I bet you have played an escape room that began with a lengthy introduction from a game host, a video, or worst of all, text read out loud by one of your teammates. Designers can struggle with the need to provide story and to introduce characters to their players before those players get distracted by the game’s sets and puzzles. It is hard to do. It is hard to get players instantly invested in characters.
Games that seek to create an emotional response from players would do well to consider adding non-puzzle tasks that may better connect the players to the game’s characters. Instead of force-feeding narrative, letting players identify with characters is an easier and more effective way to get them to appreciate and absorb a game’s story and themes.
Tasks, more so than puzzles, can help players relate to characters in escape rooms by allowing them to empathize with those characters and their experiences without being distracted by the stresses of puzzle solving. By completing specific tasks as the characters would, players can gain insight into the characters’ personalities and circumstances, which can help create a richer game experience.
Tasks Not Puzzles
This post isn’t trying to argue against puzzles in escape rooms. Puzzles can still be the heart of the experience. I am trying to highlight character building tasks as an additional mechanic to aid storytelling.
Tasks are different from traditional escape room puzzles, although they can be part of puzzle sequences. Tasks are more likely activities such as searching for, collecting or arranging physical items or pieces of information. They are some kind of work-like activity that usually lacks the aha moment of a puzzle solve, but they can deliver a glimpse inside a character’s life. Tasks are often stylized or gamified to make them more interesting, but it should be clear that the activity is meant to convey the physical or emotional state of a character.
I am a big advocate of having escape room customers play as themselves in the game experiences and not try to take on some alternate persona. But storytelling is hard, especially in 60 minutes. If we want players to buy into the world and care about the people who live there, we need these mechanisms to create those connections and build empathy.
Show, Don’t Tell
Rather than telling your players that a character has a boring, monotonous job, have them do the job and feel what it is like. If a game’s plot is to aid rebels in a war zone, players may be given tasks that involve scavenging for supplies and navigating dangerous environments. These tasks can help players feel more connected to the game’s characters and the challenges they face in this fictional world.
If your character is a struggling artist, never happy with their work, you might have players attempt to draw a picture of an object and then contemplate their own work. If a character is an incredible athlete, create a ball-throwing task where players can’t miss. Have your players feel like your characters feel.
I’ve long envisioned a task interaction where players are exploring a house and must set a dinner table and then arrange themselves seated around it. Voice-over audio would play scenes of a long missing family such as them celebrating a child’s birthday, or having a difficult conversation about finances, or a couple announcing a divorce to their children. Show us that people lived around that table. This could be so much more impactful than reading that same information.
All of these examples help inform players about the characters and will make it easier to successfully deliver story beats and twists that happen later in the game. Players will have a better understanding of why some new information is important and who it is important to.
Video Game Roots
This is another escape room concept that has video game roots. Playing guitar as Ellie in The Last of Us Part II and the fish factory sequence in What Remains of Edith Finch are both tasked based activities that create significant character empathy for players.
One of the biggest struggles in escape room design is adequately conveying a game’s story or message to players who are busy solving puzzles under the pressure of time. I’ve written before about the concept of Simple Plot, Complex Characters. If your story is about complex characters, let your players live as those people for a bit. Let them perceive the world as your characters would. Have them perform tasks that help them feel like your characters feel. You will then be in a better position to make players feel what you, as an experience designer, want them to feel.