Escape room experiences are essentially made up of a series of somewhat standard individual elements, strung together to create the whole. Intros, puzzles, tasks, reveals, actor interactions and story scenes, a finale, etc…the bits that make memories.
Many escape rooms will have one really great mechanic that stands out during the game. A way that they have chosen to execute one of these necessary elements that makes it something special. The games at the top end of the market make many individual things special. They stack numerous memorable moments and high quality creative interactions.
Designing With Experience
Creators are gaining experience in the industry and building better and better versions of each of the pieces that make up their games. They are utilizing more advanced techniques often gleaned from playing other escape games. Then they are turning a bunch of these moments into a complete experience that flows. It is an art.
In 2023, I have been playing escape rooms across North America and I am happy to report that the quality on this continent is rising. The number of world-class games in the US and Canada is increasing. One of the things I am noticing is more rooms that combine many of these elevated element designs stacked one after another.
Premium escape rooms even have end credits now, acknowledging all of the people who helped create them, and that feels right because these types of games are often produced by teams, not individuals. The market is showing progress, awareness, and evolution.
North American Examples
While playing The Forgotten Cathedral at Escaparium, I broke immersion several times because I couldn’t help but marvel at many of the design choices that appear in the game. Step after step I could sense the creators thinking about what would be the best way to implement each interaction. This game has stacked so many exceptional beats that I can’t think of a better North American example of listening to your customers and learning from your peers. Escaparium has filled the experience with things that enthusiasts (and all players) love. It starts with a multiple-actor introduction that works without reading a list of rules and then goes on to feature lighting and sound design that helps move players through the space. There are theatrical act breaks, solo player moments, big reveals, physical tasks, and mechanical surprises galore. The use and placement of projectors is some of the best I have ever seen. The Forgotten Cathedral bravely features several (truly more than one) interactions that other escape room creators wouldn’t attempt… even though they would love to.
Escaparium’s Wardrobe For Sale has one of the coldest game starts in North America. It is wonderfully refreshing, and it works because it was designed by people who care about providing unique experiences and pushing boundaries. The actor-heavy adventure goes on to feature a mid-game transition that is so much more than it needs to be. It is wonderful.
Hope End from The Ministry of Peculiarities is a special game. I applaud the way this company executes the performance from start to finish. Hope End stacks several great interactions that begin right when you walk in the door. Their use of solo moments and high quality acting make it clear they intend to provide guests with much, much more than a mere puzzle-filled escape room with a cool theme. The game ends with a denouement scene that eases players back to the real world. Hope End was built by people who get me, and players like me.
The Weeping Witch at Cross Roads Escape Games uses temporary total darkness better than any game I have played outside of Europe. The way they use narrative and gameplay to position players during the thrilling bits is expertly done and shows significant forethought. The game stacks these segments with a tense solo moment and displays of tech that grow more and more impressive as the game continues.
With Pins & Needles Tattoo Parlor, The Exit Games uses an incredible lack of tech to create an amazing game. They do it through the use of beautiful set design and solid storytelling combined with complex characters and killer reveals. Nowhere else have I seen escape room sets so heavily decorated without ever wasting players’ time on unintentional red herrings. I really don’t know how they do it. Pins & Needles stacks great interactions from the pregame briefing to some cool mid-game empathy-inducing tasks and reveals, on through to the finale. This game was built by well-traveled creators who value playing other top-level escape rooms. It is both inspired and inspiring.
Doors of Divergence is building truly replayable escape rooms. They are doing it via a story that changes as you make choices, causing characters to sometimes exist and at other times, not exist. Their games give us the power to travel through time, so seeing the same sets and using the same puzzle input devices again make sense if we are visiting a time and place that we have been to before. It works because the reasons we are there this time – and that other, new characters are there with us – is completely different from our previous visits. Their game Madness: 1917 stacks immersive theater moments with solo player moments and narrative choices that actually matter. It also has incredible potential to include actors as puzzles, mechanics that would make the game even more impressive.
Escape Artist Greenville is creating a type of escape room magic that I haven’t quite seen anywhere outside of The Hayden Farm house at 13th Hour Escape Rooms. The way their in-character gamemasters live and belong in their game worlds feels so natural. The way they slip in and out, between the game space and the control room is incredible. The planning, timing, and precision with which they work makes players think their games are being run by a much larger number of staff. Their rooms stack actors playing main characters with player solo moments, empathetic tasks, and innovative hinting styles to create games that take time to digest while you realize just how good they really are.
Mogollon Monster at The Nemesis Club starts with a great actor introduction then adds some creative projector work before moving on to some campy silliness. Its final sequence is wild. This game delivered so much more than we were expecting. The whole thing hangs together very well because it keeps players engaged throughout by stacking terrific moments.
Lisa Spira says in her review of The Forgotten Cathedral: “Escaparium’s multi-year ascension to the top of the North American escape room scene has been accomplished by being present. The Forgotten Cathedral was clearly designed by those who are continuously engaged with our community and the conversations in this industry: by reading, listening, conversing, networking, and most of all, playing.”
These top games are being built by creators who are present; they are in touch with what is happening in the industry and the community. Traveling and playing games. Listening to what players want and giving them more of it. Knowing what players are expecting and then going beyond that.
Appreciate The Pieces
If you are a player, notice these individual building blocks and appreciate the ones that are better than they needed to be. Recognize companies whose games stack impressive moment after impressive moment.
If you are a creator, expose yourself to more high-end experiences. As David Spira says, that can have a multiplier effect of good creators inspiring other good creators. We all benefit.
Realize that your customers will remember the parts of the game that stand out most for them. Consider how you can elevate each individual piece and then stack them to build a more incredible whole.
Be Present At RECON
RECON provides an opportunity for owners, creators and players to be present in the community. RECON is a place where we will discuss escape room design topics like the ones mentioned in this article. It is a place where you can get exposure to some of the industry’s top creators. You’ll network with peers, find collaborators and get inspired by the work and ideas of others. Get your ticket to RECON Remote today.