The Quest for Replayability [Innovation Interview Series]

This is the fourth in a series of interviews about innovations that enhance storytelling, the next frontier in escape rooms.

Replayability is a kind of holy grail for escape room owners. The idea of creating a single escape room with a single buildout and then having customers return to play, and pay for it multiple times, is an appealing one. Hatch Escapes in Los Angeles, CA, is taking on the quest for replayability.

Hatch Escapes’ first game, Lab Rat, was ranked #12 in the 2019 TERPECA results. That gives me some confidence in their commitment and ability to pull off something as ambitious as The Ladder, a replayable escape room. I think the ideas they are testing could potentially change the future of escape room design and escape room storytelling.

I want to thank Terry Pettigrew-Rolapp and Tommy Wallach, the founders of Hatch Escapes, for answering the questions I had and for just chatting with me about escape rooms!

6 color promo image for the game.

Play it again?

Escape rooms are usually focused around puzzles, and most puzzle games don’t lend themselves to replay. Like a magic trick, once you know the solution, you don’t ever need to see it again. Once you’ve seen the ending to an escape room—assuming it has a story at all—you’re probably not interested in seeing it play out a second time.

Hatch Escapes is trying to change that with The Ladder. They are designing a game you will want to replay. A game you can get better at, where playing better is rewarded with more of the story. Their idea is that this will be an escape room that you can return to after a few days, or a few months, or a year, and have different experiences. It is a game where if you replay with a different group of people, you won’t have to hold back or keep the ending a secret. This is going to be something different from the norm.

How Are You Challenging The Escape Room Norm?

Pettigrew-Rolapp: I think we need to challenge the “single-time play” thing. This is a fixable problem. Right now, escape rooms aren’t re-playable because they depend upon puzzles with binary solve states. All we need to do is design puzzles that can be solved multiple ways or that can self-iterate. The video game industry solved this problem decades ago. I think this problem goes away in the next few years.

Plus, we think a number of truisms about escape rooms need to be challenged. Why have we taken for granted that escape rooms can’t be re-playable? That they can’t support compelling, complicated, moving stories? That they can’t have branching narratives? That they need countdown timers? That they’re essentially IQ tests? We think these “truisms” need to be challenged.

Wallach: I’ll add only that the solution to “single play” is mostly quality of experience, with a side order of cutting back on Terry’s aforementioned binary solve states. People play video games over and over, even when they know exactly how everything will play out. Part of this is because many games have narratives that reward multiple playthroughs (as The Ladder does), but I don’t think that gets at the heart of the issue. The multiple endings are the cherry on top. The sundae is the simple joy of playing the game. The trouble with binary solve-state puzzles is that they usually aren’t all that fun to do. Most video games are technique- and process-based, rather than “solve” based, and some escape games, like our next one, are going to move into that space too. But more generally, if the experience is joyful enough, people will come back just to do the exact same thing all over again, as they do when they rewatch a movie or piece of theater, replay a video game, or reread a book.

How Do You Make An Escape Room Replayable?

Wallach: First, some background: each segment, or room, of The Ladder corresponds to a decade. You have a limited amount of time in each room before you’re forced to move on to the next one. In other words, there is no “completing” a room.

We came at replayability from two angles. First, the majority of the gameplay is scored puzzle games. Some of them will have small learning curves to them. Since you are only in each individual section of the game for 10-12 minutes, you are not going to get through all of the puzzles in that amount of time. When you return, that learning curve will be gone and you will be able to earn a much higher score. Each room will have three of these scored puzzles. Because you will be playing with a group, you effectively won’t have any recollection of the many mini puzzles that make up those games.

It is important to mention here that the ending of the story partially depends on the scores from these games. You won’t just come back to try and get higher scores; you will come back to get the story endings associated with higher scores. The low score endings aren’t just fake endings. They are all fully complete story endings, but if you want to get a different story and a different ending, you can come back and get a higher score.

The other angle of replayability is that each of these rooms also has traditional escape room-style epiphany-based puzzles. Now these puzzles are not really replayable because once you know how to solve them the fun is gone. However these puzzles are completely optional. Again, the rooms are timed, so after 10-12 minutes you move on to the next room whether you’ve solved the puzzles or not. However, a secret bonus room that you normally wouldn’t see is gated purely by solving all the epiphany-based puzzles and not by the scored puzzles.

Once again, your ending is determined by your score, how many of the epiphany-based puzzles you solve, and a couple other decisions you make during the game. You can choose from several avatar characters to embody as you play. Each of these will have different choices you can make throughout the game.

We don’t want people to feel that we are trying to play a trick on them, where they played it once and didn’t get the full experience so they feel they have to come back to see the real ending. That is the hardest thing from a design perspective.

There is no fail state to the game. There are just different endings for your character.

Teaser image for the Ladder depicts a rendering of the game.

How does replayablity aid in storytelling?

Wallach: Replayability is dangerous, in some way, to storytelling. It forces you to be somewhat vaguer and fuzzier in everything you are doing. It forces you to leave open doors that usually you would be able to close with a very satisfying thud. The key for us was having all the different paths that lead to all the different endings. There is still a main story going on with twists and secrets, but the truth is, until you solve all the escape room-style puzzles, you do not get the complete story. There is another secret backstory going on that is only hinted at. Replaying can fill in the blanks in the story and flesh it out. 

It is probably easier to tell a story with a traditional escape room structure. Replayability provides the branches and paths, and the overall volume of story that can be discovered over multiple playthroughs.

How can escape room storytelling be improved?

Wallach: The number one escape room pet peeve I have, and it’s nobody’s fault, but it is something we are desperately trying to fix, is this notion of manically, frantically rushing because you are on a time constraint and you are desperate to get to the end. I understand why the industry started that way, but it’s a real shame because I think it has made it incredibly difficult for us to develop the medium. Players aren’t paying attention to anything that is happening. They are just desperately looking for puzzles and desperately trying to finish them. They are shouting over each other and they are grabbing things because they are just so, so desperate to finish.

With The Ladder, each room is under a time constraint, but there is no fail state. Everything is moving forward and you are going to successfully complete the experience no matter what you do. You are going to have an ending to the story. 

The hope is that we can start to move people toward a slightly more relaxed experience. This is both for enjoyment’s sake, because I think it is a little more enjoyable to not be rushed, but also because in traditional escape rooms, it is really difficult to tell a story. Whenever the story is happening, the players are focused elsewhere: “where are the puzzles?” and “can I be working on the puzzles?” and “can I use this time to solve the puzzles?” We want to tell players, “No, don’t use this time to solve puzzles. Imagine that at this time you are watching a very short movie and you should only focus on enjoying that.” That is a really hard change to make because of the way escape rooms have conditioned players, but we are trying.

Telling better stories & telling stories better

Wallach: The aspirations in escape rooms, from a narrative perspective, have been low. The same way they were with video games early on. It’s just genre tropes and the same clichés over and over again. But there are so many brilliant people already working in the escape room industry that I have no doubt they will be able to tell stories well. It’s just that we have to get our brains turned on to telling better stories.

Pettigrew-Rolapp: We think escape rooms have the potential to be awesome. One can look back and see innovative forms of storytelling developing in our culture over time: epic poetry, theater, novel, movie, and video game. Escape rooms are the next great storytelling medium. They are about as developed now as film was in the early 1900s, or as video games were in the early 1980s. They are cute, fun, awkward little creatures covered in acne. We’re in this to help escape rooms grow up. There is no universe in which we would consider trying something safer or simpler. It’s not why we’re here.

One thing to keep in mind: the best games take a long time to build. My guess is that there are probably a dozen excellent games currently being developed by as-yet unknown entities here in the States. They’re just still baking.

In The Oven

I love that thought. Amazing, unknown new escape rooms are out there baking. Hopefully they are employing some of the ideas I presented here, as well as new, bigger ideas that will continue to push the medium forward.

Story and storytelling are the future of escape rooms. What we remember are the experiences and the feelings we have when playing these games. Puzzles and sets add a tremendous amount, but they don’t make us cry, or think hours later, “what if I was the killer/ victim/ hero of that scenario?” Stories have a power that those other elements don’t possess and there is something about the way all those pieces come together that creates meaning. It creates art.

11 thoughts on “The Quest for Replayability [Innovation Interview Series]

  1. I love the thinking behind replayability as described in this post. The joy of the environment can be experienced over and over again if the actions/solves are different enough to create a unique episode. For example, flying a fighter jet is not a rehash if the mission is different. This is the basis of TV shows where each week we still had the Bat cave/Batmobile but the “story” was different enough to make it a good use of our entertainment time. Throw in a few gizmos/puzzles that weren’t part of the previous episode and it’s a similar but new experience. One I would likely choose vs a brand new room about finding grandma’s secret recipe or thwart another serial killer by deciphering his poems.

    Perhaps a recipe to get replayability is as simple as constructing a great environment (like a movie set/sound stage) and create multiple stories/missions/episodes that utilize different parts of the set for each one. Of course, this doesn’t have to be large scale, but it does have to make you want to spend more time there in some capacity because it’s so darn awesome and not completely explored in one visit.

    1. David, have you played The Last Defender? Your comment reminds me of their large detailed set with multiple puzzle paths that did allow for some replayability.

  2. Helpful to me – a 78-year old art professor, dreaming of my Escape Rembrandt’s Ghost. I’m grateful to have lived into the future when a game is a work of art. I can shed my tired old habits in exchange for teaching printmaking from the grave with an escape UX.

  3. I’m so damn excited to see this corporate multi-adventure come to life.

    Also, I assume they won’t publish score times to avoid the puzzle-rushing-time-trial teams, or at least to help curb that mentality? I love this idea, and hope to see more narrative-rich escape experiences in the future.

  4. Hi Damian, I can only answer your question as I understand the projected gameplay. The scored games are used to help determine the branches of the narrative. But I am not sure that keeping track of specific scores for bragging rights will become a high priority motivator for players.

    I can imagine different score thresholds required to unlock different branches, and that would be the motivating goal, rather than the exact number of points scored.

  5. Ahhh, the score/time conundrum. Great for Rubik’s cube and the like. If the room is centered on puzzles then it is relevant to some. If the room is an experience with some puzzles/mysteries to unravel then maybe not so much. If you are invited for dinner you might want to know if it is a sumptuous multi-course meal with lots of presentation and artistic flair (flambe anyone?) or perhaps it is a contest to see how long it takes you to eat 80 hot dogs. Minimizing “Time to complete” is not a shared element between these food related activities. While I prefer one, the other is not trash. Just different.

    1. It was most recently in Chicago, but is currently shut down. My point was that format is a large space, 16 player game with multiple puzzle tracks, but that could be adapted to have be several different “missions” for smaller groups to play on repeated visits.

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