Actors As Escape Room Gamemasters on The Hayden Farm

In mid-November 2021 Room Escape Artist hosted an Escape Immerse Explore tour to The Hayden Farm at 13th Hour Escape Rooms in Wharton, NJ. Based on my experiences on previous tours, I purchased a ticket without knowing very much about 13th Hour or what to expect from their escape games. 

On October evenings and weekends when the haunted house next door is operating (sometimes including Christmas & Valentine’s Day), the escape rooms have an added twist: actors. The actors roam the escape rooms providing character, hints, and the occasional jump scare. They are also the gamemasters. The actors take on the personas of the different members of the Hayden family, a clan of murderers who use the tricks and traps installed into the different rooms of their old farmhouse to capture their next victims.

Room Escape Artist was able to pull some strings and bring the actors back in for our post-Halloween visit. This was the best example of in-room actors-as-gamemasters that I have ever seen. Days afterward I was still marveling about how impressive they were.

The father of the Hayden family looking creepy in a torn up suit.

How It Works

On the day we visited The Hayden Farm, 4 or 5 escape rooms were running at all times. These games were serviced by 4 in-character actors (in complete haunt style costume and makeup) along with a 5th team member in the control room. The actors were free to roam the entire facility as needed. They would periodically visit each game individually or as a group. They would interact with the players and each other, adding story, comedy, scares and hints to the games.

The younger brother of the Hayden family with a large eye wound.

Playing Both Sides

The motivation for the fictional Hayden family members is to have you fail the game and therefore be trapped in their house where you will meet an end of their choosing. 

I was fascinated by how clearly this storyline came through, while they made sure each team escaped in just enough time. For slower teams, they gave just enough hints to keep them progressing. For teams moving quickly, they’d playfully sabotage, but always to just the right extent so that the players escaped on time and the actor could then play up their disappointment at having to eat spaghetti for dinner again instead of dining on the flesh of their victims.

Their knowledge of all the games allowed them to provide in-character hints that didn’t feel like hints. They used dialog and physical acting to clue players towards important information. 

The older sister of the Hayden family with blood spattered across her face and dress.

Connecting With Players

Since we were playing multiple games on the same day, the characters became familiar to us, and we to them. Ongoing jokes, nicknames and running gags added so much fun to our visit. 

One frustration I experienced as a player was that due to the building design there can be some sound bleed between rooms, but it works in the story world because the setting is a single farmhouse with multiple rooms. Our actors used this to their advantage to both understand what was happening in other games and to communicate with each other to help facilitate their visits to each team. Hearing the characters screaming and arguing with each other throughout the house was both spooky and believable.

The big brother of the Hayden family choking David.
(Not typical customer service)

Hear It From Tour Attendees

Here are some comments about the actors from other tour participants:

“It’s really an incredible skill that they have to be creepy, sweet, funny, kind, and cutting all at the same time – and also be great gamemasters.”

“They seemed to strike the perfect balance between leaving us alone and giving us help, and they were always there to help us cross the finish line which was really appreciated.”

“Live, in-person hinting can already be tricky, so to do it through multiples rooms running simultaneously, while staying in character is #chef’s kiss

“There seemed to be musical or sound clues they responded to. For example, the “daughter” was with us in the parlor and ran off quickly when she heard a song play in another room. Likewise, they all showed up when a music cue went off in the parlor.“

“The performers were terrific! They did a great job balancing messing with us and giving us hints, and kept us laughing the whole time.”

“I thought the actors were wonderful. They heightened the immersion and brought the games to life in a thrilling but campy way. They walked a fine line between scary and humorous and made the experience wickedly fun!”

Animation of the younger sister of the Hayden watching TV while holding her dolls. She occasionally lunges forward and sticks her tongue out.

Consider Escape Immerse Explore

My experience at The Hayden Farm was surprising and wonderful. An EIE tour once again went above and beyond what I was expecting. It introduced me to a style of gamemastering that will be hard to top. 

The service that Room Escape Artist is providing by running these tours is quite remarkable. Escape room players from all over are able to gather and experience some of the best games and the most interesting styles and techniques on the market today. The tours also provide a means of connection and community-building that is important for our industry. I encourage everyone to keep their eyes peeled for announcements about future Escape Immerse Explore tours from Room Escape Artist.

If you want to make sure you’re informed when the 2022 tours are announced, contact REA and note your interest in future tours.

How Video Projectors Create Escape Room Magic

One of my favorite things to see in escape rooms is the creative use of video projectors. Displaying text, images or animations in surprising places throughout an experience instills a sense of magic and wonder. There are so many uses for this technology to provide effects, reveals, transitions, hints and more without the need to construct any physical items.

Almost anything you can imagine can appear, move around and then vanish from view without any lasting residue. Projected ghosts can show up right on cue and disappear just as quickly. Leaving players to wonder what they just saw. Fairies might fly across the room and draw our attention to something important. Images of the story’s characters could be projected in the game environment, near or even onto relevant set pieces.

Star Wars - A New Hope scene - R2D2 projects Princess Leia's plea for help.

Lowering the house lights and then projecting narration text in the room to help players follow along with an audio voiceover is an immersive and helpful technique. Especially when it appears in interesting locations, perhaps near items relevant to what is being talked about. 

A message written on a wall, reads, "My mom wasn't much of an optimist, but she never stopped believing that my brother Milton was alive."

Tools are available that allow designers to use projectors to create augmented reality environments. Projection mapping technology can instantly make a physical item in a room look like something completely different.

Projectors can be used as dynamic lighting devices, highlighting specific objects or spaces, changing color and intensity. Creating things like the glow and flicker of a fire, the white-out of a blizzard or the general progression of a sunset. 

Actual see-through windows can be used with exterior scenes projected on a distant surface on the other side. Giving a sense of depth and realism that can’t easily be achieved with a video monitor dressed as a window.


Well-designed housings and mechanical shutters can be used to control the light output and make up for poor black level side effects. They can also help solve issues with light bleed and avoid issues with power-up or menu sequences displaying unwanted images.

Projected Hints

An idea that I am excited about is using projectors to replace the video monitors that are sometimes used to provide text-based hints. Immersion-breaking TV monitors are often mounted high up in out-of-play areas of the room. They take your focus off of the game space and often force players to look backward or to return to an earlier section of the game. I appreciate escape room designs that don’t include video monitors if they don’t fit the theme, however, I also recognize the value of hints delivered in text form. They can be read through several times and can remain available to the players until they have served their purpose. 

Using a projector to display text hints on a wall or on an object in the gameplay space is a wonderful alternative. It can help maintain immersion and keep players’ focus where it should be. When the hint is no longer needed, the projection can stop and there is no permanent evidence of the display device intruding in the game world. Multiple projectors mounted throughout the experience can display hints in different locations where players tend to gather. They can lead players forward through the game rather than have them looking back to a TV screen positioned above the entry door.

Projectors In Close Quarters

Short-throw and Ultra short-throw projectors allow for a variety of placement possibilities that can limit the risk of players interfering with the displayed image. Rear projection is another option for dealing with this issue.

Pico projectors are inexpensive, bite-sized magic makers that can be hidden almost anywhere to provide surprise moments. 

A projection of the REPOD logo beside some candles and a cryptex.
A projection of the REPOD logo, candles have been moved reveal that they were hiding a tiny projector.

These small units can also display large images. My 2.75” cube projector can produce an in-focus 86” diagonal image at a throw distance of just 7.5 feet. Creators can experiment with different types of display surfaces like inside cabinets, into crystal balls, mirrors, onto curved objects or maybe even clouds of fog. Pepper’s Ghost is an effect that benefits from discrete projector placement.

A projector projecting the SNL "Magic" meme.

I love when I see projectors used to add special touches to escape games. I hope more designers will consider using them to bring fun and magical effects to their future builds.

Get a Pico Projector

If you’re interested in checking out a good pico projector, I was using an AAXA P2-A Android (which is older and hard to find new these days), but if I were to buy one today, I’d probably get a Kodak Luma 350.

*Thanks to Brett Kuehner for contributing thoughts and ideas to this post.

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon, Etsy, or Art of Play after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.

The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.

Untie Your Escape Room Stories

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.

Story structure arc depicting: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement.

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.

Final scene of Han and Luke have been presented with medals. Form some insane reason Chewie doesn't have one.
Final scene of the Lord of the Rings, the 4 hobbits that started the journey are celebrating.
Final scene of the Goonies, the gang watches as a ship sails off in the distance.

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.

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 peek 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.