Escape room stories should end with a denouement. The term denouement is derived from a French word that means “untie.” In English it is defined as the final outcome of the main dramatic complication in a literary work. It is what happens at the very end of the story.
Denouement is important to the story structure because it provides clarity. It occurs after the climax, in the final part of a story’s narrative arc, where normalcy returns. The denouement restores order to the narrative world, and in doing so provides resolution and a feeling of finality.
Don’t End Your Story Too Soon
I’ve played too many escape rooms where during the height of climactic tension we manage to defuse the bomb or steal the evil plan from the villain’s lockout safe, and after some celebratory audio cue the game host enters the room and says “congratulations.” The game ends immediately after the climax. Players don’t experience the results of their actions in the game world. The story isn’t concluded. There is no denouement.
We’ve all probably had postgame discussions with our teammates where we’ve tried to figure out exactly what we did, why we did it, and what it meant. A denouement can answer these questions and drive home important story points.
It is a chance for players to catch their breath after the excitement of the climax, an opportunity for things to fall into their proper place and for the main ideas of the story to hit home and be understood. A denouement can control how the players feel at the completion of a story, which will affect their outlook on the story, and the game, as a whole.
I Don’t Want To Leave Yet
Gameplay can continue after the climax. It can even take us back through the experience to revisit props, puzzles and sets. It can show us what we’ve done (or what other players did that we missed out on) and why doing that was important. This cooldown segment can be used to wrap things up before players leave the world of the game.
Show players how their actions improved the circumstances of the game’s characters. If the world has changed, let us see evidence of that. If we helped avoid a catastrophe, show us a glimpse of normal life that we were able to preserve. Make it matter.
For example, if the climax of a game has the players save a cat from a dangerous situation, give them a beat afterward where they see the cat reunited with her grateful family. Make one last puzzle that unlocks a new cat toy and have a final image that reinforces that all is well again.
If your game is designed as an experience that is meant to make your players feel changed… make sure to leave space for that to happen, for it to sink in, in the game world, before the host breaks the immersion.
There’s an opportunity for escape room creators who think about what they want their players to feel at different points during their games, especially at the conclusion, to provide closure rather than leave players confused about the story or its characters. Give them a denouement and untie the knots of your narrative.
Thank you for bringing up such an important but often over looked point. We’ve been talking about this a lot lately (after going on a weekend escape spree). It’s jarring when a game ends with the final puzzle, and in pops the GM – such a clash of worlds.
Exactly. Even some of the best rooms have just sort of a “meh” finish. Great point and hopefully more owners will think about this aspect!
Could not agree more, and anxiously awaiting the next (r)evolution in escape games where things like story and immersion become emphasized more than “beating the room”.