Escape Room Narrative Design: Simple Plot, Complex Characters

“Having complex characters who can appear vividly in the game (whether in person or through the environment) is often what can make a game memorable.” – Manda Whitney at RECON ’21

One of my favorite takeaways from RECON ’21 was a storytelling concept I saw mentioned in a text channel. The idea was that when crafting a narrative for a player-based experience, consider this framework: Simple Plot, Complex Characters. 

As I thought about which games I had played that fit that description, I realized almost ALL of my favorite escape rooms fell into that category. I am not a storyteller or narrative designer. I am a player reflecting on the common threads in my favorite games. Since I read this comment at RECON, I’ve been thinking about how and why this style provides the type of escape game experiences I appreciate most.

Manda's headshot in an ornate art deco RECON 21 frame.

Concise Backstory

Try to avoid the situation where a game host gathers the players just outside the escape room door and then proceeds to introduce the game with a long story. A player’s anticipation is high at this point and their ability to absorb complex information about unfamiliar names, places, and events is low. A simple plot allows players to enter the game quickly and then discover important information on their own.

Let Me Be Me

A simpler plot in an escape room usually means that players are not asked to take on the role of a character, but rather, are entering an experience as themselves. This takes pressure off of the players. It lets them focus more on what is being presented to them and what they need to do, instead of trying to remember who they are supposed to be. Sometimes complicated plots rely on players-as-characters having specific motivations that the actual players may have trouble relating to or even remembering. I have played several games where my teammates and I had to stop and try to remember why we were supposed to want something or what we were supposed to want to accomplish. This problem is much less likely to occur when we are playing as a version of ourselves, even when placed into extraordinary, fictional circumstances.

We Love To Snoop

Most of us love to snoop through other people’s belongings. It’s a mischievous way to learn about someone else. It feels badass, or sly, and motivates players to take in information. Use that to your advantage. Let players learn about your characters by finding their personal artifacts and belongings. A set of family photos where the subjects change over time can provide character and story information without any text. A discarded chef’s hat found along with a rejection letter from a culinary school can say a lot. Diary entries, drawings, or paintings made by a character can reveal parts of their identity, but so can items like a wheelchair or a military uniform. Dusty old prototypes of an invention or an evil weapon can inform players about a character’s backstory, so a game host doesn’t need to recite it in the intro. Learning about characters, their motivations, and their resulting actions is a form of story.

Character Arcs vs Story Arcs

Complex stories with plot twists can be great in books and movies, but they are hard to capture in the escape room medium. With everything going on in a timed game and players often working on different things simultaneously, it can be hard for the whole group to keep up with twists and turns in a narrative. Character progression is easier for players to track. 

Just four pieces of discovered evidence in a magic shop could tell us that the elderly proprietor started out as a magician’s assistant, then struck out on his own, rose to fame and the top of the industry, then became bitter and evil when he fell out of favor with audiences and his own assistant became a star. That character path can span decades of story time and quickly explain why his shop is full of sinister-feeling puzzles and tricks that we must solve to escape. After solving the final puzzle players find a note, “All I wanted was for someone to appreciate my work again.”

That game needs little introduction, “You and your friends pop into a curious-looking magic shop after dinner.” The story is in the character. It is in the things we learn about him and his journey.

Puzzles As Character Beats

Escape room puzzles, tasks, and challenges can all be designed to help players empathize with your characters. If your character secretly observed something important, have the players find that hiding spot, look through that peephole and see what the character saw, feel what they felt, and connect with that character. If your character worked hard to build something – a machine or a piece of music – have your players struggle a bit (within reason) to piece together some parts or musical notes to create a masterpiece. Let them feel the accomplishment that the character felt.

If your game has a character who is asking for help or for information from the players, think about the task of delivering it to the character. If we solve puzzles to obtain the information, the process of communicating it to the character can be a powerful moment. Maybe it is not the desired result and we need to break it to the character softly. Maybe it is exactly what they need, delivered just in time, and we can feel their relief and joy.

Learn At RECON

“Simple Plot, Complex Characters” is just one example of the type of thought-provoking insight provided to RECON attendees. Between the featured talks (available to watch here), the workshops, and the tremendous level of community conversation, the amount of quality, actionable information provided at the RECON ’21 escape room convention was simply amazing.

3 thoughts on “Escape Room Narrative Design: Simple Plot, Complex Characters

  1. Another excellent article Mr. Burns. Everyone wants depth to the experience and the pitfall of excessive backstory is commonplace. This should be must reading for all escape room owners/potential owners. Well done!

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