I believe a wonderful opportunity exists for the future of online escape rooms. Furthermore, this opportunity can translate back into in-person games.
For me, a truly stellar real-life escape room makes me feel like I’m in a different place, solving puzzles as the hero of my own adventure. I wasn’t expecting to find that feeling in online versions.
This spring we’ve seen a surge in online escape room offerings from companies all over the world due to the widespread shutdowns resulting from COVID-19. As I explored these games, just trying to scratch that escape room itch, I was surprised to discover that the impact of immersion remained, even as I played in my own home. While I was able to feel somewhat immersed playing some of the digital+paper play-at-home games like The Insiders and The Lost Temple, the avatar-led playing more often delivered.
Avatars in Remote Play Escape Rooms
Avatars are used in many video games. An avatar is an image or character that represents the player. In an online escape room, an avatar is a real person inside the actual, physical escape room, connected by video and audio technology. They act as the players’ eyes, ears, hands, and feet as they play through the game in real time. However, the avatar can be so much more than that.
My initial reaction to the avatar was that it would be an annoying contrivance. I wanted to experience the sets, lighting, sound effects, tech, and reveals. I thought it would seem forced and hokey to experience the avatar focusing my attention on what they already knew I should be focused on.
After playing a few avatar-led remote escape games, however, I realized the sets and lighting didn’t come across as impressive on video. Sometimes sound effects were hard to understand and detracted from the game as I tried to communicate with my teammates. I was surprised to realize that usually the avatar themself made the game enjoyable.
Different Styles Create Different Experiences
Some of these remote game hosts are neutral. Not playing a character in the experience, the host waits quietly for the players’ instructions and tries to be as invisible as possible. This provides the most accurate representation of playing the game as it would be in real life. For me, though, it feels like a missed opportunity.
Other hosts take the job to a more rudimentary level, requiring players to tell them almost every physical move to make. Giving step-by-step directions for intuitive tasks can take the fun and excitement out of the game. Sometimes this approach might be an attempt to add difficulty or slow down the pace of play. It doesn’t seem to serve any other purpose and can be frustrating as a player.
When it is done right, however, remote game hosts can be something special. An in-character avatar who acts as a member of the team can take a simple escape room and turn it into an enjoyable, immersive online experience.
Avataring as Art Form
There should be a reason as to why the avatar is there and we, the players, are not. It should be clear that the avatar needs our help, but they should not be helpless. When the avatar realizes the players have solved a puzzle, they should be excited and eager to perform the required physical maneuvers without step-by-step instruction.
Skilled avatars can use their character to control the pace of the game. They can set the pace without stalling for the sake of stalling through avatar-player interactions playing on humor, anger, fear, confusion, inebriation, or any other story-driven reason to engage the players for a minute or two. They can also use their character as another puzzle aspect in the game. We could have to figure out how to motivate, console, or handle our proxy player, trying different techniques to find the optimal results. R. Fimblewood in The Secrets of Eliza’s Heart is an example of an avatar that needs such attention.
A good live game host asks questions of the players and discusses the storyline and its characters. They remind the players about character motivation and point out how that explains some of the puzzles or other in-room items. These things would often get overlooked during a real-life playthrough of the room, as we rush to escape in time. The avatar can draw us deeper into the world of the game, not in the normal pregame story spiel that many players ignore, but at a slower, more digestible pace as we play through that world.
An avatar breathlessly telling us, in the moment, about the importance of an item we seek, can be far more immersive than trying to remember that same information from the pregame briefing video. The avatar’s expressed excitement or relief upon finding the item can be more thrilling and informative than in a real-life playthrough where we might be confused about what we have just uncovered.
An avatar can set the mood in the room by describing what they see, hear, and feel. A chill in the air, a faint sound, or the feeling of being watched can all be conveyed to the players without the use of any tech or in-room effects. Overacting and just plain bad acting are dangers, of course, but that can be mitigated with planning, practice, and experience.
Adding Extra Value – Online and Off
Good avatars can add value to older-style escape rooms that lack the bells and whistles of tech, sets, lighting, and sound design. Save Kings Landing and Ready Mayor One are examples of games that are probably much more enjoyable when played virtually. They are memorable because of the fun we had playing along with Ser Dontos and Mayor Rob, respectively. Virtual X-Caper is a wonderful escape room experience that is built almost entirely around the avatar character of Agent November, without whom the game probably couldn’t exist.
Players crave interaction. Many of us have had great in-person escape rooms lose some luster due to an inattentive or disinterested gamemaster who just wanted the players to leave as soon as the game ended. We have also had average rooms turn into great experiences because a gamemaster, owner, or creator chats with us, and explains bits about the game and its story.
There are lessons we can learn from the strengths of the online avatar and translate them back into real-life escape games. This type of interactive play doesn’t have to be limited to the avatar format. It can give back to the genre it came from. It’s an opportunity to move beyond an actor playing a zombie, scaring players from time to time. We can instead strive for real, live engagement with characters from the story line, providing detail and depth to the players’ experience in that world.
The Man From Beyond achieved this exquisitely. However, memorable moments can also be provided with much briefer interactions between player and character. Lost Games has some terrific short in-game actor involvements that add to the experience. Miss Jezebel is great in person and online because of the live interactions with the characters.
I was surprised to discover the immersive possibilities of remote game avatars. I think it is the biggest industry positive created from this strange shutdown period. Clever game creators will continue to find ways to use these techniques to enhance future escape rooms of all kinds. Taking the best aspect of the new online format and incorporating it back into the old medium opens up a new avenue of creativity. I am excited to see where it leads.