Update 10/3/23: If you enjoy Doors of Divergence. we hope you’ll check out our interview with creators Christian Vernon and Zac MacKrell on The Reality Escape Pod.
Doors of Divergence has created the best example of truly replayable escape rooms that I have yet seen. Their game Heresy: 1897 uses a more traditional technique of offering players an early choice that leads them towards one of two separate physical spaces, each with their own storyline and puzzle set. These two experiences are different enough to warrant a second visit from customers. Still, this mechanic comes with the operational downside of always having some portion of the game’s square footage and content unutilized.
Each version of Heresy: 1897 culminates with an essential decision for players to make. These later game choices mean that this opening chapter of the story can have 4 possible endings. In turn, that means the story’s second chapter, Madness: 1917, can have 4 possible starting scenarios.
It is here that the true magic of Door of Divergence shines through. Each version of Madness takes place in the same physical space with mostly the same props and puzzle input devices (requiring fresh solutions), yet the game is resoundingly replayable. The combination of a time travel premise and multiple-actor immersive theater delivers a result that is revolutionary in the escape room industry. I can’t overstate the sense of potential and possibility I felt during my second time through Madness: 1917.
Players may be returning to a time and a place that they have been before, but because they made different choices in 1897, this new version of 1917 is anything but similar to what they experienced before. Characters who were prominent in another playthrough of Madness don’t even exist in this reality. Characters who were but mere memories during your last visit are now here, flesh and blood, in this timeline.
Familar Space; Different Story
The use of story and theater as the means of creating an experience different enough to draw repeat visits from customers isn’t the normal first instinct for many people pondering replayable escape rooms, but when witnessed in practice, it is so clearly a legitimate path forward.
Replaying an escape room in a familiar space and with previous knowledge of another version of the world is somewhat eerie. In this new reality, as a player, you are different, your motivations are different, and your story is different. When it comes time to solve puzzles and interact with the set and the props, you know where specific things are and how to use them. Some puzzles become tasks with tools that you already know how to utilize to reach your objective. This creates a different feeling of accomplishment when solving.
The time travel mechanic explains why you might be in the same space a second time under completely different circumstances and why you are there doing different things with different characters for different reasons.
Just imagine returning to your childhood home in an alternate timeline. A different family lives there now and your current presence in the home is because of some new coincidence. It is familiar but not the same. You still know where your bedroom is, or was, and how to lift the handle on the bathroom door at just the right spot when it gets stuck. You know that you have to plug the microwave into that one specific outlet to avoid tripping the circuit breaker. You know that there is a secret compartment on the side of the fireplace that was put in when the house was built because you found it when you were a kid.
So when tasks or puzzles arise that force you to interact with these things, your awareness is beneficial but it doesn’t feel like repeating puzzles you’ve done before. Things are different now. You are solving with a different purpose and you are excited to progress to the next scene and to find out what happens next to the characters.
Actors, Story And Choices As Tools For Replayability
Doors of Divergence refers to their escape rooms as “Our Shows.” The power of storytelling and the power of characters, embodied by live actors, are the keys to their replayability. An actor able to play multiple roles in service of multiple stories that actually are triggered by the choices players make is a far more efficient way to deliver fresh, new content to customers than other game design methods.
Choices in escape rooms can actually matter. Actors can adapt to your choices and scripts can branch widely enough to have players interact with completely different characters. Alternate scenes and story paths can emerge from players’ decisions. This is what Doors of Divergence has shown us.
If the characters and the actors and the scenes and interactions are good enough, players will solve puzzles for the purpose of getting to the next scene and story beat. It makes it ok to say, “I have been here before. I have solved something like this before. I know what to do to help us advance.”
An experience at Doors of Divergence begins and ends in the Paradox Bar. The characters inside will explain to you where you are but that when you are is fluid. After you visit one possible version of Heresy or Madness, those bartenders will remind you that with a few other choices, that story could have been very different. That what you saw was only one possible past.
This in-world, in-character customer care is a great way to help guests understand that these games, these shows, are meant to be tried again. Players actually get the message because the cast are interacting with you as you, but the you of the experience you just had. They aren’t running through an “exit this facility” script while walking you towards the door. They take their time with it, and it is witty and therefore engaging.
Something Truly New
It is not very often that we see something truly new and different enter the escape room market. What Doors of Divergence has begun could quite possibly be the seed for a new structural style for a certain subset of escape rooms: a structure that provides an increase in content available to customers and an improved revenue model for operators.
This is inspiring. Doors of Divergence has produced two quality escape game experiences and at the same time displayed a proof of concept for a product framework that can deliver what everyone in this industry is looking for, real replayable escape rooms.
Note, Doors of Divergence will close in their current venue at the end of October. There are currently looking for a new venue so that they can reopen again soon.