Streaming Real-Life Hitman

Back in 2016, some folks painstakingly created a real-life version of the video game Hitman, where players verbally commanded an actor through a mansion, with the mission of eliminating a target.

Hitman approaching a mansion.

Aside from being phenomenally well-executed, this video is playing with ideas that I think we’ll see more of in the future as streaming games become more prevalent.

Also… can someone make a game where I drop a statue on a nemesis? I didn’t know that I needed that in my life.

Escape Room Directory Updates: Please Contribute Local Knowledge

As we prepare to release this summer’s industry report at RECON, we are pushing a lot of updates to the Room Escape Artist Directory, located on our “Find a Room” page. This directory includes all of the brick-and-mortar escape rooms in the United States.

You can see last year’s industry report here.

How you can help

In order to provide this information, we rely on input from folks all over the United States who are playing and creating escape rooms.

Please check your local area for:

  • Newly opened facilities
  • Permanently closed facilities*
  • Mergers/ acquisitions
  • Outdated information (changed URL, changed name, moved location)

You are our best resource for escape rooms near you. Please send us your updates!

*Many facilities are temporarily closed right now. If the facility plans to reopen, we are currently keeping them listed in the directory.

REA logo with a photo of a pinned map of the USA in the background.

2020 Challenges

There are a lot of escape room companies struggling right now. As of this writing, different businesses are facing different challenges, depending on whether or not they can operate on location, and the comfort level of the public in their area.

We know that many escape room businesses have already faced insurmountable challenges, and have had to close their doors. Our hearts go out to these business owners and their staffs.

Other businesses are working hard to increase their visibility at this time when they can service customers, for any customers who want to experience these games in person.

It continues to be a challenging and unpredictable year. Please help all of these businesses by sending us updates about your local area. You know your local market best.

Thank You

Thank you to our team of map maintainers, especially Melissa from Connecticut, who dedicates a large amount of her time to keeping this directory accurate.

Thank you to the players who send in local updates and the companies that share their changes with us.

We can’t do this without you.

The Surprising Immersive Effect Of Avatars In Online Escape Rooms

I believe a wonderful opportunity exists for the future of online escape rooms. Furthermore, this opportunity can translate back into in-person games.

For me, a truly stellar real-life escape room makes me feel like I’m in a different place, solving puzzles as the hero of my own adventure. I wasn’t expecting to find that feeling in online versions. 

This spring we’ve seen a surge in online escape room offerings from companies all over the world due to the widespread shutdowns resulting from COVID-19. As I explored these games, just trying to scratch that escape room itch, I was surprised to discover that the impact of immersion remained, even as I played in my own home. While I was able to feel somewhat immersed playing some of the digital+paper play-at-home games like The Insiders and The Lost Temple, the avatar-led playing more often delivered.

First-person view of a hand reaching out.

Avatars in Remote Play Escape Rooms

Avatars are used in many video games. An avatar is an image or character that represents the player. In an online escape room, an avatar is a real person inside the actual, physical escape room, connected by video and audio technology. They act as the players’ eyes, ears, hands, and feet as they play through the game in real time. However, the avatar can be so much more than that.

My initial reaction to the avatar was that it would be an annoying contrivance. I wanted to experience the sets, lighting, sound effects, tech, and reveals. I thought it would seem forced and hokey to experience the avatar focusing my attention on what they already knew I should be focused on.

After playing a few avatar-led remote escape games, however, I realized the sets and lighting didn’t come across as impressive on video. Sometimes sound effects were hard to understand and detracted from the game as I tried to communicate with my teammates. I was surprised to realize that usually the avatar themself made the game enjoyable. 

Different Styles Create Different Experiences

Some of these remote game hosts are neutral. Not playing a character in the experience, the host waits quietly for the players’ instructions and tries to be as invisible as possible. This provides the most accurate representation of playing the game as it would be in real life. For me, though, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Other hosts take the job to a more rudimentary level, requiring players to tell them almost every physical move to make. Giving step-by-step directions for intuitive tasks can take the fun and excitement out of the game. Sometimes this approach might be an attempt to add difficulty or slow down the pace of play. It doesn’t seem to serve any other purpose and can be frustrating as a player.

When it is done right, however, remote game hosts can be something special. An in-character avatar who acts as a member of the team can take a simple escape room and turn it into an enjoyable, immersive online experience. 

Avataring as Art Form

There should be a reason as to why the avatar is there and we, the players, are not. It should be clear that the avatar needs our help, but they should not be helpless. When the avatar realizes the players have solved a puzzle, they should be excited and eager to perform the required physical maneuvers without step-by-step instruction.

Skilled avatars can use their character to control the pace of the game. They can set the pace without stalling for the sake of stalling through avatar-player interactions playing on humor, anger, fear, confusion, inebriation, or any other story-driven reason to engage the players for a minute or two. They can also use their character as another puzzle aspect in the game. We could have to figure out how to motivate, console, or handle our proxy player, trying different techniques to find the optimal results. R. Fimblewood in The Secrets of Eliza’s Heart is an example of an avatar that needs such attention.

A hand holding a wax sealed envelope as the holder approaches a stairwell.
The Secret of Eliza’s Heart

Increasing Immersion

A good live game host asks questions of the players and discusses the storyline and its characters. They remind the players about character motivation and point out how that explains some of the puzzles or other in-room items. These things would often get overlooked during a real-life playthrough of the room, as we rush to escape in time. The avatar can draw us deeper into the world of the game, not in the normal pregame story spiel that many players ignore, but at a slower, more digestible pace as we play through that world. 

An avatar breathlessly telling us, in the moment, about the importance of an item we seek, can be far more immersive than trying to remember that same information from the pregame briefing video. The avatar’s expressed excitement or relief upon finding the item can be more thrilling and informative than in a real-life playthrough where we might be confused about what we have just uncovered.

An avatar can set the mood in the room by describing what they see, hear, and feel. A chill in the air, a faint sound, or the feeling of being watched can all be conveyed to the players without the use of any tech or in-room effects. Overacting and just plain bad acting are dangers, of course, but that can be mitigated with planning, practice, and experience. 

Adding Extra Value – Online and Off

Good avatars can add value to older-style escape rooms that lack the bells and whistles of tech, sets, lighting, and sound design. Save Kings Landing and Ready Mayor One are examples of games that are probably much more enjoyable when played virtually. They are memorable because of the fun we had playing along with Ser Dontos and Mayor Rob, respectively. Virtual X-Caper is a wonderful escape room experience that is built almost entirely around the avatar character of Agent November, without whom the game probably couldn’t exist.

Save King's Landing - room view, via a 360 image and a zoom stream.
Save Kings Landing

Players crave interaction. Many of us have had great in-person escape rooms lose some luster due to an inattentive or disinterested gamemaster who just wanted the players to leave as soon as the game ended. We have also had average rooms turn into great experiences because a gamemaster, owner, or creator chats with us, and explains bits about the game and its story.

A 360 degree view of the gamespace in the inventory.
Ready Mayor One

There are lessons we can learn from the strengths of the online avatar and translate them back into real-life escape games. This type of interactive play doesn’t have to be limited to the avatar format. It can give back to the genre it came from. It’s an opportunity to move beyond an actor playing a zombie, scaring players from time to time. We can instead strive for real, live engagement with characters from the story line, providing detail and depth to the players’ experience in that world.

The Man From Beyond achieved this exquisitely. However, memorable moments can also be provided with much briefer interactions between player and character. Lost Games has some terrific short in-game actor involvements that add to the experience. Miss Jezebel is great in person and online because of the live interactions with the characters.

Man From Beyond

I was surprised to discover the immersive possibilities of remote game avatars. I think it is the biggest industry positive created from this strange shutdown period. Clever game creators will continue to find ways to use these techniques to enhance future escape rooms of all kinds. Taking the best aspect of the new online format and incorporating it back into the old medium opens up a new avenue of creativity. I am excited to see where it leads.

In Defense of Sudoku

Escape room players hate Sudoku.

In a community that can debate the merits of anything, there seems to consensus around the idea that Sudoku and escape rooms don’t generally mix.

The Problems with Sudoku

We’ve knocked quite a few games over the years for including Sudoku… and occasionally given praise for a novel take on the puzzle type, or having one that at least kind of fit into the story.

That’s the problem that most seem to have with Sudoku: it almost never works narratively. Even if you squint, accept it as a metaphor, and really believe that it belongs… it just doesn’t.

Meme of a Firefighter going to save a person who tells him to do a sudoku first. He is seen outside of the burned house saying "She was already dead when he found her."
Via Room Escape Problems – I think that this is some of Bill’s finest work

Setting story aside, I think that problem of Sudoku in escape rooms is deeper than narrative nuance. I can enjoy puzzle-focused, no-narrative escape rooms. I think that they can be done well, although I suspect that in most places their market is going to be more niche.

Even in a puzzle-focused, story-free escape room, I think that Sudoku is generally lame for 3 reasons:

  • Sudoku is best solved by one person. It’s a solo, quiet, sit-down-at-the-desk-and-shut-out-your-team type of puzzle. This does not work well in an escape room.
  • This puzzle type requires outside knowledge to solve, even if it’s commonly known.
  • The world is filled with free or inexpensive Sudoku that are far more interesting than anything that will show up in an escape room.

I know that last point because… and please don’t tell anyone this… I like solving Sudoku.

In Defense of Sudoku

Sudoku has tons more depth than most are aware. There are countless additional rules that can be applied to transform this basic concept into something far more compelling.

The Miracle?

Probably the best-known illustration of this is “The Miracle Sudoku” video that has been circulating the internet for a few weeks. Brace yourself because you’re about to spend 25 minutes joyously watching an expert solver go from thinking that he’s being trolled to solving a puzzle so elegant that it defies logic:

Zelda Sudoku?

In a similar vein, The Legend of Zelda Sudoku Hunt assembled 6 different puzzles into one interlocking experience inspired by The Ocarina of Time. Each of the grids represented a temple, and the mechanics were especially cool (specifically the Shadow Temple):

Personal Thoughts

I have solved 1,127 Sudoku on my phone app alone since getting this device in the spring of 2016 (such an innocent time). I’m by no means an expert, but I can hold my own… at least on a computer. My skill abilities drop when I have to solve on paper.

David's Sudoku app stats shows 1127 solved. Most on Medium or Difficult setting.

I did most of that Sudoku solving on the subway or when I couldn’t sleep. I love that there’s always a puzzle to solve and I can feel my skill, knowledge, and awareness grow with practice. It has reached a point where I literally use Sudoku to gauge how alert I am. For detail-driven work, if my Sudoku solving isn’t on point, nothing else that I do will be either.

This puzzle type gets a lot of negativity thrown at it within the escape room community and in the context of escape rooms. While that is generally well earned, I wouldn’t discount the whole puzzle type. It has a surprising amount of depth.

If I ever have a dog – which my allergies won’t allow – I would name that hypothetical doggo “Sudoku.”

Approaches For Reopening Escape Rooms in a Pandemic

Update: The following sections were added, or added to, a few hours after publication: Masks, Smarter Cancellation Policies, Gameplay Adaptations

As different regions slowly attempt to reopen, I’ve been putting together a collection of guidelines to help escape room owners think through their reopening strategies.

I honestly believe that escape rooms are well positioned as premium entertainment in this pre-vaccine era. Movie theaters, theaters, bowling, skating rinks, amusement parks, bars, and restaurants generally require large crowds to turn a profit. Escape rooms are intimate, small-group entertainment.

If our industry establishes a strong reputation for safety, fun, and low headcounts, I truly believe that we will bounce back faster and reemerge stronger than before.

I have done my very best to approach this apolitically.

My overarching advice to you is to pay attention to your community and its shifting needs as this pandemic continues to evolve. Smart escape room companies will ratchet up or down the intensity of their policies to meet their regional needs, which will likely change over time.

A mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer on a wooden table.

Adhere to Local Laws

Before we dive in, I want to make it clear that I am not a lawyer or epidemiologist. I’m not claiming that I am.

Before opening, consult with your lawyer and insurance provider. Make sure that you’re following whatever regulations your business is subject to.

Whom Are You Protecting?

When thinking about safety in this pre-vaccine era, there are two groups of people that escape room owners must consider:

  • Employees
  • Customers

Many of the measures that we will discuss apply to both. However, employees may face additional challenges and risks that your customers should not encounter.

Continue reading “Approaches For Reopening Escape Rooms in a Pandemic”