Streaming Real-Life Hitman

Back in 2016, some folks painstakingly created a real-life version of the video game Hitman, where players verbally commanded an actor through a mansion, with the mission of eliminating a target.

Hitman approaching a mansion.

Aside from being phenomenally well-executed, this video is playing with ideas that I think we’ll see more of in the future as streaming games become more prevalent.

Also… can someone make a game where I drop a statue on a nemesis? I didn’t know that I needed that in my life.

The Surprising Immersive Effect Of Avatars In Online Escape Rooms

I believe a wonderful opportunity exists for the future of online escape rooms. Furthermore, this opportunity can translate back into in-person games.

For me, a truly stellar real-life escape room makes me feel like I’m in a different place, solving puzzles as the hero of my own adventure. I wasn’t expecting to find that feeling in online versions. 

This spring we’ve seen a surge in online escape room offerings from companies all over the world due to the widespread shutdowns resulting from COVID-19. As I explored these games, just trying to scratch that escape room itch, I was surprised to discover that the impact of immersion remained, even as I played in my own home. While I was able to feel somewhat immersed playing some of the digital+paper play-at-home games like The Insiders and The Lost Temple, the avatar-led playing more often delivered.

First-person view of a hand reaching out.

Avatars in Remote Play Escape Rooms

Avatars are used in many video games. An avatar is an image or character that represents the player. In an online escape room, an avatar is a real person inside the actual, physical escape room, connected by video and audio technology. They act as the players’ eyes, ears, hands, and feet as they play through the game in real time. However, the avatar can be so much more than that.

My initial reaction to the avatar was that it would be an annoying contrivance. I wanted to experience the sets, lighting, sound effects, tech, and reveals. I thought it would seem forced and hokey to experience the avatar focusing my attention on what they already knew I should be focused on.

After playing a few avatar-led remote escape games, however, I realized the sets and lighting didn’t come across as impressive on video. Sometimes sound effects were hard to understand and detracted from the game as I tried to communicate with my teammates. I was surprised to realize that usually the avatar themself made the game enjoyable. 

Different Styles Create Different Experiences

Some of these remote game hosts are neutral. Not playing a character in the experience, the host waits quietly for the players’ instructions and tries to be as invisible as possible. This provides the most accurate representation of playing the game as it would be in real life. For me, though, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Other hosts take the job to a more rudimentary level, requiring players to tell them almost every physical move to make. Giving step-by-step directions for intuitive tasks can take the fun and excitement out of the game. Sometimes this approach might be an attempt to add difficulty or slow down the pace of play. It doesn’t seem to serve any other purpose and can be frustrating as a player.

When it is done right, however, remote game hosts can be something special. An in-character avatar who acts as a member of the team can take a simple escape room and turn it into an enjoyable, immersive online experience. 

Avataring as Art Form

There should be a reason as to why the avatar is there and we, the players, are not. It should be clear that the avatar needs our help, but they should not be helpless. When the avatar realizes the players have solved a puzzle, they should be excited and eager to perform the required physical maneuvers without step-by-step instruction.

Skilled avatars can use their character to control the pace of the game. They can set the pace without stalling for the sake of stalling through avatar-player interactions playing on humor, anger, fear, confusion, inebriation, or any other story-driven reason to engage the players for a minute or two. They can also use their character as another puzzle aspect in the game. We could have to figure out how to motivate, console, or handle our proxy player, trying different techniques to find the optimal results. R. Fimblewood in The Secrets of Eliza’s Heart is an example of an avatar that needs such attention.

A hand holding a wax sealed envelope as the holder approaches a stairwell.
The Secret of Eliza’s Heart

Increasing Immersion

A good live game host asks questions of the players and discusses the storyline and its characters. They remind the players about character motivation and point out how that explains some of the puzzles or other in-room items. These things would often get overlooked during a real-life playthrough of the room, as we rush to escape in time. The avatar can draw us deeper into the world of the game, not in the normal pregame story spiel that many players ignore, but at a slower, more digestible pace as we play through that world. 

An avatar breathlessly telling us, in the moment, about the importance of an item we seek, can be far more immersive than trying to remember that same information from the pregame briefing video. The avatar’s expressed excitement or relief upon finding the item can be more thrilling and informative than in a real-life playthrough where we might be confused about what we have just uncovered.

An avatar can set the mood in the room by describing what they see, hear, and feel. A chill in the air, a faint sound, or the feeling of being watched can all be conveyed to the players without the use of any tech or in-room effects. Overacting and just plain bad acting are dangers, of course, but that can be mitigated with planning, practice, and experience. 

Adding Extra Value – Online and Off

Good avatars can add value to older-style escape rooms that lack the bells and whistles of tech, sets, lighting, and sound design. Save Kings Landing and Ready Mayor One are examples of games that are probably much more enjoyable when played virtually. They are memorable because of the fun we had playing along with Ser Dontos and Mayor Rob, respectively. Virtual X-Caper is a wonderful escape room experience that is built almost entirely around the avatar character of Agent November, without whom the game probably couldn’t exist.

Save King's Landing - room view, via a 360 image and a zoom stream.
Save Kings Landing

Players crave interaction. Many of us have had great in-person escape rooms lose some luster due to an inattentive or disinterested gamemaster who just wanted the players to leave as soon as the game ended. We have also had average rooms turn into great experiences because a gamemaster, owner, or creator chats with us, and explains bits about the game and its story.

A 360 degree view of the gamespace in the inventory.
Ready Mayor One

There are lessons we can learn from the strengths of the online avatar and translate them back into real-life escape games. This type of interactive play doesn’t have to be limited to the avatar format. It can give back to the genre it came from. It’s an opportunity to move beyond an actor playing a zombie, scaring players from time to time. We can instead strive for real, live engagement with characters from the story line, providing detail and depth to the players’ experience in that world.

The Man From Beyond achieved this exquisitely. However, memorable moments can also be provided with much briefer interactions between player and character. Lost Games has some terrific short in-game actor involvements that add to the experience. Miss Jezebel is great in person and online because of the live interactions with the characters.

Man From Beyond

I was surprised to discover the immersive possibilities of remote game avatars. I think it is the biggest industry positive created from this strange shutdown period. Clever game creators will continue to find ways to use these techniques to enhance future escape rooms of all kinds. Taking the best aspect of the new online format and incorporating it back into the old medium opens up a new avenue of creativity. I am excited to see where it leads.

In Defense of Sudoku

Escape room players hate Sudoku.

In a community that can debate the merits of anything, there seems to consensus around the idea that Sudoku and escape rooms don’t generally mix.

The Problems with Sudoku

We’ve knocked quite a few games over the years for including Sudoku… and occasionally given praise for a novel take on the puzzle type, or having one that at least kind of fit into the story.

That’s the problem that most seem to have with Sudoku: it almost never works narratively. Even if you squint, accept it as a metaphor, and really believe that it belongs… it just doesn’t.

Meme of a Firefighter going to save a person who tells him to do a sudoku first. He is seen outside of the burned house saying "She was already dead when he found her."
Via Room Escape Problems – I think that this is some of Bill’s finest work

Setting story aside, I think that problem of Sudoku in escape rooms is deeper than narrative nuance. I can enjoy puzzle-focused, no-narrative escape rooms. I think that they can be done well, although I suspect that in most places their market is going to be more niche.

Even in a puzzle-focused, story-free escape room, I think that Sudoku is generally lame for 3 reasons:

  • Sudoku is best solved by one person. It’s a solo, quiet, sit-down-at-the-desk-and-shut-out-your-team type of puzzle. This does not work well in an escape room.
  • This puzzle type requires outside knowledge to solve, even if it’s commonly known.
  • The world is filled with free or inexpensive Sudoku that are far more interesting than anything that will show up in an escape room.

I know that last point because… and please don’t tell anyone this… I like solving Sudoku.

In Defense of Sudoku

Sudoku has tons more depth than most are aware. There are countless additional rules that can be applied to transform this basic concept into something far more compelling.

The Miracle?

Probably the best-known illustration of this is “The Miracle Sudoku” video that has been circulating the internet for a few weeks. Brace yourself because you’re about to spend 25 minutes joyously watching an expert solver go from thinking that he’s being trolled to solving a puzzle so elegant that it defies logic:

Zelda Sudoku?

In a similar vein, The Legend of Zelda Sudoku Hunt assembled 6 different puzzles into one interlocking experience inspired by The Ocarina of Time. Each of the grids represented a temple, and the mechanics were especially cool (specifically the Shadow Temple):

Personal Thoughts

I have solved 1,127 Sudoku on my phone app alone since getting this device in the spring of 2016 (such an innocent time). I’m by no means an expert, but I can hold my own… at least on a computer. My skill abilities drop when I have to solve on paper.

David's Sudoku app stats shows 1127 solved. Most on Medium or Difficult setting.

I did most of that Sudoku solving on the subway or when I couldn’t sleep. I love that there’s always a puzzle to solve and I can feel my skill, knowledge, and awareness grow with practice. It has reached a point where I literally use Sudoku to gauge how alert I am. For detail-driven work, if my Sudoku solving isn’t on point, nothing else that I do will be either.

This puzzle type gets a lot of negativity thrown at it within the escape room community and in the context of escape rooms. While that is generally well earned, I wouldn’t discount the whole puzzle type. It has a surprising amount of depth.

If I ever have a dog – which my allergies won’t allow – I would name that hypothetical doggo “Sudoku.”

Going Digital: The Globalization of Escape Rooms

As the REA Hivemind presses on, exploring all sorts of digital escape room and puzzle experiences, we have made some observations about this forced shift from real-life play to internet play.

Two months in, these are my observations on this meteoric shift in our industry.

Forced Shift

This shift was truly forced upon the escape room industry.

We’d already seen companies like YouEscape, Trap Door, and Mystery Escape Room experiment with online play. Paruzal was already planning to launch later this year. None of this has emerged completely out of the blue… but we never would have seen this many this quickly.

While so many are adapting, and many are doing it with passion, of the creators that I’ve spoken with, few prefer this to the creation of real-life games.

Free Games

Before we dive in, I want to address free games.

Some escape room companies started producing free light puzzle hunt games to entertain their audiences and promote their brands. This is awesome. It’s also not so relevant to the long-term discussion, because there aren’t significant economic factors tied to free games.

We’ve scaled back the amount of free games that we’re having the Hivemind review. We will likely eliminate free games from the Hivemind’s purview entirely, unless we learn of someone making one that is mind-blowing.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Escape rooms emerged and iterated quickly. Online experiences have adapted and will continue to adapt at a staggering speed.

A hand holding an illuminated light bulb.

As everyone learns from each other, the rate of change in the digital escape room world should dwarf the already rapidly changing world of real-life escape rooms. This is because anyone can play and learn from everyone. Digital escape rooms are globalized.

Most of these digital experiences are a short-term play at resilience. Personally, I respect the hell out of it. Anything that helps keep a small business solvent and serves their customers is good in my book.

My hope is that long term, this leads some escape room companies to innovate new and refined product lines. I would love to see high quality digital experiences emerge that are either supplemental to the real-life games, or allow players to continue to enjoy team games across a distance.

Part of my love of YouEscape before the pandemic was that it enabled me to play an escape room with friends from all around the world. Sure, I would have preferred to play a real-life game with them, but that was never an option in the first place. More innovation in online escape room play is an opportunity for some… but not for all.

Digital Escape Room Globalization

Real-life escape rooms are a global industry, but it was never a globalized industry.

Sure, we have a few chains and franchises that span multiple countries. We also have game design and development shops that cross borders. However, that’s where it ends.

If you want to play and take inspiration from The Dome, you have to travel to Amsterdam and hop a bus to Bunschoten-Spakenburg… a town that – as far as my ignorant tourist eyes can tell – is mostly cows and a world-class escape room business.

Similarly, most real-life escape room play is local. People choose from the companies that are near their homes. We diehard fans who can afford it have to travel to play the most renowned escape games. On the internet, all digital escape room experiences are effectively neighbors.

You can literally play games from Australia, Croatia, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States in a single day. No travel. No additional costs. Long-term, this could have some serious implications.

Competition & Price

As with everything in escape rooms (and the world) there’s heavy variation in quality and even more variation in style.

In less than 2 months we went from having very few digital escape room experiences to having a massive variety with prices ranging from free to over $100 per play. There seem to be good and bad at all price points; price is not inherently an indicator of quality. Some are giving away great games for free. Others are greatly overvaluing their digital products. Your average consumer has no idea about the quality of an individual product. That is a threat to the global health of this business model.

We’ve long maintained that escape room companies aren’t truly in competition with one another. Rather, the high-quality escape rooms are in competition with the low-quality escape rooms. The high-quality games grow the category while the low-quality games shrink the category. This is just as true online as it is in real life.

Business Potential

The various approaches to digitization of escape room experiences have a wide variety of business potential. Some of this comes down to the aforementioned quality. We also need to be honest about the long-term cost/ benefit.

Avatar games where an owner or employee straps a camera to themselves and performs as a passive vessel for instruction are a lot of work. It requires a lot more effort to do the room than it does to watch 5 people play it and occasionally give them hints. Looping that performance over and over with passion is a nontrivial requirement of the work.

I cannot imagine a world where an escape room company is able to earn the same revenue from an avatar game that they would from running the game normally.

The result is that this is not a replacement revenue stream. It’s a labor-intense stopgap with lower margins.

A computer with Zoom open on-screen.

Additionally, if an escape room markets their avatar game to their local audience, they run a high risk of cannibalizing their business. Avatar games are best marketed to people who live far away from your physical facility. You want your locals to come when your doors open again and pay regular prices for the real experience.

My assumption is that most of these avatar-based (or similar) games will get mothballed after the company has reopened and business has stabilized. However, for some companies in highly saturated markets or remote locations, this will remain an ongoing opportunity.

Online puzzle hunts, video games, and other formats with low or no ongoing labor are a more sensible long-term play as they can be sold as inexpensive add-ons or supplemental content. However, these experiences should be even lower margin than the avatar games, so in times of crisis, they offer less opportunity to recoup costs, even if they are far easier to administer.

Early Conclusions

I like puzzling and video-gamey adaptations of escape rooms quite a lot. However, these do not replace the thrill of a real-life escape room. These online games do not suck me in the way that real-life escape rooms do.

If a world-class game offered an avatar-based game, I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who might play the escape room in real life. This format is better for games that are closer to the mean. The truly epic, must-see escape rooms of the world would have to drop far too much of what makes them special to adapt to this format. If Escape Room Netherlands offered good avatar versions of their games, I’d probably recommend their first and oldest game, The Lab, and would discourage anyone who was ever hoping to play The Dome from playing it over the internet… no matter how good it might be in a digital format.

Future Gazing

The next frontier in this space is escape games designed for streaming, rather than adapted for it. There are creative and financial opportunities here.

Moreover, I think that it’s important for escape room companies to have a digital resilience plan. The pandemic has opened our eyes to a new type of business risk. It’s ill advised to assume that something like this will never happen again.

If I were an escape room owner, I would be thinking long and hard about this. I might not build the digital game in my facility. I’d build it at home, in my basement. I’d do everything that I could to make something really interesting, special, and honestly designed for streaming play. I would do this as a hedge against a second more virulent wave.

If that wave never comes, you can repurpose the game.

If it does, however, it’s best to be prepared.

Blindfold Safety in Escape Rooms

“Don’t touch your face! The virus can enter through your eye.”

I grew up with the mantra of “don’t touch your face” and as a result, I have never been thrilled to see blindfolds in escape rooms. I never wrote about this, however, because I’m not a doctor.

One of my favorite escape room teammates, Dr. Chris White, is an optometrist with Flowood Family Vision in Flowood, Mississippi. I asked him if the uneasiness that I’ve felt about blindfolds and hoods is valid… or if I should let it go?

Profile view of a person wearing a blindfold in darkness.

Let’s Start with Science

Eyes are an entry point for germs. This is why public health officials have been begging people to not touch their eyes for the past couple of months.

How Eyes Get Infected

Microorganisms (or germs) can enter the eyes through the conjunctiva and cornea. The conjunctiva is a clear layer of tissue lining the eyelids and covering the white of the eye. The cornea is the clear dome of tissue above the pupil.

Most corneal infections are not contagious. They are more commonly associated with contact lens wearers, physical trauma, or spread from other areas of the body. These are problems that escape room operators don’t really have to worry about.

On the other hand, conjunctivitis, better known as “pink eye,” can create issues when combined with certain escape rooms elements. One of the more serious types of pink eye is Epidemic Keratoconjunctivitis. It is a common and highly contagious virus. Any school teacher can tell you that it spreads aggressively.

So, we’re going to focus specifically on the risks of pink eye for the purposes of understanding why eye infections are relevant to escape room design. This same logic is applicable to other bacterial and viral infections.

How Eye Infections Spread

There are multiple forms of pink eye. The etiology of infectious forms is usually either bacterial or viral. Both can be found within the mucous and tears inside of the eye of someone with pink eye.

Spreading the infection from one individual to another typically involves direct transmission. This means the contaminated mucous/ tears from the infected person must come in direct contact with another person’s conjunctiva.

This may sound improbable, but these infections are incredibly common because it is so easy to spread them. More on that soon.

Stylized closeup image of a blue eye.

Blindfolds

When we’re talking about blindfolds in escape rooms, we’re talking about 3 categories of items used to obscure the vision of players entering a game.

  • Hoods – cloth bags that are placed over the players’ heads
  • Sleep mask/ bandanas – cloth that is wrapped around the players’ heads to block their vision
  • Blacked out goggles/ glasses – items that are placed around the players’ eyes to block their vision

If these items are not thoroughly washed after every single use, there are potential issues.

If you’ve played enough escape rooms, you’ve absolutely had moments where you could tell that a hood or mask hadn’t been washed from its odor. Whether it’s sweat or perfume… or that vaguely unfresh scent that isn’t totally perceptible, it’s there.

Dr. White explains, “In terms of conjunctivitis, I think there is probably less risk with the hood, but I would still have some concerns about other things, such as lice. The sleep mask is very problematic. Just by putting the sleep mask on someone with conjunctivitis, it is likely contaminated. Then putting the same mask on another individual will at a minimum put the germs on their eyelids. At that point, just a simple rub to the eyes could spread the germs.”

When it comes to blackout glasses/ goggles, Dr. White’s thoughts are, “Assuming they are getting disinfected after each use, blackout glasses might be the better way to go. They are much easier to clean. Just take an alcohol swab and wipe them down ($1 for a box of 100, at least before the outbreak) or put some 70% isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle and wipe them down. I’m assuming this is pretty much what they do with 3D glasses at the movie theater. Otherwise, not cleaning the glasses carries the same potential risks in that there could be risk of transmission if they are reworn.”

Blindfolds Aren’t the Only Vector

As so many of us have learned in recent months, infection spreads in more ways than just direct contact.

If the person with the infection touches or rubs their eye with their hand, then the germs are now on their hand. At that point anything that they touch could potentially become contaminated (props, locks, flashlights, etc.)

Mounted binoculars overlooking water.

If someone else then touches the same surface, then their hands become contaminated. If they touch or rub their eyes, then there is always potential for the germs to enter the conjunctiva and spread the infection.

Keep in mind that there are many variables to this, such as the amount of exposure and how contagious the microorganism is. You are not guaranteed to get an infection even with direct exposure.

Blindfolds Moving Forward

Clean blindfolds are not bad.

Unclean blindfolds are a threat to your players’ health.

If you’re willing to machine wash your hoods and blindfolds after every single use, then that’s fine. (Although I will be the first to tell you that it’s a little funny to smell a freshly cleaned hood over my head while I’m getting dragged into a dank murder basement. It makes me laugh every time. I appreciate it, but I still snicker.)

If you’re willing to replace your sleep masks with each use, then that’s fine.

If you’re using blackout goggles or glasses, you just need to clean them thoroughly each time. Also, make sure that they don’t have any tight areas that you’ll struggle to reach with the disinfectant.

Don’t Forget Psychology

I don’t know how the events of 2020 will impact the various cultures around the world.

It’s my suspicion that some will return to life as normal, while others will forever change their relationship with the world.

I would urge you to think about the people who will be less inclined to put anything on or near their eyes moving forward.

Recommendations

If you have a game with blindfolds, but they aren’t necessary, just eliminate them.

More often than not, I’m baffled by the presence of blindfolds. I understand their place in abduction stories, but blindfolds aren’t usually doing any favors for spaceship, submarine, or wizarding-school games.

Think Broader About Health & Cleanliness

If 2020 has reinforced anything, it’s that one person’s infection can become many people’s infection. This means rethinking your approach to game resetting and cancellation policies.

Resetting = Sterilizing Eye Interactions

It’s incredibly common for escape rooms to contain items that you press your eye against.

  • Telescopes
  • Microscopes
  • Peepholes

If you have any items in your rooms that players are expected to hold up to their face… or that players typically hold up to their faces (even if they aren’t supposed to), then these should be sterilized after each playthrough.

Cancellation Policies

You don’t want sick players in your games.

Whether their eyes are pink and oozing or they are coughing up a lung, you don’t want sick people in your games. They are a hazard to you, your employees, their teammates, and subsequent teams in your facility.

Having a cancellation policy that allows sick people a reasonable means of rescheduling can go a long way towards keeping their germs out of your games.

Personal Responsibility

I’m going to give Dr. White the final words:

“I also just want to point out that if someone goes into an escape room while they are sick, whether it’s conjunctivitis or the flu, they are going to spread germs everywhere. If someone goes in with the flu and coughs, then everything in a 6-foot radius is contaminated. This isn’t just in escape rooms. It’s the same for any public space, grocery store, sporting event, subways, restaurants, etc. And it’s always been like that.

“Aside from not reusing blindfolds, I think a big takeaway from this is that people need to take more personal responsibility. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face/ rub your eyes (this is difficult).

“If you are sick or have an eye infection, don’t go to an escape room.

“As an owner (or gamemaster), observe your group. If someone clearly appears sick, or if they have a red eye dripping with mucous, do your due diligence. Ask questions to determine if it’s safe for that person to be in your game. Reschedule if necessary, or at a minimum, do a very deep clean after the group is done.

“In our office we have always followed our standard cleaning procedures. Anytime someone comes in with a nasty conjunctivitis, I give the staff the signal and everything gets heavily cleaned. Anything they touched or were near gets wiped down with disinfectant, including the door handles to the office.”