Priming Puzzles in Escape Rooms

Recently I visited an escape room company where the game began with a small, physical tabletop puzzle in the briefing area. When solved, it provided a small bit of information about the game. Our host then escorted us into the room to begin. At first I thought this was a strange procedure. The puzzle wasn’t difficult and the information it revealed was mostly useless. A story element explained why we had to solve this puzzle before continuing, but it still felt like an odd, yet intriguing beginning. 

A model of half a human brain beside a model of a neuron.

Then, late in the game, we encountered a large, confounding prop with symbols, dials, levers and knobs. While blindly fiddling with it (as all escape room players do) I realized it functioned similarly to the briefing room puzzle we’d solved earlier. A big smile appeared on my face as I realized what was happening. Other puzzles needed to be solved to determine the correct information to input into this device, but because of the priming puzzle, I knew exactly how to operate it. 

The larger prop did not look like the smaller version. Upon first inspection, it was not obvious that I had seen this type of thing before. The realization that I had already been taught how to use it came slowly with a wonderful aha moment. This was genius escape game design.

No Instructions Needed

A complex escape room puzzle often requires written operational instructions or other overt hinting to ensure that players have a fair shot at solving it. This can take some of the magic out of the game. Unknowingly learning those instructions beforehand facilitates a much more enjoyable solve later.

Priming is a well-documented psychological phenomenon in which exposure to one stimulus influences how a person responds to a subsequent, related stimulus.

The idea of conveyance has long been  a staple of video game design. Some of the brilliance of conveyance can be captured in an escape room through the similar concept of priming.

This technique can add a lot to an escape room experience, from smoothing a rough spot in an existing game, to opening up creative possibilities, to helping players understand their roles or characters.

Alleviate A Sticking Point In An Existing Game

If you have a puzzle that consistently causes confusion or is the source of many hint requests, rather than dumbing down the puzzle, or adding extra text or more signposting in the room, consider creating a priming puzzle earlier in the experience. If it is clever and nonobvious, players will feel a sense of accomplishment when they make the connection on their own.

If your game relies on a runbook, or other text-heavy instructions, think about how a priming puzzle might lighten the dependence on the text. If players can intake some of this information another way, they won’t be focused on reading at the expense of what is happening around them. 

Design Games With Priming Puzzles In Mind

Give yourself the creative freedom to try some wilder puzzle ideas, knowing that you can build a priming puzzle into the game to help get the players into the right mindset for what is coming up.

So many escape games show us how to use a directional lock in the briefing and then, “surprise!” there is a directional lock in the game. This lock is actually a puzzle that requires additional knowledge and instruction. So rather than saying, “there’s a directional lock in the room and this is how to use it,” why not create a priming puzzle so that all players will know how to use that lock when they encounter it? You can design a different sort of directional puzzle in the briefing – moving something up, down, left and right – with instructions that will sound familiar when the players encounter the actual lock.

Or flip it around. Show players how to use a directional lock in the briefing, but then in the game, present a larger physical set-piece puzzle with a movable segment that operates similarly to the directional lock. When players encounter the new device, they will have that briefing room memory to clue them towards its operation.

Player Character Development

Priming puzzles give creators a tool to develop the characters that the players will be taking on. If a player is supposed to be an experienced archeologist, adept at translating hieroglyphics, they shouldn’t be encountering these for the first time when they are deep within the great pyramid. The addition of an early, even pregame, translation puzzle would at least familiarize players with the kinds of symbols to look for and the pattern for translation. Their character would already know this. Giving them this baseline knowledge allows you to raise the stakes on later translation puzzles, perhaps combining or reversing symbols to get new meanings.

This type of design can work for any game where players assume identities other than their own.

Avoid Obvious Iteration

Priming puzzles should not simply be easier iterations of puzzles encountered later in the game. Solving an early 3-round Simon puzzle as a warm-up for a similar looking 6-round Simon puzzle later is not exciting. An early Simon puzzle used as priming for a later puzzle that requires players to respond by reproducing the strange sounds and phrasing of an alien language coming over a spaceship’s intercom is much more interesting. Priming should impart vague, even subconscious knowledge to the player. The goal is to reduce the need for cluing the mechanics of the more difficult puzzle. The aha that comes when the connection is made is a terrific payoff.

Pregame vs In-game

There is nothing wrong with including priming puzzles early on in the actual escape room. A more interesting technique is to present them during the pregame briefing. Players will be more focused, without the distraction of the game scenery and the urge to explore. It should be easier to ensure the desired information is received, especially if it is subtle.

A unique pregame puzzle task, required before admittance into the room, can add excitement and immersion to the experience. A higher form of the art of delivering priming puzzles is to add them to the normal pregame routine without the players ever noticing. That is what happened to me in the game I mentioned at the top of this piece. It is the most interesting new escape room twist I have seen in a long while.

We Asked and Gratuitous Sets Answered: Check Out the Videos!

Back in June we asked if you had any questions for Gratuitous Sets.

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We had a ton of fun asking Mark and Matt your questions and hearing their answers.

We hope you’ll check out these informative and hilarious videos by Gratuitous Sets.

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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.

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.