My Favorite Escape Room Hinting Styles

Escape room players don’t like to ask for hints. It can be embarrassing and even contentious among the team members. Hints are surrender.

RECON ‘21 included a terrific talk on the subject of hinting, aptly titled Fun Insurance.

The discussions that followed inspired me to write about two of my favorite escape room hinting styles: Optional Hint Reception and Narrator Delivered Hints. Both of these systems lessen the sense of failure often associated with needing a hint.

Optional Hint Reception

Optional Hint Reception involves the game host supplying unrequested, concealed hints to the players and letting them choose if and when to reveal them. It borrows one of the best aspects of some tabletop escape game hint mechanics: allowing players the comfort of knowing hints are currently available, letting them judge their own frustration level as a guide, but not forcing an embarrassing public admission of defeat before receiving a nudge. Game hosts can utilize their experience and familiarity to deliver hints when they see fit without players feeling like they are being helped too much or too soon.

Players can notice a paper note slipped under the door, but it will just lay there until someone decides to pick it up. A video screen can be covered with some kind of moveable obstruction, allowing players to peak underneath if they wish. A screen displaying hints could be placed in a physical space that players must choose to visit in order to receive those hints. 

Audio or visual cues can alert players that a new hint is available, but in my experience, this isn’t always necessary. An attentive game host usually knows when players need a nudge and can provide it earlier through a concealed system. Players can learn to trust their host and expect a hint is waiting for them even without a signal. Conversely, once that trust is established, if a quick peek at the concealed hint mechanism shows no hint available, this can reassure the players that they are on the right track because the host doesn’t think they need any help. If the technology allows, unused hints can simply be deleted and replaced with more current hints as the players progress through the game.

A successful game playthrough with an optional hint reception system includes a game host using their skill to provide plenty of concealed hints and players using their own state of mind to receive just what they need without ever having to stop and ask.

Narrator Delivered Hints

Some escape rooms employ a narrator character to deliver hints: an all-knowing, all-seeing outside observer who is describing the action to some unseen audience. This can really take the edge off of the negative feeling that can come from asking for help. It is somehow less harsh to receive the information when it feels like it was intended for a 3rd party. 

When players feel like they are secretly listening in on information meant for someone else, hints seem more like clues discovered in the game rather than specific help intended just for them. It can be exciting or even mischievous to listen in on comments not meant for you (even if, in this case, they are meant for you.) It might even be comical or thrilling to hear your team’s actions and struggles described as they happen.  

For example, the narration, “The investigators knew they were missing a key piece of evidence, so they decided to check the desk drawers one more time” takes the sting off of a search fail better than the gamemaster asking, “Did you open all the desk drawers?”

“Our smallest adventurer noticed some curious symbols. Will they turn out to be important?” or “The heroes were spending too much time on the locked door, so they decided to look for another way in.” Receiving hints worded this way feels less hint-like and more experiential.

Unsolicited nudges from the game host can be disguised as story narration. For example, “The moon was bright that night where light and shadow danced in the graveyard” could gently clue a shadow puzzle that players have failed to notice.

Many escape game themes can work with a narrator character. Think of all the movies and TV shows that use voice-over to deliver story information. That function can be adapted to deliver escape room story and hints.

A narrator should be established early and make sense in the game world. Make the players comfortable with the system by using it for the story introduction and a comment about the players or what they are doing. Use it for act breaks or other in-game transitions or discoveries. Then when it comes time for a hint, it can be smoothly delivered as if the narrator were still talking to the audience.

Conclusion

These are a couple of my favorite hinting styles. They are 2 great options, but not the only options.

The goal of these systems is to reduce the stark, immersion-breaking player and host interactions that are common in most escape rooms. They also reduce some of the negative feelings players have when forced to admit defeat, come together to raise their hands, and ask for a hint. One of the ways to preserve some of the puzzle-based aspects of escape rooms as many transition towards adventure games is to develop hinting mechanics that feel more like part of the adventure itself. 

Conversations on topics like this are just one of the benefits community members receive when they are brought together at RECON. Look for the featured talk Fun Insurance, as part of the RECON ’21 Video Playlist. It will be released there soon.

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.

Defining “Premium Escape Rooms” & Why It Matters

The escape room industry is currently in an early phase where games of vastly different quality levels are often priced very similarly. When you check popular online reviews, all escape rooms have great ratings, and they all cost roughly the same amount. There is no real price differentiation in this industry, but there should be. As the industry matures, identifying and rewarding premium experiences will be an important step. Educating customers about the value of premium offerings will be difficult in a business where mystery, secrecy, and surprise are often viewed as important attributes. Here are some of my thoughts about what should be included at a premium price point.

What Makes a Premium Escape Room?

When I think of a premium escape room experience, I think about immersion and worldbuilding: aspects of experience design that make memories. As much as I like solving puzzles and aha moments, I’ve realized that none of my favorite escape room memories have anything to do with puzzles. I suspect much of the average player population is probably the same way. Making me forget that I am in an escape room is one of the highest compliments I can give to an experience.

Extended game length, more square footage and quality actors can all add significantly to worldbuilding. These can be key aspects of a premium experience and they are things a customer can recognize when booking. Immersion, technology, reveals, and characters can be dialed up to a level that justifies a higher price.

While each of these elements can contribute toward making a premium experience, they can also be used as gimmicks to fool customers into thinking they are about to play (and pay for) something special. Providing fair value for the money will be critical for the survival of a premium-priced escape game.

Give Me More Time

Paying more for longer escape games is something that makes sense to everyone. It’s still rare to see escape games that run longer than 60 minutes. Longer play times stand out and spark interest with customers. A race against the clock to escape in time is not the only option for these types of experiences. Stretching game length with more content and letting players be in an immersive environment longer is a premium selling point. Designing systems to allow customers to play 2 or more related rooms consecutively and uninterrupted is another way to extend play length.

Removing the aspect of the time constraint altogether can be an exciting game element and marketing opportunity. As a player, I have come to appreciate games without visible countdown clocks. Rooms can be designed with mechanisms in place to ensure that players spend the desired amount of time in the game, while being ambiguous about its actual length. 

When I am worried about time pressure, I often tend to (even subconsciously) force myself to find the most efficient path through the game. I ask myself, “what does the creator probably want me to do?” I sometimes use escape room logic and figure out how to progress through the game. This type of self-awareness can be a detriment to immersion. Without that pressure, the world opens up a bit, and details of the room become more accessible. It feels good to know I get to be there that much longer. 

Bigger Can Be Better

Larger square footage games can also make a game world feel more real. The reality that players are in an old office space or a strip mall fades away when the game space feels big. There are more nooks and crannies to inspect. There are more chances for individual players to go off and explore an area by themselves. Being alone in an unknown environment can be a thrilling feeling. 

There are more opportunities to discover things that are not part of the most efficient path toward the game’s end point. Sometimes you need to run back to a different section of the space to where you remembered seeing something that now seems important. That distance can add to the excitement and enhance a thrilling moment. A larger play space is something players will take notice of. It is one of the most obvious premium perks in an escape room.

Even the illusion of space can be powerful. A room with false doors on all four walls can feel part of a sprawling mansion or a huge castle. Fake doors can make the players feel like there are choices to be made and more paths to explore even when a game is kept neatly on its rails.

In-Game Actors

Actors as characters bring depth to the story world. They are also obvious operational expenses that customers should be able to recognize and appreciate.

High-quality actors who make eye contact and ask questions of the players can help create a premium experience. There is something about answering questions from an actor that forces players to think about the story and the world it takes place in so much more than just listening to them recite exposition. Customers want to be drawn in; they want to understand the place they are in and why events are happening there. What better way to deliver that than from interacting with the characters that live in that space?

Upping Immersion

A premium escape room should begin the moment players walk into the building. The atmosphere of the lobby area and in-character hosts add to a customer’s experience. A smooth and minimal pregame rules briefing is also something I am really coming to appreciate. A long list of “don’t do this” warnings can kill immersion and momentum just as players are building anticipation of entering the game. Make a more theatrical experience from start to finish, where everything rolls into one. The narrative should begin long before we are standing outside of the escape room door. Onboarding and exiting can be part of the experience.

The Room Should Be Alive

Premium escape rooms react to the players. Dynamic lighting and sound design can be used to guide the players through the physical space. Areas of interest may illuminate while areas no longer in play may darken. Puzzles and props have positive feedback so players know when they are doing things right or doing things wrong.

Effects and Reveals

Big reveals and cool special effects are well-known elements of higher-end escape rooms. They can be memory makers. Unexpected moments are an important aspect of escape rooms. The bigger and grander you can make them, the more impact you can make on the player’s experience. Players might be willing to pay a premium price just to get to see the cool thing that everyone is talking about. 

Story and Characters

Stories and characters that stick with players can create a premium experience. I love a story I can continue to think about months after playing, and characters that I empathize with and become invested in to the point that I wonder what happened to them after the story concluded. I think about what they are doing now and how other players might be interacting with them. These are rare features in the games that I have personally played or heard about, but when they do happen it can be powerful. 

Premium Must Have Meaning

A longer game clock or a larger game footprint are not premium features if that extra time or space isn’t filled with interesting content. A huge story that is too complex to understand or that is force-fed to players in a jarring or disjointed way does not make for a premium game. An actor playing a jump scare monster might not be appreciated as much as a character that facilitates a meaningful exchange with the players. None of these aspects of the premium experience will help an experience that includes flawed gameplay or bad puzzle structure.

I hope the time is coming when the escape room customer base is large enough and sophisticated enough to value escape rooms properly and reward those creators who deserve it. Many times the customer has no idea of the quality level of the production they are paying for. The inherent secrecy about the games that is built into the escape room culture is one of the causes of this uncertainty. The unreliability of popular online rating systems is another, but trusted voices are becoming more recognizable. 

There will be markets for escape rooms at different price points, from budget to premium and beyond. Stratification in pricing is something customers will understand and accept, as long as it is justified.

Online Course: How to Plan a Reopening Campaign [Product Review]

Reaction

This a marketing course, created to help escape room owners start up again after a lockdown. It could be a good fit to newer owners, those lacking marketing skills, or anyone needing a bit of motivation to dive back in to marketing.

The course is not really specific to reopening after a lockdown. It provides general marketing advice. It is well thought out, but offers mostly common sense ideas rather than some kind of secret. It is probably possible to get this type of information for free from other escape room owner support groups and connections.

It is organized and presented well, with a system of setting goals and tracking progress with the provided tools. It suggests data driven techniques to send semi-personalized messages to reengage existing customers and alert them of your reopening.

I like that the instructor, Zoli, reminds owners that they are in the “memories business.”

Photo of the course creator Zoli, text reads, "How to plan a reopening campaign. Free 4 part 'how to' Series."

Structure

This online course consists of 5 videos, each 10-15 minutes in length.

4 of the videos are available for free.

The pro version (£97) includes more resources, and versions of the videos with more detail and more examples. The resources include planning spreadsheets already populated with formulas and headers, and templates for various types of customer communications such as email alerts, newsletters, and social media posts.

Slide: "What's in the package? 1+ hour video guides, 1 on 1 consultation (limited time offer), pre-written content, all in one planner."

Audience

This course may be useful for escape room owners who are seeking help improving their marketing and have time on their hands at the present.

If you already have a marketing team or person, this is exactly the type of thing they should already be doing for you.

If you are in need of help, however, this plan could be useful to kickstart a reopening marketing plan. It is a fully workable plan you can use if you can’t or don’t want to think of a plan yourself. For some, it may be more motivation than anything else

For £97 (about $135) it is probably worthwhile if you are having trouble getting into the marketing spirit again after a lockdown.

There are lots of tips and ideas and Zoli mentions several times that he is available for questions and personalized assistance.

Use the discount code REA20 for 20% off your order until May 20, 2021.

Disclosure: Zoli gave REA access to the Pro tier for review.

This course is created by the founder of clueQuest in London, England.

New in Escape Rooms: Drive-In Adventure

Entry banner for the drive-in escape adventure.

Challenge Inspires Innovation 

I recently completed a series on escape room innovations. Now I’ve come across an interesting example of how the challenges of 2020 continue to inspire new escape game design.

When he decided to close his indoor games because of COVID-19 case numbers in Michigan, Patton Doyle, Owner and Designer at Decode Escape Rooms, created games that could be played from outside of his facility. This included a new drive-in adventure – complete with lighting, sound and effects – that players experience from their cars.

Decode Escape Rooms currently operates in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan, with a Detroit location coming soon. Their Ypsilanti game The Aurora Society (currently temporarily closed due to COVID) won a Golden Lock Award in 2019. Their new drive-in adventure takes place at the Ann Arbor location.

Patton recently told me more about this new game format.

Can you describe your new drive-in game?

Doyle: The Doc is testing his new teleportation device, but something has gone wrong and he needs your help! Guests park their vehicles behind our building and work together using two smartphones to save the day. The main display is projected onto the back of our building, sound is piped in via the car radio, and the guests’ actions trigger lights, sound, and other special effects around their vehicle as they play.

Projection of an escape room like environment. Includes a door and a mysterious technological contraption.
Drive-in projection

Is it appointment-based and ticketed like a traditional escape room?

Doyle: The game is by reservation so that groups don’t overlap. Access to the game and resetting is handled automatically so that guests don’t have to interact with anyone during their experience. The game is managed entirely remotely via cameras, a web interface, and a phone number for help. Hints are also provided within the game interface.

What are the hardware and software you use to operate the game?

Doyle: We’ve used our own control software for all of our games for the last several years. To adapt it for this game, we added the ability to trigger events from the open internet. It’s free and open source software, so anyone is welcome to try it out. They can reach out to me (patton@DecodeDetroit.com) if they need help setting it up.

The online interface is written using standard web tools (html, javascript, css) and hosted with Firebase. The free tier of Firebase is so generous that we haven’t had to pay anything for it (yet).

For hardware, we used a projector and radio transmitter, a couple of smoke machines, and various DMX lights and light controls. The projection-mapping was all done in Blender (also free and open source software).

A parked car surrounded by lights and artificial fog.
Drive-in effects

Where did the idea come from?

Doyle: The idea is an evolution of the outdoor game we ran this summer. That game, Around the World in 30 Minutes, required guests to complete a sequence of travel challenges in the large picture windows in front of our building using their smartphones. Our drive-in game took some of the same ideas and added more elaborate special effects, greater teamwork (guests collaborate across two devices), and, of course, a vehicle to keep them warm (since we’re located in Michigan). 😊

Two people on their phones in front of a window display.
Around the World in 30 Minutes

What hardware and software do the players need?

Doyle: Guests only need a smartphone and a vehicle with a functioning radio. The entire game is browser-based, so guests don’t need to download an app or bring any special tools or devices with them.

What is the length of the game?

Doyle: Guests have 90 minutes to play, but the typical game takes about an hour. We’ve found that unlike a traditional escape room, guests are much more likely to begin their game late, so we want to make sure they have plenty of time to finish.

How is the drive-in game affected by weather? Rain or snow or extreme cold?

Doyle: The game is open in any mild weather (rain, snow, cold, etc.), but we plan to close it during blizzards and other extreme weather events for safety. Guests can reschedule their reservation anytime without fees or penalties, so if they decide it is too cold or the roads are too slippery, they can pick a different date to play.

How has it been received so far?

Doyle: The response has been fantastic. The guests I’ve spoken with all asked when we were coming out with another similar game. Even though the game is an unfamiliar format, people are willing to give it a try, and it exceeds their best expectations.

Is there a post-Covid future for this game or others like it?

Doyle: We hope to keep this game open throughout 2021. With summer nights in Michigan, we’ll have to make some changes, as it doesn’t get dark until 10pm. But I’m a big believer in the potential of games that break the standard escape room format. We’re always working to expand our offerings into new formats, whether that’s a scavenger hunt where puzzles are hidden inside local businesses, a short, replayable game that requires guests to learn each time they play, or a new outdoor game that takes guests out into the community.

A packed bookshelf with a framed Decode logo attached to the side.
Scavenger Hunt

Conclusion

The escape game format has undergone some tremendous changes over the past year. New styles and ideas are popping up all the time as everyone tries to adapt to changing conditions and business rules. 

There is something fun about driving to an escape game, instructions coming over the radio, and experiencing lights, smoke, and sounds all around the car. It is an immersive, real-world adventure, very different from a game played through a laptop screen.

This is an idea that really leaves an impression with me. I hope to learn about more companies leaving the traditional comfort zone and offering customers the chance to play something different.