Lisa & David Talk Box One & the State of the Tabletop Escape World on Puzzling Company

Last week we sat down for a lovely conversation with Jared and Zack of the tabletop escape gaming podcast Puzzling Company.

Illustrated Puzzling Company Podcast logo depicts two guys playing a tabletop escape game.

In the first half, we talked about the incredible Box One. In the other two halves, we talked about the state of the tabletop escape room world… there is a lot of episode here (~2 hours and 15 minutes worth of episode).

We talk about the different types of tabletop escape games: mass market, bespoke, and subscription. We cover the product life cycle too. Then we also dig into many of the 11 Principles of Tabletop Escape Game Design. And the conversation goes far deeper.

Give Them A Subscribe

If you’re into tabletop escape games, you should be following Puzzling Company. These guys are doing it right, and for the right reasons.

Checkout their 10 episode catalog with more on the way.

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.

A Conversation with SCRAP on their Approach, Cultural Differences, and Adaptation [Interview]

SCRAP was the first escape room company and over the years we’ve played many of their games. We’ve loved some of their games; others were not to our taste. However, we have been deeply impressed and respectful of the level of innovation that SCRAP has produced.

As a company, SCRAP has invented more escape room formats and twists on the concept than most escape room companies have combined. Outside of Japan, we only get to see a fraction of their innovations.

Interview

In this interview, we talked with the SCRAP Global Team about player preferences and their thoughtful approach to game design.

We took this opportunity to ask all of the questions that we have accumulated over years of playing SCRAP games. Some are deep and heavy questions… others are surface level. Our hope is that all of them help our community better understand this seminal company in their own cultural context.

Background

REA: Before we begin, we have a question that we’ve been wanting to ask for years. Is it “SCRAP” “Real Escape Games” or “REG”? In the U.S. we usually just call you “SCRAP” but we see you using all of these brand names.

SCRAP Global Team: SCRAP (SCRAP Co., LTD.) is the name of our company, and “Real Escape Game” (acronymed as REG) is the brand name for our games. Therefore, it is accurate to say Real Escape Game produced by SCRAP.

The reason why we have the brand name is because while many of our games fall under the category of an “escape game,” we do have a couple of other games that don’t. Besides Real Escape Game, we have other brand names such as Real Stealth Game, city-wide puzzle hunts, and others that don’t fit the criteria of an escape game. Although, many of these different styled games are available only in Japanese, which is why we prefer to use Real Escape Game to collectively represent us outside of Japan.

Players navigating a laser maze made of string.
Real Stealth Games (photo via SCRAP)

We’re excited to learn a bit more about your other game types too, but before we do, let’s start with a bit more background. When was SCRAP founded?

SCRAP was founded in Japan in 2008, and in the U.S. in 2012.

How many escape games has SCRAP produced over the years?

We produce more than 150 game titles each year.

Each year?! Wow. We had no idea. How many escape games is SCRAP currently running?

In Japan, we have 16 physical stores nationwide which are currently running more than 100 room-type games in total. (Some game titles are run across multiple locations). This number does not include our non-room type games such as city-wide puzzle hunts and other unique collaboration events held at venues outside our stores.

How many SCRAP games are currently playable in English?

In total, 13 of our game titles are playable in English, with 2 of them currently available for online play.

Audiences: Japanese & American

With your experience, what are the differences between player expectations in Japan and the U.S.? What makes a successful game in Japan? What makes a successful game in the U.S.?

We believe that fundamentally, players from Japan and the U.S. (and other countries as well) wish for very similar things, for example:

  • A game that is meticulously crafted to take players on an emotional ride, and reaches its climax at the end
  • A satisfying story

In particular, we found that our American players like the following:

  • An action-packed experience
  • Interaction with our actors/ staff
  • Venue decoration/ ambience

They require more than just information on a screen to immerse into a story. The overall atmosphere of the room is more important.

On the other hand, our Japanese players like the following:

  • Elaborate and tricky gimmicks (eureka moments)
  • A puzzle that takes more than one step to complete (complexity)

More than the ambience, our Japanese players were more impressed by almost-impossible-to-solve puzzles and plot twists.

Two players interacting with a tablet.
Real Stealth Game (photo via SCRAP)

Are there design elements that you feel Americans do not appreciate in your designs? Why do you think that is?

We have had the luxury of running our games over 10 years in Japan and 8 years in the U.S., and we have definitely seen some obvious differences. From our experience and extensive customer feedback, we found that compared to our Japanese players, our Americans players are less likely to appreciate the incredibly low success rate, the final plot twist at the end that usually tricks more than 90% of our players, reusing certain game materials and clues (i.e. having to go back to a previous puzzle to solve a later one), and clues hidden in the storyline or introduction sheet.

These are all elements that our Japanese players love and pull them back to challenge our games again and again. Although it sometimes does not resonate as well with our American players, we don’t see it as a negative thing. It is very interesting to learn how to resonate with a different audience, and to find the balance between keeping our style and adjusting it for our American players.

We believe we have put that into practice with our more recent games.

REA: We agree that you have. We’ve watched your games in the U.S. change over the years to become more approachable to these American preferences that you’ve outlined.

In addition to game design, we’re really interested in puzzle design. When you translate a game from Japanese to English, how much do you have to change the puzzles, story, and mechanics to match either local culture or different linguistic structure?

It largely depends on how language-specific the game is when originally created in Japanese. For example, in the past, we had not considered offering the games in English, resulting in games extremely reliant on the Japanese language and culture, making them more difficult to convert into English. However, recently, our team of creators is more aware of this issue, and tries to come up with puzzles that do not require language or specific knowledge (such as the history and culture of Japan). This results in puzzles that rely on symbols, simple math, shapes, colors, and logical puzzles that can be easily localized, and which anybody can solve.

Of course, language puzzles can be extremely fun and clever, so we try our best to include some where the puzzle mechanics are similar to the original Japanese puzzle. The company has also formed, in more recent years, a new division that specializes in translation and localization of the Japanese games, to work closely with the Japanese game creators and improve the quality of the games offered in English.

Besides puzzles, we rarely make drastic changes to the storyline of the titles we decide to localize. If the storyline is heavily based on Japanese culture/ knowledge, we simply choose not to localize that title.

Two players hiding from an armed guard in an art gallery.
Real Stealth Game (photo via SCRAP)

Are there puzzle types in Japanese that cannot be translated into English? If so, can you explain this?

Yes, there are plenty! Just like how English wordplay and puns are almost impossible to explain in Japanese, the Japanese language is very versatile when it comes to its linguistic characters.

In the first place, Japanese has 3 different sets of alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. This gives us so many more ways to play around with words. One word can be presented in all 3 different forms, so we can create a puzzle where players have to convert a word to its equivalent in a different alphabet set to solve it. This cannot be done in English.

Also, a word can have multiple meanings. We utilize this a lot in our puzzles. For example, Japanese verbs usually have more than 1 meaning:

“Dachi no inochi wo kakero” translates to “Bet your life on your comrade,” where the verb “kakero” means “to bet.” However, “kakero” can also mean “multiply” in terms of mathematics.

So most players, due to the context of the sentence, will assume that it reads as the former: “Bet your life on your comrade.” However, what the puzzle actually requires you to do is to “multiply the lives of your comrade” (where you can find the word for your comrade’s “life” hidden among some text.)

Game Styles

We have played most of the escape games that you have produced in the U.S. We are big fans of your work because you try new things, even if we haven’t enjoyed all the games. Whether we love or dislike a SCRAP game, we have noticed patterns and a certain symmetry that exists in your escape games. What would you say is the essence of a SCRAP game? What makes a SCRAP game a SCRAP game?

Our English catchphrase is “Arrive a Player, Leave a Hero.” This is because more than just solving “puzzles,” we place value on our players being immersed inside a story from beginning till end. Our focus is on how we create an experience for our players to really feel like they’ve become a hero who defeats the demon king, a phantom thief who steals a precious jewel, or a detective who solves an unfathomable crime.

This is what drives us to experiment widely with vastly differing concepts. Apart from making the puzzles highly interactive for our players, we are constantly finding new ways for our players to experience to the fullest the feeling of being the main character in a dramatic story.

You have created some incredible new escape room formats such as the projection mapped table game (Spellbound Supper) and the time loop game (The Pop Star’s Room of Doom). Can you tell us about other game formats that you operate in Japan, but have not brought to the U.S.?

Real Stealth Game – Instead of escaping, players have to infiltrate a venue and complete their given mission while avoiding guards (real-life actors) and booby traps! It’s like playing an arcade game in real life where your remaining time decreases if you get shot by the enemy. We have English versions of this type of game available in Japan.

Theme Park Games* – An entire theme park is used as the game venue after operating hours, usually at night. The capacity can go up to thousands of participants playing at the exact same time. Players will receive a game kit and can play individually or in groups, solving puzzles and clearing check points within a fixed time period. We have not had an English version of this type of game yet.

Mystery Mailbox – With a game kit in hand, players walk around one of SCRAP’s game facility’s common areas to pick up clues and solve what secrets lie behind a mysterious letter. This game style has no time limit and can be played leisurely. It is especially good to challenge while waiting to play one of our room games, extremely family-friendly, and often done in collaboration with an IP title. We have English versions of this type of game available in Japan.

The entire game's contents. A lockbox, three envelopes, a yellow sheet of paper, and a replay set.
PuzzBox (2016)

City Hunt Puzzle – Our most well known city-wide puzzle hunt is Tokyo Metro – The Underground Mysteries. This is a puzzle-solving game played while walking through the streets of Tokyo. Held annually since 2014 in collaboration with Tokyo’s largest metro network, we have offered the game in English as well since 2015, for our English-speaking audience living in Japan as well as tourists to Tokyo. It’s a full day activity that takes between 4-7 hours (depending on your skills), and takes you to both popular and hidden spots around Tokyo.

Immersive shows with puzzle solving elements* – Detective Conan at Universal Studios Japan. Players attempt to solve a crime while interacting with real-life actors. Some sections involve watching a theatrical performance by these actors as part of the story.

*Please note that these brand titles in English are not official as we do not have English versions of these games.

We’re especially curious about your Theme Park Games. Are physical elements of the theme park used in the gameplay/ puzzles? How is this style of game similar to or different from the stadium games we’ve seen the U.S. (i.e. Escape From the Walled City)?

Yes, physical elements unique to the theme park are used. Often, players have to ride the park’s attractions to get points, solve puzzles, or find clues. Sometimes players can enjoy the game after the theme park’s operating hours. It is an exclusive experience to enjoy the theme park’s facilities after it has closed to the public.

One example of our theme park games is a regular collaboration with one of the largest theme parks in Tokyo. We have done big name animation series like One Piece and Hunter x Hunter (Japanese only) for this year with them. Operated in a similar style, the game collaborations with this theme park are conducted during operating hours. Players get a game kit and enjoy the park rides alongside nonplayers who are just there to enjoy the theme park rides. The players will know what clues to look out for (as prompted in their game kit), and the clues and rides do not affect the general public who are not players.

An example of the other kind that is conducted at night after operating hours is a zombie-themed game that is held at multiple theme parks in Japan, where everything in the theme park is reserved for players only. This game has been put on hold for now due to COVID-19.

Above, you haven’t talked about the ballroom-style games we’ve played in the U.S. What are your goals for ballroom-style escape games versus single team escape games? And how does this vary by market?

Our single team escape games (Category: Room-type) are designed to attract beginners/ new players, as it is less intimidating to participate in and easier to imagine what the experience will be like. Once they have experienced our classic escape room, ideally they will develop interest in our other content and attend our ballroom-style escape games (Category: Hall-type).

While not true for all our games, our Room-type games are a good mix of original SCRAP titles and collaboration with IP titles, while much more of our Hall-type games are collaboration with big IP titles. This is because a large-scale event has more impact and is more appealing to famous IP titles. These collaborations help bring in a new set of players who are fans of the IP title. Therefore, we attract a lot of new players through our Hall-type games.

Another interesting trend we observed is that our Hall-type games are extremely popular in Japan, but are not so well received in the US.

REA: Because the IP titles are so successful at drawing in new players, and because (in the U.S., at least) the Hall-type games travel to cities that don’t have your room-type games, the audience seems to be largely new players. We never considered that these were designed for returning players, but we think that’s partly why they didn’t stick in the U.S. We certainly assumed the reverse when we reviewed these games.

2020 Innovations

How has SCRAP changed to face the challenges of COVID-19 and 2020?

As with all other escape game companies, we had to close our physical stores for a large part of the pandemic. To make up for this loss, our creators rushed to produce content that can be enjoyed online. Besides creating remote online versions of some of our games, we also started to produce goods like puzzle kits that can be ordered and delivered to your home. When everyone was strictly advised to stay home, these game kits allowed players to play with friends, family, and colleagues over the phone or video call (each party needs to have a game kit) without having to go to a specific location.

We also created a completely new game concept (direct translation: Escape from the Silence) where players attend our physical event venue, but no one is allowed to speak (including staff.) This was thought up as a way to reduce the spread of the virus through verbal communication. (Of course, everyone is also required to wear a face mask to participate.) The entire venue and game is conducted in complete silence, and players have to act out, gesture, and communicate through sign/ body language to solve the puzzles. It is a very bizarre thing to witness, but it was a hit with our Japanese players!

We love this concept and we haven’t heard of anyone else doing this. How many players is it designed for? How often do you run it? Is this something you would continue running once it’s safe to gather in person again?

It is designed for 2-4 players and it runs everyday. While it was developed to be played during the pandemic, we believe that this game would still be very enjoyable even after it is safe to gather in groups again. We will definitely continue to run it, depending on the demand.

In our opinion, Escape From the Alien Research Facility was an especially successful online escape game. What have been some of the challenges that you have encountered adapting your game designs to a global audience on the Internet?

Surprisingly, once the game was redesigned to work online and remotely, we didn’t have that many problems delivering it to our global audience around the world, content-wise. It was a very pleasant surprise!

Escape From The Alien Research Facility promo image depicts a red headset and an alien that looks like a xenomorph.

We did struggle with the time difference in attempting to offer our game to as many countries as possible. There were times our staff had to operate the game at 2am, 4am, and 7am in the morning in Japan.

Also, since our game would now be available to literally every single country in the world, we were more careful in selecting words that could be understood not only by Americans, but globally, especially for players whose first language isn’t English. We had to compromise on some standard American terms such as the word “burner,” which meant different things in American English and British English. We decided to go with a more universal, easy-to-comprehend language even if it sounded a little strange to our American players.

Another challenge (which later turned into enjoyment) was allowing players to interact more with the game staff. It required our staff to be flexible and able to give quick-witted responses to questions and requests outside of our game manual. However, we observed that these extra unscripted interactions gave a personal touch to the game experience and our players loved it.

REA: While we only touched on these select 2020 adaptations in this interview, we know you have more in store for us players. We’re excited about Escape from the Lockdown: The Strange Village (review coming soon), your new online game format that was created in response to the pandemic, specifically to play at home with no time limit. And of course, we’re looking forward to the new ways you’ll invent for us to be the heroes next.

A 3x3 video call tile with 9 different characters and a narrator off to the side. The image is captioned, "the village has a few measures in place."
Escape From the Lockdown: The Strange Village (2020)

Conclusion

We’re thankful to the SCRAP Global Team for their thoughtful answers and willingness to honestly reflect on their work.

As an American, SCRAP feels a bit like an iceberg in that we only see a small portion of the company’s creations in our part of the world. So much of what they do is inaccessible to us.

As one of their gamemasters said to us in an online game, we look forward to a day when “the world isn’t cursed” so that we can visit Japan and play some of these games in real life.

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.