarah with a maze and a ghost behind her.

Troubleshooting an In-home Design

I won’t hide the reality that this was a ton of work with some obvious pitfalls. I imagine that many of the difficulties of creating an in-home room are simply a microcosm of creating a real room. Here were my compromises:

Space Requirements

Although we didn’t have to pay rent for our game space, we did have to sacrifice our garage for two months of this endeavor. I still haven’t cleaned up the mess I made in the office when building all of my cardboard masterpieces. Before we started, we recognized this as a necessary cost of the project, and that simple awareness forestalled significant frustration. This foresight allowed us to remove any necessities before plastering the garage in plastic.

Cost of Materials

Despite having the production value of an elementary school play, even the minimum immersion factor of this room wasn’t cheap. Locks, lights, and inflatable lawn decorations add up!

I mitigated these costs by limiting my purchases to reusable items, which is part of why I chose a Halloween theme. Regardless of whether I ever make another escape room, my annual Halloween party will benefit for years to come!

Finding an Audience

I was proud of my room and eager for as many people to enjoy it as possible. We hosted the first three teams at the aforementioned Halloween party and scheduled several private sessions for friends who couldn’t make it to the party. However, the Venn diagram of my friends and escape room enthusiasts has a small center. Fortunately, my husband Jonathan is an Asker rather than a Guesser. He reached out to REA, who connected us with wonderful players!

Inviting Strangers to our Garage

The most outrageous part of this whole adventure was that we lightheartedly invited lots of strangers over to our house…and that lots of strangers willingly journeyed to the far outskirts of Austin to take a chance on our garage.

We felt like our contacts came from a reliable source. I can’t speak for the players, but my impression is that Jonathan’s lengthy, detailed, and earnest descriptions appeased our first stranger-guests enough to pave the way. Then they vouched for the experience with the rest of the players. In retrospect, we could have more proactively de-sketchified this experience for everyone by including pictures and references in our communications.

Conclusion

Creating this escape room was immensely rewarding and more than satisfied my hobbyist goals. This is a fun option to consider for enthusiasts with the time, space, and energy. Be warned, it’s easy to get attached to your creation. Be prepared to sacrifice part of your house for longer than you anticipate. We had intended to use our room just as the main attraction at our Halloween party, but I couldn’t bear to tear it down the next day; it was way too fun! Instead, we left it up for an entire month longer so that more people could play it (and we could get our effort’s worth out of it). Who really needs a garage anyway…

Series

Lisa: As I mentioned at the top, this is the second piece in a 3-part series by Diane Kobrynowicz and Sarah Mendez. Find the first installment here. Stay tuned for the next installment, coming soon!

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