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