Priming Puzzles in Escape Rooms

Recently I visited an escape room company where the game began with a small, physical tabletop puzzle in the briefing area. When solved, it provided a small bit of information about the game. Our host then escorted us into the room to begin. At first I thought this was a strange procedure. The puzzle wasn’t difficult and the information it revealed was mostly useless. A story element explained why we had to solve this puzzle before continuing, but it still felt like an odd, yet intriguing beginning. 

A model of half a human brain beside a model of a neuron.

Then, late in the game, we encountered a large, confounding prop with symbols, dials, levers and knobs. While blindly fiddling with it (as all escape room players do) I realized it functioned similarly to the briefing room puzzle we’d solved earlier. A big smile appeared on my face as I realized what was happening. Other puzzles needed to be solved to determine the correct information to input into this device, but because of the priming puzzle, I knew exactly how to operate it. 

The larger prop did not look like the smaller version. Upon first inspection, it was not obvious that I had seen this type of thing before. The realization that I had already been taught how to use it came slowly with a wonderful aha moment. This was genius escape game design.

No Instructions Needed

A complex escape room puzzle often requires written operational instructions or other overt hinting to ensure that players have a fair shot at solving it. This can take some of the magic out of the game. Unknowingly learning those instructions beforehand facilitates a much more enjoyable solve later.

Priming is a well-documented psychological phenomenon in which exposure to one stimulus influences how a person responds to a subsequent, related stimulus.

The idea of conveyance has long been  a staple of video game design. Some of the brilliance of conveyance can be captured in an escape room through the similar concept of priming.

This technique can add a lot to an escape room experience, from smoothing a rough spot in an existing game, to opening up creative possibilities, to helping players understand their roles or characters.

Alleviate A Sticking Point In An Existing Game

If you have a puzzle that consistently causes confusion or is the source of many hint requests, rather than dumbing down the puzzle, or adding extra text or more signposting in the room, consider creating a priming puzzle earlier in the experience. If it is clever and nonobvious, players will feel a sense of accomplishment when they make the connection on their own.

If your game relies on a runbook, or other text-heavy instructions, think about how a priming puzzle might lighten the dependence on the text. If players can intake some of this information another way, they won’t be focused on reading at the expense of what is happening around them. 

Design Games With Priming Puzzles In Mind

Give yourself the creative freedom to try some wilder puzzle ideas, knowing that you can build a priming puzzle into the game to help get the players into the right mindset for what is coming up.

So many escape games show us how to use a directional lock in the briefing and then, “surprise!” there is a directional lock in the game. This lock is actually a puzzle that requires additional knowledge and instruction. So rather than saying, “there’s a directional lock in the room and this is how to use it,” why not create a priming puzzle so that all players will know how to use that lock when they encounter it? You can design a different sort of directional puzzle in the briefing – moving something up, down, left and right – with instructions that will sound familiar when the players encounter the actual lock.

Or flip it around. Show players how to use a directional lock in the briefing, but then in the game, present a larger physical set-piece puzzle with a movable segment that operates similarly to the directional lock. When players encounter the new device, they will have that briefing room memory to clue them towards its operation.

Player Character Development

Priming puzzles give creators a tool to develop the characters that the players will be taking on. If a player is supposed to be an experienced archeologist, adept at translating hieroglyphics, they shouldn’t be encountering these for the first time when they are deep within the great pyramid. The addition of an early, even pregame, translation puzzle would at least familiarize players with the kinds of symbols to look for and the pattern for translation. Their character would already know this. Giving them this baseline knowledge allows you to raise the stakes on later translation puzzles, perhaps combining or reversing symbols to get new meanings.

This type of design can work for any game where players assume identities other than their own.

Avoid Obvious Iteration

Priming puzzles should not simply be easier iterations of puzzles encountered later in the game. Solving an early 3-round Simon puzzle as a warm-up for a similar looking 6-round Simon puzzle later is not exciting. An early Simon puzzle used as priming for a later puzzle that requires players to respond by reproducing the strange sounds and phrasing of an alien language coming over a spaceship’s intercom is much more interesting. Priming should impart vague, even subconscious knowledge to the player. The goal is to reduce the need for cluing the mechanics of the more difficult puzzle. The aha that comes when the connection is made is a terrific payoff.

Pregame vs In-game

There is nothing wrong with including priming puzzles early on in the actual escape room. A more interesting technique is to present them during the pregame briefing. Players will be more focused, without the distraction of the game scenery and the urge to explore. It should be easier to ensure the desired information is received, especially if it is subtle.

A unique pregame puzzle task, required before admittance into the room, can add excitement and immersion to the experience. A higher form of the art of delivering priming puzzles is to add them to the normal pregame routine without the players ever noticing. That is what happened to me in the game I mentioned at the top of this piece. It is the most interesting new escape room twist I have seen in a long while.

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