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.

Research Rabbit Holes and Artificial Intelligence with Society of Curiosities [Interview]

Michelle Rundbaken and Yacine Merzouk are the creators behind Society of Curiosities, a tabletop puzzle game company. They offer a quarterly subscription box with a continuous narrative arc, starting with Madok’s Lost Treasure; standalone digital games, including The Bewitched Circus; and a series of lighter tabletop murder mysteries called The Fairytale Files.

As I’ve played through Society of Curiosities’ games over the past year, I’ve been consistently blown away by their artfully handcrafted physical components, engaging puzzle-driven storytelling, and immersive tech. Their deep approach to world building has transported me to intriguing alternate realities closely entwined with our own, and I’ve often wondered: what type of research goes into creating this style of gameplay? And just how deep do Society of Curiosities’ rabbit holes go? Curious to learn more, I opened a Zoom portal to Michelle and Yacine’s Hawaiian oasis for this interview.

Note: This article contains light spoilers for elements of Society of Curiosities’ games.

Yasine & Michelle dressed like they are on safari.

Conversation with Society of Curiosities

What were your backgrounds prior to escape rooms?

Yacine: I was a gamer my whole life, mostly RPGs. I did a bit of freelancing and self-publishing in the D&D space. And I’m a software engineer by trade.

Michelle: I have a background in psychology, education, theater, dance, and art.

You used to own Kauai Escape Room before switching to making tabletop puzzle games as Society of Curiosities. How does designing tabletop games compare to designing in-person escape rooms?

Michelle: Because we don’t have a time constraint in tabletop games, we can tell more story. We can add in more details that you just couldn’t do in an in-person room. We can do a little more on the writing side, too, though we’re still very conscious that people don’t like to read. And we can do anything we want because we’re not in person! We can make you travel to different countries. We can make you time travel. We can blow things up.

Yacine: In person, building the set is a ton of work. It would take anywhere from one to three months after the whole game was designed to just build it. But immersion is automatic. Although storytelling is easier in digital and tabletop games, it’s harder to set the scene and tone and get people to buy in.

Michelle: Also, you have a little more leeway with the set design in a physical escape room because people are moving so fast through different rooms and they don’t pay as much attention to all the little details. But when you send out a physical package, everything has to be spot on. You really have to up your design skills, your attention to every little detail, down to researching certain fonts that would be used in a specific period of time and hiring a person who can do that handwriting. In an in-person escape room, you can get away with just writing things yourself.

Who is your target audience for Society of Curiosities?

Yacine: The recommended age range is 14 and over. The most success we’ve had commercially with Society of Curiosities is the geek crowd, when we were mentioned in Ars Technica. That crowd is like “yes, I want to think in my free time.” Many people in that crowd are gamers. They have the imagination. They will buy into the story and fill in the blanks. They’re comfortable taking it and making it their own experience.

For Fairytale Files, we’re definitely going to a wider mass-market audience. We have a lot of families who’ve played with their kids, especially early teens.

Michelle: That was purposeful for us. Society of Curiosities definitely involves some level of skill, or some level of commitment, when you start. You don’t have to have the skills, but you definitely have to be willing to try and try again sometimes. Fairytale Files is intended to be much lighter — faster wins, fewer step puzzles, all of that.

How do you make the digital elements of your tabletop games not just feel like video games?

Yacine: For our digital interactions, you have to input your “answers” by talking to the characters in the game. It can never be something that you just click or a one-word answer. We want people to be able to talk naturally, and the AI has to be able to pick it up. So for example, in our Fairytale Files games, the map of Fairy is viewable online, but isn’t clickable on purpose. You have to tell your team on the ground “hey, can you go to the tavern?” It feels very different.

Michelle: We had someone early on tell us that they really appreciate that the items in our games are something you have to use. Not something that you see, not just a kitschy item that has a clue on it, because you don’t really need that, but items that you really use and manipulate for a game.

An assortment of maps, star charts, and other beautifully designed items.

When playing your games, I’ve been impressed by the depth and realness of the historical materials. What does your research process look like?

Michelle: We do a lot of research early on. We choose a theme and then we start researching. And that informs a lot of our puzzles. The deeper we can get into a world, the more the puzzles come easily. If you are in a place, everything has a purpose, everything has a reason.

Yacine: For in-person escape rooms, people buy in quickly because of the immersive set. You can get the same effect in a tabletop experience if the initial intake gives you the right vibe. That’s probably where we want to be the most accurate or give the right feel of age and location. And once people buy in, you can have a little more leeway on historical accuracy if you want a puzzle that furthers the story. So we don’t have to be 100% all the time, but we do stay 95%.

What are some examples of small details that the casual player might never notice?

Yacine: People have more time to be nitpicky at home. In The Mysterious Map Heist, our digital game, you trace back something from the 1800s in France. Michelle went to an auction site, found a time-appropriate map, bought the digital rights…. and then someone emailed us after they played the game and was like, “That fort on the map was built 3 years after the game took place.” We left it in, but good on them.

Michelle: For the tattoo of a pirate, we hired a tattoo artist to make a ship tattoo, and it came back and had a marlin jumping and a mermaid at the front and it was stunning. But we had done a ton of research on pirate tattoos, and they were rudimentary. Even the ship we have now is too nice. This poor guy… he had to do three revisions, taking away from his beautiful art, until it was just a ship.

Yacine: The cursive in our games is also time appropriate. The cursive for the pirates game came back so beautifully from a calligrapher, and we were like, “This is way too pretty! This was written by a pirate on a ship. Can you just make it uglier?” And then the game from the ‘30s, The Memory Stone, features an archaeologist in a jungle, so Michelle found an expert on the Palmer method, the handwriting method taught in schools in the 1910s.

How do you approach character development in your games?

Michelle: We make really accessible characters who we design to be upbeat, happy, nonjudgmental cheerleaders. You have to work with them, and they’re who you’d want to work with.

Yacine: For example, in our first game, you’re supposed to be the brains, and there’s an ex-military guy, Steiner, on the ground. At first, people didn’t jive with Steiner — he was too serious — so we lightened him up a little bit, made him more of a lovable, bumbling idiot. In another game, Victor is a consultant who is hired when you unexpectedly end up in Europe. It was originally supposed to be a professor, but then players would defer to his authority because he was a professor. So we just changed him to a likable author character.

Exclamation points go a long way to set whether the character is upbeat or not! And you have to say most things in one sentence! It usually takes us 7 or 8 playtests before we hit the right tone or right objectives.

Michelle: You also need to have contrast — not every character in an experience can feel the same. As with escape rooms, you can use pretty iconic characters. They read well. You don’t need to have as many nuances because we try to keep down on the reading.

A pair of hands holding a sketched pirate treasure map.

Do you have any tricks to help make your characters seem human over text?

Yacine: We have a timer of between 2 to 7 seconds to add a feel of realness, but it’s an illusion. Just a little delay so you don’t get a paragraph right away that indicates “robot”. When a game is new, our hardcore fans get the added advantage that we monitor the AI almost 24/7 for the first few weeks or months until it’s ready to be on its own. We get a text message every single time the AI doesn’t catch something automatically, and most of the time I will respond. By the time more casual players come in, the AI is good enough that they’ll get the same feeling.

Michelle: One challenge we have is when people don’t really buy in and they don’t communicate like the chatbot is actually a person. Those people will start sending just one-word responses, and the way the AI chatbot is programmed, it doesn’t really respond well to that. You have to have prompts when these things start happening like: “Hey, I’m not quite sure why you’re giving me one word. Can you give me a little more?”

Yacine: When people start being monosyllabic, it’s probably when the AI fails the most often. The strength of our games is that you can talk normally.

That’s so impressive. Can you tell me a bit more about the tech that powers these natural language interactions?

Yacine: I build everything from scratch! We have two tech stacks. One is for text messages only, which works really well in the US but wasn’t so hot internationally, so we also added a second stack for web-based messaging.

The SMS stack is just straight-up PHP. It builds on lexical fields databases that are available for free from universities. They give you a bunch of words with their synonyms or close variants. I also built my own lexical fields to supplement the databases. For example, in The Memory Stone, you have to push stones with ancient glyphs — that we actually had designed by a Native American artist so they were in the correct style. But because the drawings are not all obvious, we made sure that something like “four-legged thing” is a correct substitute for “dog” or “jaguar” or “cat.”

From there, I do a lot of work with game state and context. Part of speaking like a human is knowing where you are in the game. Context matters, especially when people use words like “it” or “that”. So “take it” in context could mean “take the shovel.” Another part of the context is if somebody is probably right but they haven’t quite proven it, the AI just needs to say, “I think you’re on the right track. Can you tell me more about what you’re thinking?”

A deck of cards beside white gloves and a top hat.

What’s a problem you’ve encountered that someone might not anticipate?

Yacine: I do a lot of work on character strings (sequences of letters and numbers.) For example, we might be expecting a number as the solution to a puzzle, but we should also accept “the code is 1234” or “one then two then three then four” or “1-2-3-4.” I build my own little libraries that break down strings a dozen different ways and look for things in order. I also work with parts of a word so we can recognize the answer even if there’s a typo in what the player wrote. Let’s say you have a word like “excavation.” The group of letters “exc” or “cav” isn’t going to be in any other word for the context we’re in. If the AI doesn’t know how to respond to an obvious typo, it really takes you out of the game. 

On that note, what AI are you using?

Yacine: I also built it myself! We don’t use a premade chatbot system like a messenger bot.

We started with SMS only. For programmers out there, Twilio does a great job of providing a way for people to send text messages. Then getting the Twilio system to talk to the web and keep track of the answers was challenging. We use a stack called Meteor, which does automatic updates of the webpage. Around 10% of people switch to the web halfway through the game, so we make sure game state syncs between SMS and web. Probably 80% of people choose web-based messaging over text messaging right off the bat.

You also make a TON of different websites for your games! How do you keep track of them all?

Yacine: This is my real expertise. I worked as a web developer for a marketing company for 7 years, and then I had my own web design and software development shop. So building a website for me is where I have the most tricks. I already had the expertise to build websites from scratch. I also did a lot of work with WordPress, so if it’s faster to do it with WordPress, I’ll do that. I have my own server with a ton of storage, so I can build as many websites as I want and we don’t have to pay more for each. If it fits the story, we can just do it.

The other thing is SEO. If I build a website, I’m fairly confident it’ll be picked up within a week or two and rank first. But when we absolutely need to rank first for some things, we need to find a word that nobody else uses. So for example, we sometimes come up with the name for a character which players will have to search for. If the search results have fewer than 8-10k results, essentially nobody is searching for it and you can confidently build a website that Google will pick it up in a week or two. Though we had one time where the website didn’t pick up by when the game was due to launch. So we bought ads for this thing that nobody searches for. You pay per click, so cents every month, and it boosts the ranking.

A sealed letter beside a sextant, a map, and some old coins.

You’re constantly iterating and adding new fancy features to your games. What’s next?

Michelle: With Fairytale Files, we started giving hints within the messaging system. So for the next season of Society of Curiosities, we’ll do that, too. You won’t have to leave the game for hints.

Yacine: Fairytale Files is an easier difficulty level, so there are fewer hints that lead to the solution. There are like 3 hints and then it jumps to the solution. For the first Fairytale Files, we don’t show you the whole list of hints for the whole game, just what’s pertinent to where you are in the game. The next step is going to be you talking to the character to say you need help, and then the character, in their voice, nudges you in the right direction. That’s more challenging to build than it seems.

Michelle: The bottom line is that hints are there to get you unstuck. They should never be hard to access.

One final question: do you have any parting advice for players of your games or folks looking to create games in this style?

Michelle and Yacine: For our players, first of all, thank you! It means so much to us to have players to create for. As far as advice for the games: if you trust the game and trust us, you’ll have a much smoother experience. We promise your team on the ground is not withholding information from you. Also, take the time to take in everything. We love tabletop games because there are no time constraints — so take your time, and have fun!

For creators: immerse yourself in the world of tabletop and online games. See what you like and what areas you feel have room for improvement. Keep a journal of puzzle ideas — we often get the best ideas from puzzles that we don’t like that inspire me to make a “fixed” version. And lastly, after you create, test, test, test. Any area that you see players having problems should probably be tweaked.

Visit societyofcuriosities.com to learn more about Michelle and Yacine’s creations, and follow them on Instagram @societyofcuriosities.

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.