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.

Seamless Transitions Between Individual Escape Rooms [Innovation Interview Series]

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

In these conversations with Lost Games of Las Vegas, NV and City 13 of Milwaukee, WI, we’ll unpack an immersive aspect that I feel is underutilized in the escape room world: immediate, seamless (or close to it) transitions between escape rooms that exist in the same world. This innovation aids storytelling by adding both length and depth to an experience. 

A beautifully designed old victorian study set.
Lost Games

Many escape room companies have multiple rooms that exist in the same fictional universe. With transitions, they can get more mileage out of the creative capital they built inventing and designing these worlds. This can help attract repeat business from customers who had previously had fun in their fictional world. It can help with immersion if players are already aware and excited about where they – and the story they are already invested in – are about to go.

Booking Back to Back

Enthusiasts often like to marathon escape rooms, playing two or more games back to back, especially if they are multiple parts of the same story. Most often players will exit the first game experience, reunite with their host for a debrief, then head back to the lobby to wait for the start time for their next game. Once the clock strikes the appropriate hour, the host will again collect the team, begin another briefing, and re-immerse the players into the world of the game.

Not many companies provide an opportunity to transition without interruption directly from one room into the next, thereby lengthening the experience into something epic.

Longer games are also a tool to tell more detailed stories. A flexible solution for offering a longer experience is to design an optional transition sequence between two or more escape rooms with related storylines.

Come up with a plan that is easy on the game host, but believable for the players. Market it as a premium booking option while only making minor changes to normal operations. 

Lost Games in Las Vegas, NV

Lost Games offers their two games: Chapter 1: The Doctor’s Secret and Chapter 2: Playtime as stand-alone escape rooms or as a single two-game experience. The second option takes two excellent escape games and turns them into a truly memorable experience. 

A creepy living room with an old tv/ radio and a cross hanging on the wall.
Lost Games

Where did the idea for the transition come from?

Lost Games: From the beginning of creating Lost Games, immersion was our number one goal. If nothing else, we wanted everyone to feel like they were a part of the story once they walked in the door. The back-to-back experience was not a part of the plan from the beginning, but we learned from our enthusiasts that 1 hour of gameplay is never enough. So, when building Chapter 2, we had to figure out the actor introduction to the game, and thought it would be pretty exciting and unexpected if it began right when the exit door from Chapter 1 opens, without interruption. As enthusiasts ourselves, we just always focused on building something that we would like to see.

How does it impact your normal operation?

Lost Games: The tasks that the game operators do during the transition involving lighting and sound would also occur for the normal Chapter 2 introduction; those are not specific to the back-to-back experience. We’ve done some streamlining over time to make this transition flow well, while still moving the story along.

City 13 in Milwaukee, WI

Nick Timber, owner of City 13 in Milwaukee, WI is using a similar idea to connect their four existing escape rooms in a new enthusiast-focused mega escape game creation he calls Save The City.

A city street set with graphitti on the walls.
City 13

Where did the mega-game idea come from?

Timber: I had the idea of the 2-4 hour game during, you guessed it, the lockdowns. I figured if I was going to only allow one group into the space at a time, why not let them play as many games as they want? From that thought we came up with Save The City, an experience that not many other escape rooms can provide. Our space is unique in its layout with all of the escape rooms being built like buildings inside a dystopian cyberpunk future city, with all of it fitting inside one large common space. Alleyways connect our rooms and the players sneak through them as they make their way into each escape room experience. All of our games have one overarching story of the city being taken over by supervillains and the players (the superheroes of City 13) are helping the citizens take it back.

How will it work?

Timber: Save The City plans to tie everything together into one adventurous gameplay. Players will actually begin the adventure and interact with the story inside the alleyways with all of the rooms locked down. As you complete the new alleyway puzzles you will begin to make your way inside one building at a time to obtain new items to help progress through the story. Once you have completed one room you move back into the alleyway for more puzzles that unlock the next room. There will be audio dialog between the General (City 13’s leader) and Oculus (the head villain) that will provide story transition in the alleyway.

How long will it be?

Timber: We allow the players to choose how many rooms they want included in the mission. They can do 2 rooms (2 hours), 3 rooms (3 hours), or all 4 of our rooms (4 hours). No matter what size mission they choose, they will also get the new alleyway puzzles and the one new bonus room where all of the stories will always end: Rick’s Robot Garage. The new content adds another hour of play into the adventures. 

If you are doing the math, you realize that you only have 2/3/4 hours to do 3/4/5 hours of content. Well, we figured two things: 

(1) This game is not meant for the casual player, but the enthusiast who wants this challenge or 

(2) The interested players in our area that have already played our games should be able to get through them more quickly a second time.

Either way, Save The City players will get the newly-added alley puzzles and the bonus 5th room ending. It’s a full night of an escape room experience that won’t disappoint.

How does it impact your normal operation?

Timber: This structure allows us to keep running each room individually for our normal customers and at the same time provide a more challenging experience for enthusiasts and new content for returning players.

With the current state of the world, escape rooms are trying to utilize the tools and assets they already have in new ways. While some chose to go online, I decided to take my in-person experiences to the next level.

Make Your Stories Bingeworthy

Most escape room storylines are just the climactic third act of a story that was unenthusiastically told to you during a pregame briefing. Escape rooms designed with optional, immediate transitions open up a world of possibilities for creative operators.

Online video streaming services have proven that bingeing story episodes appeals to a lot of people. With this technique, storytelling can be enhanced and given more room to breathe. The games can show us acts 1 and 2. Creators can build stories with cliffhanger endings and players won’t be annoyed if they have the opportunity to continue uninterrupted to find out what happens next. 

Escape room customers may be more likely to book multiple games if they are presented with this option. That could give owners more of a chance to make an impression that will lead to those customers returning in the future. 

Seamless transitions between related escape rooms is a low-cost adjustment that can create a win-win situation for owners, players, and stories.

In Pursuit of Storytelling: Year 5 of Escape Room Innovation (Interview Series Intro)

At this point in my escape room journey, I am most interested in learning more about innovative ideas. I want to understand the creators and companies trying new and different things to advance and expand the medium. 

In the latter half of 2019, I interviewed a selection of creators about the motivations and goals driving their innovation. There are many people thinking differently about escape rooms and what they can be. As one of them put it to me, “There is no universe in which we would consider trying something safer or simpler. It’s not why we’re here.” 

Stylized image of a light bulb

I have my own theory of escape room evolution. I feel like after their initial introduction as puzzle games, we entered into the era of tech. This included everything from rooms using a single Arduino all the way up to the brilliant display of technology in The Edison Room at Palace Games. The next stage is going to be the rise of the importance of drama, character, emotion, and story: the era of narrative. I’ve caught glimpses of this in escape rooms I’ve played over the last few years, but it is far from widespread.

Through my conversations about innovations, I noticed that we’re entering that next stage. As we reached 5 years of escape rooms in the United States, storytelling became the driving force behind a lot of significant innovation. Escape rooms are truly a new medium for storytelling, one with a ton of untapped potential.

Conversations With Creators

I talked with the owners of Lost Games and City 13 about Seamless Transitions Between Individual Escape Rooms. One of the storytelling challenges of most escape games is their short length. That’s why the players always seem to arrive after the inciting incident of the story, just in time for the climactic scene. Transitions like this allow for additional world building, more of a story, more of a complete arc, and more immersion. The real advantage to seamless transitions is an opportunity for more storytelling.

Off The Couch spoke about the Book By Time model for their new game Pandorum. This booking technique is another vehicle to further storytelling. It literally allows you to stay inside the game for as long as you want. It pleads with us to slow down and not rush through the story elements in service of the puzzles.

Haley E. R. Cooper of Strange Bird Immersive shared thoughts about using Immersive Theater in Escape Rooms. Strange Bird Immersive’s aim is to leave you with a memory. Feeling and living the story of their experience creates a more lasting memory than any puzzle, or probably even any set, ever could.

Hatch Escapes discussed The Quest for Replayability and their next experience The Ladder, where they ask, “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?” Replayability will succeed when it lets players truly get more into and also get more out of the story.

2020 has impacted all of these companies and their innovations in different ways, but I feel that we’re now in a place where we can start to get excited about in-person escape rooms again. I can finally share these ideas that I have been thinking about: ideas about telling stories.

I hope you will follow along as we present these topics as a series of articles about interesting innovations, and what the people and companies behind them are adding to the escape room industry.

The links to each interview article will be added above once it is published.

Priming Puzzles in Escape Rooms

Recently I visited an escape room company where the game began with a small, physical tabletop puzzle in the briefing area. When solved, it provided a small bit of information about the game. Our host then escorted us into the room to begin. At first I thought this was a strange procedure. The puzzle wasn’t difficult and the information it revealed was mostly useless. A story element explained why we had to solve this puzzle before continuing, but it still felt like an odd, yet intriguing beginning. 

A model of half a human brain beside a model of a neuron.

Then, late in the game, we encountered a large, confounding prop with symbols, dials, levers and knobs. While blindly fiddling with it (as all escape room players do) I realized it functioned similarly to the briefing room puzzle we’d solved earlier. A big smile appeared on my face as I realized what was happening. Other puzzles needed to be solved to determine the correct information to input into this device, but because of the priming puzzle, I knew exactly how to operate it. 

The larger prop did not look like the smaller version. Upon first inspection, it was not obvious that I had seen this type of thing before. The realization that I had already been taught how to use it came slowly with a wonderful aha moment. This was genius escape game design.

No Instructions Needed

A complex escape room puzzle often requires written operational instructions or other overt hinting to ensure that players have a fair shot at solving it. This can take some of the magic out of the game. Unknowingly learning those instructions beforehand facilitates a much more enjoyable solve later.

Priming is a well-documented psychological phenomenon in which exposure to one stimulus influences how a person responds to a subsequent, related stimulus.

The idea of conveyance has long been  a staple of video game design. Some of the brilliance of conveyance can be captured in an escape room through the similar concept of priming.

This technique can add a lot to an escape room experience, from smoothing a rough spot in an existing game, to opening up creative possibilities, to helping players understand their roles or characters.

Alleviate A Sticking Point In An Existing Game

If you have a puzzle that consistently causes confusion or is the source of many hint requests, rather than dumbing down the puzzle, or adding extra text or more signposting in the room, consider creating a priming puzzle earlier in the experience. If it is clever and nonobvious, players will feel a sense of accomplishment when they make the connection on their own.

If your game relies on a runbook, or other text-heavy instructions, think about how a priming puzzle might lighten the dependence on the text. If players can intake some of this information another way, they won’t be focused on reading at the expense of what is happening around them. 

Design Games With Priming Puzzles In Mind

Give yourself the creative freedom to try some wilder puzzle ideas, knowing that you can build a priming puzzle into the game to help get the players into the right mindset for what is coming up.

So many escape games show us how to use a directional lock in the briefing and then, “surprise!” there is a directional lock in the game. This lock is actually a puzzle that requires additional knowledge and instruction. So rather than saying, “there’s a directional lock in the room and this is how to use it,” why not create a priming puzzle so that all players will know how to use that lock when they encounter it? You can design a different sort of directional puzzle in the briefing – moving something up, down, left and right – with instructions that will sound familiar when the players encounter the actual lock.

Or flip it around. Show players how to use a directional lock in the briefing, but then in the game, present a larger physical set-piece puzzle with a movable segment that operates similarly to the directional lock. When players encounter the new device, they will have that briefing room memory to clue them towards its operation.

Player Character Development

Priming puzzles give creators a tool to develop the characters that the players will be taking on. If a player is supposed to be an experienced archeologist, adept at translating hieroglyphics, they shouldn’t be encountering these for the first time when they are deep within the great pyramid. The addition of an early, even pregame, translation puzzle would at least familiarize players with the kinds of symbols to look for and the pattern for translation. Their character would already know this. Giving them this baseline knowledge allows you to raise the stakes on later translation puzzles, perhaps combining or reversing symbols to get new meanings.

This type of design can work for any game where players assume identities other than their own.

Avoid Obvious Iteration

Priming puzzles should not simply be easier iterations of puzzles encountered later in the game. Solving an early 3-round Simon puzzle as a warm-up for a similar looking 6-round Simon puzzle later is not exciting. An early Simon puzzle used as priming for a later puzzle that requires players to respond by reproducing the strange sounds and phrasing of an alien language coming over a spaceship’s intercom is much more interesting. Priming should impart vague, even subconscious knowledge to the player. The goal is to reduce the need for cluing the mechanics of the more difficult puzzle. The aha that comes when the connection is made is a terrific payoff.

Pregame vs In-game

There is nothing wrong with including priming puzzles early on in the actual escape room. A more interesting technique is to present them during the pregame briefing. Players will be more focused, without the distraction of the game scenery and the urge to explore. It should be easier to ensure the desired information is received, especially if it is subtle.

A unique pregame puzzle task, required before admittance into the room, can add excitement and immersion to the experience. A higher form of the art of delivering priming puzzles is to add them to the normal pregame routine without the players ever noticing. That is what happened to me in the game I mentioned at the top of this piece. It is the most interesting new escape room twist I have seen in a long while.