New in Escape Rooms: Drive-In Adventure

Entry banner for the drive-in escape adventure.

Challenge Inspires Innovation 

I recently completed a series on escape room innovations. Now I’ve come across an interesting example of how the challenges of 2020 continue to inspire new escape game design.

When he decided to close his indoor games because of COVID-19 case numbers in Michigan, Patton Doyle, Owner and Designer at Decode Escape Rooms, created games that could be played from outside of his facility. This included a new drive-in adventure – complete with lighting, sound and effects – that players experience from their cars.

Decode Escape Rooms currently operates in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan, with a Detroit location coming soon. Their Ypsilanti game The Aurora Society (currently temporarily closed due to COVID) won a Golden Lock Award in 2019. Their new drive-in adventure takes place at the Ann Arbor location.

Patton recently told me more about this new game format.

Can you describe your new drive-in game?

Doyle: The Doc is testing his new teleportation device, but something has gone wrong and he needs your help! Guests park their vehicles behind our building and work together using two smartphones to save the day. The main display is projected onto the back of our building, sound is piped in via the car radio, and the guests’ actions trigger lights, sound, and other special effects around their vehicle as they play.

Projection of an escape room like environment. Includes a door and a mysterious technological contraption.
Drive-in projection

Is it appointment-based and ticketed like a traditional escape room?

Doyle: The game is by reservation so that groups don’t overlap. Access to the game and resetting is handled automatically so that guests don’t have to interact with anyone during their experience. The game is managed entirely remotely via cameras, a web interface, and a phone number for help. Hints are also provided within the game interface.

What are the hardware and software you use to operate the game?

Doyle: We’ve used our own control software for all of our games for the last several years. To adapt it for this game, we added the ability to trigger events from the open internet. It’s free and open source software, so anyone is welcome to try it out. They can reach out to me (patton@DecodeDetroit.com) if they need help setting it up.

The online interface is written using standard web tools (html, javascript, css) and hosted with Firebase. The free tier of Firebase is so generous that we haven’t had to pay anything for it (yet).

For hardware, we used a projector and radio transmitter, a couple of smoke machines, and various DMX lights and light controls. The projection-mapping was all done in Blender (also free and open source software).

A parked car surrounded by lights and artificial fog.
Drive-in effects

Where did the idea come from?

Doyle: The idea is an evolution of the outdoor game we ran this summer. That game, Around the World in 30 Minutes, required guests to complete a sequence of travel challenges in the large picture windows in front of our building using their smartphones. Our drive-in game took some of the same ideas and added more elaborate special effects, greater teamwork (guests collaborate across two devices), and, of course, a vehicle to keep them warm (since we’re located in Michigan). 😊

Two people on their phones in front of a window display.
Around the World in 30 Minutes

What hardware and software do the players need?

Doyle: Guests only need a smartphone and a vehicle with a functioning radio. The entire game is browser-based, so guests don’t need to download an app or bring any special tools or devices with them.

What is the length of the game?

Doyle: Guests have 90 minutes to play, but the typical game takes about an hour. We’ve found that unlike a traditional escape room, guests are much more likely to begin their game late, so we want to make sure they have plenty of time to finish.

How is the drive-in game affected by weather? Rain or snow or extreme cold?

Doyle: The game is open in any mild weather (rain, snow, cold, etc.), but we plan to close it during blizzards and other extreme weather events for safety. Guests can reschedule their reservation anytime without fees or penalties, so if they decide it is too cold or the roads are too slippery, they can pick a different date to play.

How has it been received so far?

Doyle: The response has been fantastic. The guests I’ve spoken with all asked when we were coming out with another similar game. Even though the game is an unfamiliar format, people are willing to give it a try, and it exceeds their best expectations.

Is there a post-Covid future for this game or others like it?

Doyle: We hope to keep this game open throughout 2021. With summer nights in Michigan, we’ll have to make some changes, as it doesn’t get dark until 10pm. But I’m a big believer in the potential of games that break the standard escape room format. We’re always working to expand our offerings into new formats, whether that’s a scavenger hunt where puzzles are hidden inside local businesses, a short, replayable game that requires guests to learn each time they play, or a new outdoor game that takes guests out into the community.

A packed bookshelf with a framed Decode logo attached to the side.
Scavenger Hunt

Conclusion

The escape game format has undergone some tremendous changes over the past year. New styles and ideas are popping up all the time as everyone tries to adapt to changing conditions and business rules. 

There is something fun about driving to an escape game, instructions coming over the radio, and experiencing lights, smoke, and sounds all around the car. It is an immersive, real-world adventure, very different from a game played through a laptop screen.

This is an idea that really leaves an impression with me. I hope to learn about more companies leaving the traditional comfort zone and offering customers the chance to play something different.

Extra Long Escape Rooms Need Intermissions

I’m gonna overshare a bit.

While we didn’t play very many real-life escape rooms in 2020, we did play quite a few games with 1.5 to 3.5 hour game clocks.

Intermission

Once you hit the 2-hour mark, I think a game is what I’d call “extra long,” and consequently I think that these games generally need an intermission. Paradox Project in Athens, Greece, does this. They have snacks, drinks, and most importantly, bathrooms available.

The snacks and drinks are phenomenal, rejuvenating, and make for a more pleasant experience… but I think they are a nice-to-have.

The bathroom break is essential.

A very white bathroom.

Immersion is impossible when you have to pee

The other day I streamed The Avengers, and paused it so I could relieve myself in the middle.

It got me thinking about when I went to see all of the movies in this stupid long series… and how each time I had to pick a moment that seemed slow to dart out of the theater. I don’t like to miss anything in a movie (or an escape room), but missing a couple of minutes is better than not being able to follow the story because nature is calling.

The movie theater business is in trouble. It was in trouble before 2020, partly because these blockbuster movies have gotten way too long, without an intermission. Going to a movie theater is simply less comfortable than viewing movies at home. All of these old movie executives certainly can’t make it through their own movies without a bathroom break.

All I’m suggesting is that as we see some of these extra long, blockbuster escape rooms open, let’s do what Paradox Project has already established… and remember that player comfort is essential to player immersion.

The Quest for Replayability [Innovation Interview Series]

This is the fourth in a series of interviews about innovations that enhance storytelling, the next frontier in escape rooms.

Replayability is a kind of holy grail for escape room owners. The idea of creating a single escape room with a single buildout and then having customers return to play, and pay for it multiple times, is an appealing one. Hatch Escapes in Los Angeles, CA, is taking on the quest for replayability.

Hatch Escapes’ first game, Lab Rat, was ranked #12 in the 2019 TERPECA results. That gives me some confidence in their commitment and ability to pull off something as ambitious as The Ladder, a replayable escape room. I think the ideas they are testing could potentially change the future of escape room design and escape room storytelling.

I want to thank Terry Pettigrew-Rolapp and Tommy Wallach, the founders of Hatch Escapes, for answering the questions I had and for just chatting with me about escape rooms!

6 color promo image for the game.

Play it again?

Escape rooms are usually focused around puzzles, and most puzzle games don’t lend themselves to replay. Like a magic trick, once you know the solution, you don’t ever need to see it again. Once you’ve seen the ending to an escape room—assuming it has a story at all—you’re probably not interested in seeing it play out a second time.

Hatch Escapes is trying to change that with The Ladder. They are designing a game you will want to replay. A game you can get better at, where playing better is rewarded with more of the story. Their idea is that this will be an escape room that you can return to after a few days, or a few months, or a year, and have different experiences. It is a game where if you replay with a different group of people, you won’t have to hold back or keep the ending a secret. This is going to be something different from the norm.

How Are You Challenging The Escape Room Norm?

Pettigrew-Rolapp: I think we need to challenge the “single-time play” thing. This is a fixable problem. Right now, escape rooms aren’t re-playable because they depend upon puzzles with binary solve states. All we need to do is design puzzles that can be solved multiple ways or that can self-iterate. The video game industry solved this problem decades ago. I think this problem goes away in the next few years.

Plus, we think a number of truisms about escape rooms need to be challenged. Why have we taken for granted that escape rooms can’t be re-playable? That they can’t support compelling, complicated, moving stories? That they can’t have branching narratives? That they need countdown timers? That they’re essentially IQ tests? We think these “truisms” need to be challenged.

Wallach: I’ll add only that the solution to “single play” is mostly quality of experience, with a side order of cutting back on Terry’s aforementioned binary solve states. People play video games over and over, even when they know exactly how everything will play out. Part of this is because many games have narratives that reward multiple playthroughs (as The Ladder does), but I don’t think that gets at the heart of the issue. The multiple endings are the cherry on top. The sundae is the simple joy of playing the game. The trouble with binary solve-state puzzles is that they usually aren’t all that fun to do. Most video games are technique- and process-based, rather than “solve” based, and some escape games, like our next one, are going to move into that space too. But more generally, if the experience is joyful enough, people will come back just to do the exact same thing all over again, as they do when they rewatch a movie or piece of theater, replay a video game, or reread a book.

How Do You Make An Escape Room Replayable?

Wallach: First, some background: each segment, or room, of The Ladder corresponds to a decade. You have a limited amount of time in each room before you’re forced to move on to the next one. In other words, there is no “completing” a room.

We came at replayability from two angles. First, the majority of the gameplay is scored puzzle games. Some of them will have small learning curves to them. Since you are only in each individual section of the game for 10-12 minutes, you are not going to get through all of the puzzles in that amount of time. When you return, that learning curve will be gone and you will be able to earn a much higher score. Each room will have three of these scored puzzles. Because you will be playing with a group, you effectively won’t have any recollection of the many mini puzzles that make up those games.

It is important to mention here that the ending of the story partially depends on the scores from these games. You won’t just come back to try and get higher scores; you will come back to get the story endings associated with higher scores. The low score endings aren’t just fake endings. They are all fully complete story endings, but if you want to get a different story and a different ending, you can come back and get a higher score.

The other angle of replayability is that each of these rooms also has traditional escape room-style epiphany-based puzzles. Now these puzzles are not really replayable because once you know how to solve them the fun is gone. However these puzzles are completely optional. Again, the rooms are timed, so after 10-12 minutes you move on to the next room whether you’ve solved the puzzles or not. However, a secret bonus room that you normally wouldn’t see is gated purely by solving all the epiphany-based puzzles and not by the scored puzzles.

Once again, your ending is determined by your score, how many of the epiphany-based puzzles you solve, and a couple other decisions you make during the game. You can choose from several avatar characters to embody as you play. Each of these will have different choices you can make throughout the game.

We don’t want people to feel that we are trying to play a trick on them, where they played it once and didn’t get the full experience so they feel they have to come back to see the real ending. That is the hardest thing from a design perspective.

There is no fail state to the game. There are just different endings for your character.

Teaser image for the Ladder depicts a rendering of the game.

How does replayablity aid in storytelling?

Wallach: Replayability is dangerous, in some way, to storytelling. It forces you to be somewhat vaguer and fuzzier in everything you are doing. It forces you to leave open doors that usually you would be able to close with a very satisfying thud. The key for us was having all the different paths that lead to all the different endings. There is still a main story going on with twists and secrets, but the truth is, until you solve all the escape room-style puzzles, you do not get the complete story. There is another secret backstory going on that is only hinted at. Replaying can fill in the blanks in the story and flesh it out. 

It is probably easier to tell a story with a traditional escape room structure. Replayability provides the branches and paths, and the overall volume of story that can be discovered over multiple playthroughs.

How can escape room storytelling be improved?

Wallach: The number one escape room pet peeve I have, and it’s nobody’s fault, but it is something we are desperately trying to fix, is this notion of manically, frantically rushing because you are on a time constraint and you are desperate to get to the end. I understand why the industry started that way, but it’s a real shame because I think it has made it incredibly difficult for us to develop the medium. Players aren’t paying attention to anything that is happening. They are just desperately looking for puzzles and desperately trying to finish them. They are shouting over each other and they are grabbing things because they are just so, so desperate to finish.

With The Ladder, each room is under a time constraint, but there is no fail state. Everything is moving forward and you are going to successfully complete the experience no matter what you do. You are going to have an ending to the story. 

The hope is that we can start to move people toward a slightly more relaxed experience. This is both for enjoyment’s sake, because I think it is a little more enjoyable to not be rushed, but also because in traditional escape rooms, it is really difficult to tell a story. Whenever the story is happening, the players are focused elsewhere: “where are the puzzles?” and “can I be working on the puzzles?” and “can I use this time to solve the puzzles?” We want to tell players, “No, don’t use this time to solve puzzles. Imagine that at this time you are watching a very short movie and you should only focus on enjoying that.” That is a really hard change to make because of the way escape rooms have conditioned players, but we are trying.

Telling better stories & telling stories better

Wallach: The aspirations in escape rooms, from a narrative perspective, have been low. The same way they were with video games early on. It’s just genre tropes and the same clichés over and over again. But there are so many brilliant people already working in the escape room industry that I have no doubt they will be able to tell stories well. It’s just that we have to get our brains turned on to telling better stories.

Pettigrew-Rolapp: We think escape rooms have the potential to be awesome. One can look back and see innovative forms of storytelling developing in our culture over time: epic poetry, theater, novel, movie, and video game. Escape rooms are the next great storytelling medium. They are about as developed now as film was in the early 1900s, or as video games were in the early 1980s. They are cute, fun, awkward little creatures covered in acne. We’re in this to help escape rooms grow up. There is no universe in which we would consider trying something safer or simpler. It’s not why we’re here.

One thing to keep in mind: the best games take a long time to build. My guess is that there are probably a dozen excellent games currently being developed by as-yet unknown entities here in the States. They’re just still baking.

In The Oven

I love that thought. Amazing, unknown new escape rooms are out there baking. Hopefully they are employing some of the ideas I presented here, as well as new, bigger ideas that will continue to push the medium forward.

Story and storytelling are the future of escape rooms. What we remember are the experiences and the feelings we have when playing these games. Puzzles and sets add a tremendous amount, but they don’t make us cry, or think hours later, “what if I was the killer/ victim/ hero of that scenario?” Stories have a power that those other elements don’t possess and there is something about the way all those pieces come together that creates meaning. It creates art.

Immersive Theater in Escape Rooms [Innovation Interview Series]

This is the third in a series of interviews about innovations that enhance storytelling, the next frontier in escape rooms.

“Take me to a place I have never been. Make me into someone I could never be. Let me do things I could never do.” -Lee Sheldon, on what game players want

Strange Bird Immersive in Houston, TX

My wife likes to play escape games. In fact, she has played more than I have. However, she raises an eyebrow every time I start going on about traveling thousands of miles to play the next great game on my list. She usually gives in and tags along, not reluctantly, but because she’s suspicious about my promises that it will be worth it. 

As we left Strange Bird’s The Man From Beyond and walked to our rental car, she punched me in the arm. I looked over. She had tears in her eyes and a big bottom lip. With a laugh, half mad at herself for being emotional and half laughing at herself for being emotional, she said, “escape rooms aren’t supposed to make me cry.” 

As we headed to dinner with our two sons and talked about what we had just been a part of, she teared up again thinking about it. That is The Man From Beyond. 

Image via Strange Bird Immersive

That is the power of story, the power of immersion, and the possibilities that become available through the proper use of immersive theater in escape rooms. It’s what turns a game into an experience.

The Man From Beyond was ranked #3 in the 2019 TERPECA listing, the highest ranked room in North America. My vote helped it get there, even if just a tiny bit.

I reached out to Haley E. R. Cooper, co-artistic director of Strange Bird Immersive and author of Immersology.com, to learn more about using immersive theater in escape rooms and about their creative process. Her response was inspiring.

Why combine immersive theater with escape rooms?

Cooper: Strange Bird Immersive is an immersive theatre company first and foremost—we just happen to enjoy making escape room stories. 

When we played our first escape room, we were inspired because it had all the features of immersive theatre. The world surrounds you and the audience has agency. It was just missing the theatre element of quality, live storytelling.

Why does it work?

Cooper: Adults crave adventure—the kind of adventure kids play-act all the time—but they need someone to create it for them. It needs to be serious, beautiful, and believable for them to feel unselfconscious, in order to slip into play-acting without feeling silly. We rarely find ourselves in situations that inspire us to act differently than we usually do. Immersive theatre is our doorway to that, and we aim for you to leave Strange Bird Immersive changed.

How does it work?

Cooper: Where most escape rooms start the imaginary world with puzzles and the 60-minute clock, Strange Bird Immersive immerses you in a believable world from the moment you cross our threshold, creating a more cinematic experience from start to finish. We never mention the word “escape room” on site. Players meet characters living in that world, giving the game a stronger sense of reality.

Our characters travel with the team of players creating the opportunity for a deeper relationship between character and team, while still using the actor-in-the-game in a disciplined format, never upstaging the game itself. 

We like to think of escape rooms less as a series of puzzles and more as an opportunity to make discoveries about your environment. Manipulating environments is insanely empowering.

How important is story in your experiences?

Cooper: Strange Bird Immersive’s heart is storytelling. We’ll never create an experience without the complex emotional roller coaster of a good story. I think the industry isn’t designing yet with story in mind. Most creators are focused on puzzles or set-magic (coming, respectively, from puzzle or haunted house backgrounds). I think the best games are memorable ones, and that’s the craft of theatre. Drama. Change. Emotion. In time, the games that live on will be the ones thinking about it more as an art form than a revenue stream.

We value most giving our guests the chance to engage in an imaginary world, befriend characters, and become heroes in that world. We want it to feel real, to get under your skin—we want you to dream about our experiences. That’s not a goal of most designers right now. We should set our sights higher. There’s so much potential for this art form to be fundamentally transformative.

Potential

Potential is the perfect word to use when discussing combining immersive theater with escape rooms. Nothing puts players into the world of the game more than interacting with characters that already live there. The potential to deliver memorable, meaningful stories that really reach the audience and make them feel. That becomes possible with the use of tools like well-designed and well-performed immersive theater. That is the point where escape games become something more.

Strange Bird Immersive’s next in-person project, Lucidity: A Dream Escape Room, is currently being built and has the potential to be something special.

Book By Time [Innovation Interview Series]

This is the second in a series of interviews about innovations that enhance storytelling, the next frontier in escape rooms.

In 2019 Off The Couch of Santa Clara, CA acquired 3 popular games from Evil Genius Escape Rooms of Los Angeles, including Chapter 3: The Morgue which landed in the #7 position in the latest TERPECA ranking. These games helped form a base on which Off The Couch built their newest project Pandorum.

The game clock and the frenzy that comes with it as we try to escape before it ticks down are standard practice in the escape room industry. But is that really the best way to experience everything the creators have provided for us? Playing for speed isn’t always the most fun.

A futuristic skyline.

About Pandorum

Pandorum is a single, 3-chapter game requiring several hours to play from start to finish. The innovative idea employed by Off The Couch is a system that allows players to buy blocks of time and then play the game at their own pace. Never feeling rushed, they have time to explore, understand, and appreciate the entire game and the story it tells.

For creators, once they decide to allow teams to move at their own pace, opportunities arise for additional story and even optional content. They don’t have to worry about fitting everything in 60 minutes.

Pandorum incorporates several interesting ideas, but the book-by-time innovation is something I am interested in keeping an eye on going forward. It is an adaptation that has tremendous possibilities with regard to storytelling. 

Pandorum currently has an uncertain future. Check in with Off The Couch for the latest details.

Nick Schilbe, sometimes known as Panda, owner of OTC, told me more about Pandorum and the reasons behind the book-by-time system:

A morgue with a body on a slab.

Why Book By Time?

Schilbe: We are moving away from the concept of “getting out / doing X in Y amount of time” for this game after reviewing data on hinting in our previous games. As part of our games, we offer an unlimited number of hints. After reviewing all of our hint data, it turns out that almost 80% of all hints asked for by our players are asked for in the last 10-15 minutes of a game. The players simply don’t want to lose the game and will rapid-fire ask for hints at the end just to see all of the content. This creates two things that we dislike:

1) Players have to rush through the final puzzles, which most commonly include the best puzzle or the main, climactic puzzle. This also means they are rushing through any ending story elements. As a game designer, we want players to see all of the content the way that it was meant to be played instead of rushing through it.

2) Players are not playing the way they would otherwise play. We feel that if a player wants to play quickly and ask for tons of hints, they should be allowed to do that. On the other hand, if a player wants to ask for zero hints, they should also be allowed to do that too. 

To solve these problems we made Pandorum a book-by-time (instead of a book by slot) kind of game. Players can buy as much time as they like for Pandorum. When their purchased amount of time runs out, we save the players’ status and progression in the game. When they come back, they purchase more time and simply pick up where they left off, just like in a video game.

A couch in a strangely lit living room like space.

What is the key to your system?

Schilbe: The ability to save game progress is a huge game changer for us. It allows us to create more elaborate and longer game experiences. This means the stories are more complete, the players get a chance to become more immersed in the environment, and we get to experiment with more innovative ideas when it comes to puzzles.

What other video game concepts are you employing?

Schilbe: Pandorum plays more like a real-life video game than a traditional escape room. It still has all of the puzzle elements that people have grown to love about escape rooms, but it also introduces some new mechanics: side quests, classes, experience points, levels, and in-game items. The side quests serve as additional puzzles that make the game seem more realistic and can unlock prizes like in-game currency, exclusive souvenirs, and even additional game time. 

We are also pushing the idea of player agency as an important part of the game. Most escape rooms follow a linear path and every outcome of every puzzle is the same. We wanted the players to feel more involved in how the game plays out by having their choices and actions impact future parts of the game. 

For example, there are segments of the game where the players have to accomplish something in a certain amount of time. Success and failure result in different outcomes with potentially different experiences.

An art gallery.

How long will a full playthrough take?

Schilbe: The length is a bit of a moving target, but we are expecting the average player to take around 4 hours to get through the main story of the game. There will also be the side quests that introduce more gameplay, if the players pursue them.

Take Your Time

Almost every escape room player appreciates when a game operator pauses the clock and allows the team to continue playing past the deadline. Being able to book as much time as desired and knowing up front that you will be able to experience a deeper level of game detail and more story is an exciting concept. 

Most storytelling media do not benefit from being rushed. We’d all want our favorite scenes or chapters to be extended, to be in that fictional world just a bit longer. Escape rooms are our chance to live inside of compelling stories. Book-by-time can allow us to more fully enjoy where the story goes. We can appreciate it, take it in, experience it… rather than race against the clock in the moments where the storytelling might be at its best.