People who use over-the-counter reading glasses are notorious for forgetting to bring them when they go out. Some people can get by fine when the lighting is good. Many really struggle to read or see digits on a lock in dim lighting.
With a bucket of loaner readers, should a player forget to bring their own, they could borrow a pair for use in the game.
What Should You Buy?
Our team on our crazy Colorado escape room marathon included optometrist and fantastic escape room teammate Dr. Chris White.
I asked Chris what should be included in a loaner reading glasses box. He said that they should at least cover the correction range of +1.25 through +2.50.
With new concepts come new words. “Escape Room” was among the 533 new words that Merriam-Webster added to their dictionary in their latest batch of updates.
Today we’re going to look at their definition and see if we can improve upon it.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of escape room
: a game in which participants confined to a room or other enclosed setting (such as a prison cell) are given a set amount of time to find a way to escape (as by discovering hidden clues and solving a series of riddles or puzzles)
Parsing This Definition
They nailed a lot of the key elements here with “game,” “participants,” “set amount of time,” “discovering,” “solving,” and “puzzles.”
We don’t love that “confined” is part of the definition. That gives some people the wrong impression that this activity is dangerous or claustrophobic. That said, as written, this captures that physical space is a key element.
It seems strange to argue with “to find a way to escape” as part of the definition, but in this aspect of the wording, I think Merriam-Webster is just a bit behind. This was true for quite some time, but the term now encompasses broader goals.
Why we love Merriam-Webster
We love Merriam-Webster because they are dedicated to describing the language we use. They watch as terms gain staying power or evolve. They make updates. And they are descriptivists; so are we.
The Room Escape Artist Definition
Escape Room – (noun, singular) a game where a group of participants collaboratively discovers and solves puzzles, tasks, and challenges that require no outside knowledge at a physical venue in order to accomplish a goal within a set amount of time.
In escape rooms, players both “discover” and “solve” the challenges. There aren’t any directions provided. Discovery is part of what separates an escape room from other types of puzzle games.
“No outside knowledge” separates escape rooms from puzzle hunts. While both are challenging, puzzle-solving activities, escape rooms should be self-contained and shouldn’t require any specialized knowledge.
“Physical venue” separates escape rooms from video games and VR. The idea of real-life or meetspace is a crucial differentiator.
We define escape room and escape game as synonyms. At present, these terms are mostly used interchangeably… except when we don’t want to argue the finer points of a “room” when discussing experiences that take place outdoors, around a table, or in a ballroom, stadium, or theater.
And these points are, of course, arguable. Our definition encompasses physical venues that are outdoors or that hold more than one team at once. These are atypical, but we still see them as escape rooms.
More Room for Discussion
The elephant in the physical venue is the word “escape.” Why is the activity called “escape room” when the goal is to find a relic, steal a McGuffin, or disarm a bomb? In these cases, there might not even be any escaping.
This takes us back to Merriam-Webster. Dictionaries don’t ask why. They describe how language is used.
VacuForm panels are plastic wall mountings that can be purchased, painted and hung in theatrical environments. They are a quick and easy way to handle some aspects of set design.
They are reasonably common in escape rooms. Some of the common textures that escape room players encounter are Egyptian tomb hieroglyphics, steampunk gears, and brick walls.
While I don’t think that VacuForm is the peak of set construction, I also see few issues with it when compared to regular drywall. It’s fairly affordable and quick to set up. If a designer finds the right panels for their set… I’m in favor of anything that raises quality and keeps timelines and budgets under control. It’s way better than seeing drywall in an Egyptian tomb.
That said, I have one suggestion:
When using VacuForm, ask yourself this one question, “Can the players reach this?”
Can I Reach It?
VacuForm has a lot of flex to it because it’s hollow. If you touch it, it will usually give… a lot. The result is a sharp break in immersion because your brain is telling you that the wall is made of stone or metal, but then it’s plastic.
The easy fix is to fill in the back to provide it more rigidity. It might still feel like plastic, but it won’t give way to my touch.
Touching hollow VacuForm is like a kid seeing Santa Claus in the mall parking lot getting into a 2002 Pontiac Aztek and driving away. Where the hell is his sleigh?
Walkie-talkies are a funny method of hint delivery in escape rooms. A lot of companies use them. More than a few players hate them (and with good reason). There is potential to do some great things with walkie-talkies… if they are done deliberately and thoughtfully (and this is rare).
Before we dive in, let’s establish an understanding of hint systems:
What Can/ Should A Hint System Do?
In any escape game, the hint system must:
Provide a means for players to get unstuck and continue their adventure
Allow players to communicate with the gamemaster in the event of a game failure or emergency
In a great escape game, the hint system can:
Be intuitive to use
Integrate the gamemaster or hint giver into the narrative and world
Make receiving hints a delightful part of the experience
With that in mind, let’s talk about walkie-talkies.
The Case For Walkie-talkies
In principle, a walkie-talkie is a great, immersive hint delivery mechanism for many escape game scenarios. Anything set in the last century or so can narratively justify the use of a walkie-talkie.
Additionally, it’s easy to make the gamemaster into an unseen character over a walkie-talkie.
This can make the walkie-talkie a useful tool for escape room design.
Let’s examine where walkie-talkies fail. Then we’ll look into how to incorporate them well.
Where Walkie-talkies Fail
There are two reasons that walkie-talkies tend to annoy me as a player: user interface & uncertain communication.
The overwhelming majority walkie-talkies that I’ve encountered in escape rooms are too convoluted. They are a mess of buttons, dials, and dust covers that look like buttons.
This leads to gamemaster instructions like:
“Twist this… and you turn it off.”
“Press these and you’ll change the channel. If you do that we won’t know when you’re asking for a hint.”
“This, on the side… this is the button you need to press to talk. Don’t press the thing that looks like a button on the other side… or the button above this one.”
“And when you’re done speaking, you have to release the button or I can’t respond.”
All of these instructions are problematic. In any other game interaction they would be considered laughable, but for some reason they are fairly normal when it comes to hinting. I find this funny because hinting is critical. Hinting isn’t just part of the game, it’s a necessary aspect of customer service.
That last bit of instruction, “…when you’re done speaking, you have to release the button or we can’t respond…” is a problem.
Although mechanically it’s not hard to do, that interaction creates uncertainty.
Most obviously, you have players who will death-grip the “push to talk” button. When a player does this, there’s nothing the gamemaster can do other than wait.
The less obvious problem is the question of, “when have I said enough?” Walkie-talkies have an etiquette and a jargon that professionals will employ. Amateur escape room players… not so much.
It gets awkward when you have to ask a question or start describing where you’re stuck. Players keep rambling to get enough information across in order to get the optimal hint (having to ask specific questions to get specific hints usually sucks, but that’s a topic for another day). This kind of thing also creeps up when something goes wrong in the game and the team needs support from the gamemaster to fix things.
The easy solution to this for an escape room is to have attentive gamemaster and only require the players to pick up the walkie-talkie and say, “we’d like a hint.” Honestly, this is usually fine, except in those edge cases where something has gone wrong.
How To Walkie-talkie Right
When a room only has a live microphone in it, and the gamemaster hears everything, this is a user interface for the players:
The players speak. They are heard. The gamemaster can respond.
We don’t usually think of this as an interface, but it is an interface. And it’s fantastic.
I’ve encountered escape games (and I cannot remember which) that had a hot microphone in the room, but the gamemaster responded through the walkie-talkie. This effectively removed all of the previously stated challenges from using walkie-talkies in-game.
This was a significant improvement from a player perspective because it gave the immersive walkie-talkie effect, while removing almost all of the user interface encumbrances.
The one downside was that the gamemaster still had to give the same, “don’t touch the dials” instructions; this wasn’t a big deal.
Modifying the Walkie-talkie
There is an opportunity to modify the walkie-talkie and disable the various buttons and dials so that only the “push to talk” button works… or better still, that it’s just a housing for a speaker and a wifi antenna.
Turning the walkie-talkie into a dumb output device seems like an opportunity for a prop builder.
The coolest part about doing it this way is that you can just leave the walkie-talkie in the room for the team to find. They can pick it up and push whatever button they want and it will just work. Anytime you can remove interface explanation from the experience, you’re improving upon it.
Most uses of walkie-talkie in escape rooms are mediocre.
Sometimes they are included thematically. A lot of the time, they feel like corner cutting. Walkie-talkies were just a cheap easy way to avoid having to run wire and set up microphones (and often cameras).
A gamemaster should always have eyes and ears on their players for their safety as well as the safety of the game itself.
Setup the microphones and cameras; they are an essential part of safe escape room design.
If you want to use walkie-talkies artistically to build your world, then do so… but don’t do it at the expense of safety or the experience.
Let’s revisit counting puzzles. It’s been a few years and we have better thoughts on the subject.
There’s nothing wrong with a counting puzzle from time to time. There are, however, a couple of ways to do them very poorly.
Before we explore these terrible approaches to puzzle design, let’s define the concept.
What is a Counting Puzzle?
A counting puzzle is one where you have to count different objects in a room or in an image. The numbers you count translate into a code.
For example, you have:
a 3-digit lock
a clue that reads, “🎸💡🚪”
and the following image
You can surmise that the solution is, 4 – 1 – 1.
So, what are some ways to take this kind of puzzle and really screw it up? Let’s explore.
1. Large Numbers
Making people count large numbers of items is boring.
The larger the count becomes, the more error-prone a team will become.
Also, this is lame. Don’t be lame.
2. SUBSTANTIAL AMBIGUITY
A personal pet peeve is when I am unsure of how to count the items in your counting puzzle. I love details and I’m pretty analytical. If a counting puzzle becomes fuzzy, I become agitated.
For example, you have:
a 3-digit lock
a clue that reads, “🚲💡window” (I’m 💔 that there isn’t a “window” emoji, but 🐻 with me)
and the following image
With this image, things are no longer clean cut.
There is 1 bicycle. Easy. Cool.
Lights are a little more fuzzy.
“There are clearly 2 on either side of the door… but it looks like there might be a third centered above the door.”
“Does the clue mean that the light must be on or am I supposed to count everything that is a light?”
The windows… of the windows… ugh…
“Well, there are 3 glass windows, but there are 6 panes of glass inside of them.”
“Then there’s the reflection in those windows that looks like more windows. Am I supposed to count them? Probably not… but I can’t be sure.”
“And then there are those blacked out windows down below. Do they count? Is a window only a window when you can see through it?”
So now we have a solution that is, 1 – 2/3? – I’m going to spin the final disk because this puzzle sucks.
This may seem like an extreme example, but I’ve absolutely seen counting puzzles exactly like this. This is obnoxious.
Including a zero, or the count of an item that isn’t present at all, is mean and unnecessary.
You can’t prove the absence of a thing. Creating a puzzle that encourages a team to run around looking for things that aren’t actually in the room is the antithesis of fun.
This is even more obnoxious if you’re using a lock like this that doesn’t actually have a “0” on any of the disks. For some reason the designers in China saw fit to simply place a dot where the zero ought to be.
While a counting puzzle isn’t an innovative or incredible thing, every now and then it can serve as a competent way to provide gating.
It ain’t amazing, but it’s the kind of task that can involve multiple people and pull a puzzle together into something that can easily translate into a lock combination.
If you design it well, and don’t overuse the concept, it’s just fine.
It’s time to discuss something that’s dumb, but necessary.
It has come to our attention that there’s a tiny minority of games that are making their players buy hints.
I’m not really sure who’s doing it, but someone asked a question about this behavior to the panel that I moderated at the Escape Summit in Canada in May.
So, let’s get this out of the way once and for all.
Selling Hints is Bullshit
There is an assumption of fairness in escape room design. While some companies pull this off better than others, at the core of escape room play is the idea that these games will be fair even if they are difficult.
Selling hints undermines that fairness by introducing a financial feedback loop that encourages bullshit puzzle design. I’ll explain:
If a company sells hints, then they make more money from bullshit puzzle design because bullshit puzzles necessitate more hints.
This in turn encourages the company to include more bullshit puzzles, which drives more bullshit revenue.
This loop repeats recursively until the company strangles the life out of their business and closes because they suck. Along the way they will hurt the other local escape rooms by convincing the local player base that escape rooms are filled with bullshit puzzles, and thus depleting the potential customer base.
We’ve seen some this kind of nonsense from digital escape games like the point-and-click mobile escape room Spotlight: Room Escape (that’s not worthy of a link.) We’ve refused to review them.
We just assume that if the game is selling hints, the puzzles are probably bullshit.
We have better things to do with our time and so do you.
What Do We Do About This?
If an escape room company is selling hints, beat the hell out of them on Yelp for it.
Be fair. Don’t hit them with a 1 star review, drop something rational, but explain why this is a problem. Shame them into changing.
Also, alert the local player community. If you have a regional Facebook group, leave a note in there about the company.
The one time that I can see “selling hints” to be a viable option is if, and only if, the money is going to a good cause, in the name of the players (not the business).