Selling Hints in Escape Rooms & Puzzle Games is Bullshit

It’s time to discuss something that’s dumb, but necessary. 

It has come to our attention that there’s a tiny minority of games that are making their players buy hints. 

I’m not really sure who’s doing it, but someone asked a question about this behavior to the panel that I moderated at the Escape Summit in Canada in May. 

So, let’s get this out of the way once and for all. 

Selling Hints is Bullshit

There is an assumption of fairness in escape room design. While some companies pull this off better than others, at the core of escape room play is the idea that these games will be fair even if they are difficult. 

Selling hints undermines that fairness by introducing a financial feedback loop that encourages bullshit puzzle design. I’ll explain:

If a company sells hints, then they make more money from bullshit puzzle design because bullshit puzzles necessitate more hints. 

This in turn encourages the company to include more bullshit puzzles, which drives more bullshit revenue. 

Bullshit leads to hints, hints lead to cash, cash leads to more bullshit. The cycle loops until collapse.

This loop repeats recursively until the company strangles the life out of their business and closes because they suck. Along the way they will hurt the other local escape rooms by convincing the local player base that escape rooms are filled with bullshit puzzles, and thus depleting the potential customer base.

Digital Games

We’ve seen some this kind of nonsense from digital escape games like the point-and-click mobile escape room Spotlight: Room Escape (that’s not worthy of a link.) We’ve refused to review them.

We just assume that if the game is selling hints, the puzzles are probably bullshit.

We have better things to do with our time and so do you.

What Do We Do About This?

If an escape room company is selling hints, beat the hell out of them on Yelp for it.

Be fair. Don’t hit them with a 1 star review, drop something rational, but explain why this is a problem. Shame them into changing.

Also, alert the local player community. If you have a regional Facebook group, leave a note in there about the company.

The Exception

The one time that I can see “selling hints” to be a viable option is if, and only if, the money is going to a good cause, in the name of the players (not the business).

Same goes for something like a blood drive.

Then even if the puzzles are bullshit, at least there’s a good cause to support.

But then again… maybe check out the cause on Charity Navigator first?

Locking Players In & Restraining Them, Escape Room Meme

Man finds out his name isn't on the list for Hell. Explains that he "Owns an escape room that locks players in & restrains them with police handcuffs." He is brought to "Extra-Hell."

At this point you’re probably thinking, “that’s dark… but kind of funny…” or you’re in the teeny tiny minority of escape room owners who are really pissed off.

If you are in the vast majority of owners who understand the basics of how to run a safe business and are on board with me, feel free to carry on with the rest of your day.

If you’re feeling like telling the dumbass blogger off, come with me on a short history lesson and thought journey before writing a comment that you will probably regret.

Poland Fire

On January 5th, there was a fire in Poland that claimed the lives of 5 teenage girls. The escape room owner is in prison and is expected to serve a long sentence.

We covered it in depth. If you’re unfamiliar with what happened, read up.

As a result, escape rooms are slowly experiencing a crackdown by fire inspectors all over the world.

This Can’t Happen Again

If something like this happens again or happens on American soil, the ramifications will be catastrophic. They will be especially devastating if the company responsible was anywhere near as negligent as the culpable company in Poland.

Most escape rooms aren’t locking players in or restraining them without providing a self-service way of freeing themselves. Most escape rooms are safe.

There are still some companies, however, who haven’t caught on to the fact that it is not ok to lock your players in your games.

Over on Room Escape Artist, we’re all about grey area. This is not a murky subject. If you are still locking players in your games %^&*ING STOP.

If you feel like fighting me on this, I’ll call your local fire marshal to referee the debate.

Escape The Bathroom – Musings on Escape Room Facilities

Let’s talk toilets.

No, I’m not referring to my least favorite prison escape game trope, nor am I talking about when escape room games have bathrooms within the games (which we’ve seen a few times). I’m not talking about the outhouse in Escape Wood’s trailer park game, The Shiners either… although “THERE AIN’T NOTHING IN THE SHITTER!” is still the absolute greatest thing that a gamemaster has ever said to a teammate of mine.

We’re talking about the lavatories available to customers at escape room businesses.

Dan Egnor standing in an outhouse labeled "The Shitter" looking into the toilet.
Guinness World Record Holder Dan Egnor peering into the abyss at Escape Woods.

Review the Loo?

A few times a year someone suggests that we include commentary on the restrooms at the escape room companies that we review.

We just don’t care to devote a segment of each review to washrooms.

Yes, we believe that the state of a company’s privy reflects on the state of the business, how it conducts itself, and how a the company values their customers and their property… but commenting on this doesn’t serve our goals as escape room reviewers.

We care that each escape room company has a water closet available for customers. We care that it works and isn’t vile.

That said, we ain’t fancy when it comes to johns. (I’m starting to scrape the bottom of the synonym bowl here.)

So if we visit an escape room business, use the potty, and see things that cannot be unseen… then yeah… that’s the kind of thing that might turn up in a review.

Escape Rooms Should Scale Up [Design]

Over the years, certain design elements in escape rooms have repeatedly jumped out at us. One such design choice is scale.

Man holding a massive screwdriver.

Make it Bigger

Most escape room interactions can be improved by making them bigger.

Seeing this video reminded me of how much fun it can be when something mundane is blown up to a larger scale.

Choose Wisely

I’m not telling you to make a giant screwdriver. That’s a giant leverage tool and in the wrong player’s hands, things could get ugly fast. I know this.

That said, there are plenty of other items in escape rooms that would be far more interesting if they were larger than life.

Video found via BoingBoing.

The Split Team Regrouping Problem in Escape Rooms

The longer a player or a group of players works within a space in isolation, the harder it becomes for teams to fully reintegrate… and it’s often better for players to stick to the space that they intimately know.

The problem becomes more pronounced over time. It’s barely noticeable if the teams are only split up for a few minutes. When teams spend half of the game split, it becomes an annoyance. When teams spend more than 3 quarters of the game split, it can be downright irritating, even if no one has the language to vocalize it.

Stylized image of a woman's head splitting in two.

The Situation

When a player enters a space that has already been thoroughly searched and solved, that player has three options:

  1. Start playing normally and “find” a ton of stuff that’s already been found or solved. This usually leads to exchanges along the lines of, “hey… did y’all see this little trap door?” A teammate who has been in space from the beginning will have to stop and explain that it’s been found and used.
  2. Stop the entire game while teammates catch one another up on what’s been found, solved, and what still requires the team’s attention.
  3. Stay put. Nobody crosses the boundaries and everyone sticks with the content that they already know intimately.

We had been feeling this problem for years, and only started to put our finger on what was going on last year after playing The Order at I Survived The Room. Prior to identifying it, under circumstances like this, we would just say something like, “Hey… I think it’s easier for me to just solve this.” Which is a polite way of saying, “You don’t know what’s going on and you’re in the way.”

Stylized image of tomatoes and potatoes split up into separate piles.

Our Dominant Strategy

When faced with a challenge like this, if we’re choosing to play efficiently, we usually stick to the spaces that we have mastery over, even when free to roam. 

The pro is that we maintain efficiency. The con is that everyone kind of misses out. Another potential con is that we could really use person A’s skill set in space B and we’re avoiding that situation.

Regardless of what we choose to do, it usually feels like a bit of a wash because getting up to speed on someone else’s mostly solved section of a game is tedious.

Unevenness

It can be challenging to follow this strategy when the spaces are really different from one another. If the other space looks really inviting, as players, we have to go against our instincts to follow this efficiency strategy.

If we instead take the time to fully explore another teammate’s space, some players invariably feel like they drew the short straw, and they would have preferred to spend the majority of their time in the other space, the one the group deems more fun or more exciting.

Stylized image of a road splitting around a mountain.

Mitigating the Regrouping Problem

There are a few ways that we’ve thought of to prevent this problem from emerging: 

  • Limit the amount of time that teams spend split up. This is a problem that becomes increasingly pronounced with time.
  • Once the teams regroup, push them forward into a new space. If the previous spaces aren’t really relevant, then it’s a nonissue.
  • Make all of the puzzles within the split-team portion joint solves, so that seeing the other space feels more like seeing what you’ve already participated in, rather than something new that demands exploration.
  • Don’t bring the team together. If you want split-team gameplay, keep it split the entire time.

The regrouping problem isn’t a gamebreaker, but it can be a late-game momentum killer… which is less than ideal for both players and game designers. Teams should be excited to regroup. That momentum plays a crucial part in building the right vibe for any given moment of a game.

Red Herrings in Escape Rooms [Design]

Red herrings are one of the oldest and strangest debates in escape rooms.

This is an unusual hot-button issue because unlike the public vs. private ticketing debate, there isn’t even consensus as to what constitutes a red herring in an escape room.

A big red fish viewed from head on. It has an intense gaze.

Competing Red Herring Definitions

In my experience, it seems like there are 3 different red herring camps:

  1. Anything not directly related to a puzzle is a red herring.
  2. Red herrings require intentionality.
  3. Anything that is misleading is a red herring.

Camp 1

I don’t think the first definition holds up to any level of scrutiny. This basically suggests that the set is only there as a container for the puzzles. I don’t think that is true or advantageous.

Camp 2

I also don’t think that intentionality can be the measure because nearly every escape room has some non-deliberate interaction in it. If a red herring must be intentional, then an aloof designer – whose game has little intentionality behind it – could never have red herrings.

Camp 3

That leaves us with the definition that anything misleading is a red herring… so let’s play with that idea for a bit.

A school of red fish near the surface of the water.

Types of Red Herrings

Let’s look at a few types interactions that are misleading, intentionally or otherwise.

Fake Puzzles

A fake puzzle is an actual puzzle that resolves to dead end.

One example is a decipherment that translates to an answer along the lines of:

  • “You just wasted your time.”
  • “You should work on something different.”
  • “Unhelpful solution.”

We’ve seen this type of thing a few times .

Fake puzzles are demoralizing. They beg the question: why didn’t you just integrate this into the game?

Ghost Puzzles

Ghost puzzles are any props, writing, or other markings that are left over from a broken or removed puzzle.

These remnants transform into a point of confusion. We’ve written more extensively on the subject.

Puzzle LookAlikes

Sometimes something looks like a puzzle, acts like a puzzle, and quacks like a puzzle… but it isn’t a puzzle.

Maybe this puzzle lookalike was placed there to intentionally mislead or maybe it was a complete accident. Regardless of the intent, if something irrelevant is regularly suckering players into thinking its a puzzle, it’s a red herring.

Escape rooms should not punish people for exploring interesting things in the gamespace. That’s a good way to make a player leave feeling like they wasted their time.

Irrelevant Cool Objects

The red herring that I have really grown to resent most is the really cool but irrelevant object.

When I walk into a game, I’m there for an adventure. I’m there to play. When I look around any given gamespace, my assumption is that the most eye-catching and fun objects in the room will be integrated into the gameplay.

If there’s a periscope in a submarine, I expect that I will use it for something. If that isn’t the case, first I will be distracted by it as I try to use it for a puzzle… and then I will be disappointed by the lack of an interaction. (An inconsiderate player might break the thing.)

A red fish viewed from the side.

Our Definition of Red Herring

The more I think about red herrings as they pertain to escape room design, the more I think that “anything that’s misleading is a red herring” is the correct definition… but that is only half of the issue.

Once something is misleading, the follow-up question should be: is it detrimental?

Fake puzzles, ghost puzzles, puzzle lookalikes, and irrelevant cool objects are almost always detrimental to gameplay.

Additionally, when the majority of teams require the same hint to solve a single puzzle, that puzzle is harming the experience, regardless of whether it is a red herring that causes the teams to falter. This kind of content is junky.

In the end, my feelings aren’t that a red herring = 😡.

My anger is directed toward spending my time with junk content instead of quality content. Unfortunately, red herrings frequently mean junk content.

Eliminate the junk and have your players grapple with quality gameplay.

“It’s Supposed To Be Hard Bro”

The most common red herring defense is, “we put it in there for the challenge; it’s supposed to be hard.”

I like a difficult game as much (or more) than the next puzzle nerd. If a game is going to be hard, however, I want it to come from challenging, interesting, and clean puzzles.

Anyone can make a game incredibly hard by hiding multiple tiny components in obscure places. Difficulty has no inherent value, especially in absence of quality content.

Closing Thoughts

Two years ago, we had dinner with puzzle designer Eric Harshbarger the night before competing in his puzzle hunt Eric’s Puzzle Party 17. At one point in the meal, he told me something that I think all puzzle designers should apply to their designs:

“I never design with red herrings. The players will create their own.”

Our Editorial for Escape Front

With the start of a new year, we reflected on the opportunities and cautions we see in the escape room industry in a guest post for Escape Front.

Escape Front's antique warded key logo.

Discussion Topics

We discussed safety, first and foremost. Safety is on our minds right now, in the wake of the tragedy in Poland and will be a feature in Room Escape Artist reviews in 2019.

We also discussed the following topics that we see as essential to the growth of this industry in 2019:

  • the evolving definition of “escape room”
  • the importance of community
  • the uptick in escape room closures
  • how to design and build for success
  • new avenues for theming
  • why we love collaborations

We’ll likely unpack some of these concepts more at Room Escape Artist as the year goes on.

Thank you to Escape Front for the opportunity to contribute Escape Rooms in 2019: Opportunities & Cautions.

Basic Safety Evaluation in Escape Room Reviews

Update 12:15 pm: Based on reader feedback, we’ve updated some of these standards since this post originally published this morning.

For years we have been pushing for escape room creators to make safer games. We have been speaking out on the issue of safety at conferences as well as addressing safety issues in editorials and reviews.

Immediately after the fire in Poland, we started noting in reviews whether each game had an emergency exit… but that was a quick change.

Moving forward, we are going to apply a more useful standard when evaluating basic escape room safety.

A

Preface

We wholeheartedly believe that the excitement and fun of an escape room comes from the game, puzzles, story, and set design… not from being locked into a room.

Just as a thrill ride will make you feel the threat of falling without injury, a great escape game will create excitement without endangering the lives of the players.

Emergency Exits

The most important aspect of escape room safety is that players have the ability to free themselves in the event of an emergency. There are more and less optimal ways to provide this, but regardless of method, self-freeing is a mandatory safety requirement.

We have observed 4 categories of escape room emergency exits. All reviews moving forward will note the style of emergency exit. We have ranked them in order from most preferred to least preferred.

A+: No Lock

The game is entirely mission-based, or it asks you to escape from a locked door, but there is a different door in the room that is never locked. Regardless of configuration, there is always an unlocked door present to the team.

This is an accepted industry standard.

A: Push To Exit

A large green button labeled:

The team is locked within the room by a maglock (magnetic lock). This door will automatically pop open when the game is over or if the players push an emergency “Push to Exit” button. If power to the maglock is cut at any time, the magnet will automatically open.

This is an accepted industry standard.

B: Emergency Key

The team is locked into the room using a physical lock. There is an emergency key available for the team to open the locked door at any time.

This is an acceptable approach, but less optimal. In a crisis, it requires locating the key – even if it is clearly labeled next to the door – and performing a precise motor function. It could be exceptionally challenging in the dark. It takes more time.

F: No Emergency Exit

The team is locked within the room and there are no emergency exits available to the players. The only ways for a team to exit the game are by (1) completing the game and finding the exit key or (2) being released by someone outside of the game.

This is an unsafe approach to escape room design.

Physical Restraints

While considerably less common, we have noted a similar pattern of approach to physical restraints in escape rooms and grouped them into 4 categories. Similarly, we have ranked them in order from most preferred to least preferred and will note this on all reviews moving forward.

A+: No Physical Restraints

This escape game involves no physical restraints.

This is an accepted industry standard.

A: Push To Release

One or more players are physically restrained at some point within the game. The restraints are maglocked and the players may release the restraints with the push of a button. Should the power fail within the game, electricity to the electromagnet would be cut and the maglock would release on its own.

This is an accepted industry standard.

B: Mechanical Release

One or more players are physically restrained at some point within the game. The restraints have a backup mechanical release such as a carabiner or handcuff safety switch. The players may free themselves at any point.

This is an acceptable approach, but less optimal. In a crisis, it requires some dexterity or physical effort. It could be exceptionally challenging in the dark. It takes more time.

F: No Emergency Release

One or more players are physically restrained at some point within the game. These players have no means of freeing themselves during a crisis.

This is an unsafe approach to escape room design.

Limitations

We are not fire inspectors. There are a great many codes that a fire inspector is supposed to enforce. We don’t have the background, access, or authority to enforce these laws.

We have to assume that the owner of an escape room company is adhering to their local laws and that individual municipalities are enforcing their own laws.

Tracking

During 2019, we will maintain a dataset of basic escape room safety in the games that we play. We will issue a report at the end of the year.

Evolution

These standards and how we approach them will most certainly evolve over time. We welcome input.

Open Reviewer Standard

In the interest of encouraging safe game design and making it easier for all players to find games that they are comfortable entering, we welcome any reviewer to apply these standards within their reviews.

We also welcome any reader who visits a game we had previously reviewed to leave a comment on any Room Escape Artist review with the date visited and the safety standard.

Note that there are a few reviews scheduled to publish throughout January 2019 that predate this blog post. They will only have basic yes/no on the question of emergency exits.

5 Dead, 1 Injured in Polish Escape Room Fire

Updated 12:51pm Eastern:
Additional information has been added. 
Updated 12:05pm Eastern:
All suspicions previously published, confirmed. 

Heartbroken and infuriated best sums up my mindset as I write this piece.

A dying rose against a black backdrop.

What Happened?

I can confirm the following information:

  • There was a fire and an explosion in an escape room in Koszalin, Poland on January 4, 2019.
  • Two reliable sources have confirmed that this tragedy occurred at the To Nie Pokój escape room.
  • Five 15-year-old girls were killed from smoke inhalation while celebrating a birthday.
  • A 26-year-old gamemaster was seriously injured. It has been reported that he tried to help the girls in the room.
  • The fire broke out in the lobby as a result of an unsealed gas cylinder. The girls were locked in a room with no emergency exit.
  • Polish authorities have instructed the chief commander of the State Fire Brigade to conduct inspections of all escape room facilities. Many companies have received inspections today.
  • In absence of clear escape room safety standards, fire inspectors are applying arbitrary safety standards to the escape rooms that they are inspecting. From region to region, inspectors are focusing on different problems, some more significant than others.
  • A result of the uneven inspections is that in some instances, good escape room companies are being denied the right to operate, while some bad companies are being given clearance.
  • Many companies in Poland are experiencing cancellations or calls asking questions about safety from their customers who had booked games prior to the fire.
  • This story has made international news.

My Thoughts

The thought of 5 girls entering an escape room to celebrate a birthday and never leaving breaks my heart and enrages me.

For years we have been writing about safety in escape rooms. Lisa and I have appeared on stage at conferences in four different countries (one of them being Poland) and spoken of the need for all escape room companies to make fire safety a top priority. While a great many escape room businesses abide by fire codes and think through their safety protocol, not all of them do, especially the bottom tier of the industry.

I wrote this post on fire safety while I was in Poland last year. I’m not going to reiterate my thoughts on the subject here.

One additional thought: any escape room operator who isn’t interested in fire safety should close their doors for good.

Speculation

Based on what I am hearing, I suspect that the owners of the escape room company in question will be charged with criminal negligence.

Effects on Poland

This may be a meteor strike to the Polish escape room market. We won’t know the effects for some time.

I suspect that many companies in Poland will not survive the coming months because they will not be able to meet safety standards.

I think that the Polish player base has shrunk dramatically and permanently as a consequence of this tragedy.

In addition to questions about what kind of standards will emerge in Poland, these questions remain: how much damage has been done to the player base? Will this strangle additional Polish escape room companies that do meet safety standards?

International Effects

This is in the press (CNN, Polish news website in translation). We don’t know how far it will go or which countries will internalize this news. I suspect that the answer is “many” and rightfully so.

I assume that fire inspectors everywhere will be aware of this incident, and will tighten the reins on escape room companies within their jurisdictions. Fire safety should be paramount.

I suspect that some countries will pass legislation regulating escape rooms or, more likely, loop escape rooms into already existing amusement legislation. This will force all companies to take safety issues more seriously, and probably force many out of business.

I hope that this tragedy does not stain the entire industry. There are many people who already had an inherent fear of the concept of an escape room. For those who seek validation, this tragedy will serve to confirm those fears.

In our experience, the overwhelming majority of escape rooms do not lock players in. This fact has not been adequately conveyed by the news pieces that I have read covering this story, all of which included passages akin to the BBC’s, “Escape rooms, in which participants are locked in a room and must solve a series of puzzles in order to get out, are popular around the world.” This will undoubtedly instill additional fear in readers.

A Change for Room Escape Artist

Starting this year, our reviews will call out whether or not the company locks players in without an easily accessed emergency exit. We’ve frequently discussed it, but this will become a permanent fixture in our reviews moving forward.

We are not in a position to judge compliance with fire safety laws or guidelines, but we can do more to shine a light on companies that are obviously failing in their duties to their players.

A Change For Escape Room Owners

We love escape rooms. We love this industry. It’s time for every escape room operator to decide that they want to contribute to a safe escape room market. Or get the hell out.

There is an escape room creator who just spent their first night trying to sleep with the lives of 5 girls weighing on their conscience.

There are 5 girls whose parents just spent their first night looking at empty beds.

This shouldn’t have happened and it should never happen again.