Walkie-Talkies & Escape Rooms [Design]

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).

“He’s looking at me, Ray.”

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.

User Interface

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.

Two commonly used escape room walkie-talkies
On a side note: if you give me a walkie talkie that has a flashlight built in and then get angry at me for using the flashlight… I do believe that you can go to hell.

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.

Moving on.

Uncertain Communication

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.

A walkie talkie in a cradle at the controls for a boat.

One-way Walkie-talkie

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.

A closeup of a Star Trek Communicator.
If you start playing with the form factor… there are so many possibilities.

Closing Thoughts

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.

Safety Release Handcuffs & Escape Rooms

My angry handcuff meme begged a question… and a long-time reader almost immediately wrote in to ask it:

Stylized image of handcuffs.

The Handcuff Question

“First of all, I am 100% in agreement with not locking players up and people having a safe and easy way for freeing themselves from an escape room in case of a fire.

You mentioned that using “police handcuffs” is really bad, and I totally agree. But my question to you is, what is your opinion on real looking metal handcuffs that have a safety release?”

Black handcuffs with safety release latches.

What About Safety Release Handcuffs?

I’m not going to rehash the ideas that we discussed in our lengthy exploration of physical restraints in escape rooms around the world. That post is a couple years old, but I think it still holds up.

For us there are 2 answers to the question of safety release handcuffs:

The Technocratic Answer

Ask your fire inspector and your insurer.

If your local authorities and insurance company are cool with safety release handcuffs, then yeah, they’re fine.

They meet our basic standards of allowing players to free themselves in an emergency.

Stylized image of hands raised with handcuffs binding them together.

The Nuanced Answer

Even if you’re checking the proper legalistic boxes, we still don’t have any love for safety release handcuffs.

Releases Require Dexterity

Safety releases are way better than nothing, but they still require fine motor skills, which some will struggle with, especially in a crisis.

This can be made worse by the angle or positioning of the cuffs in some game designs.

Discomfort

One of the features that double locking police handcuffs have over the safety release handcuffs is that once locked, they can’t ratchet tighter around the wearer.

If you bump them the wrong way, those safety release handcuffs can become painfully tight.

Don’t misread this section. This is not an endorsement of using police handcuffs in escape rooms. Rather, it’s a reason to not use safety release handcuffs either.

Better Solutions

There are better solutions than safety release handcuffs.

Maze Rooms Austin had an elegant and comfortable restraint solution in their game, The Shed. They used a padded leather sex restraint and attached it to a chain with a carabiner.

Leather and metal cuffs.

This had 3 key advantages:

  • It was super easy to release because the carabiner was large and easy to get a full hand on.
  • The restraint used a leather buckle so it couldn’t ratchet tighter while we played.
  • It was comfortable, which was good because we wore the restraint for most of the game.

Closing Thoughts

Safety release handcuffs are adequate, but not great.

There are better, more comfortable solutions than safety release handcuffs.

Before you physically restrain your players in any way, always check this stuff out with your fire inspector and insurer.

4 Easy Ways to Make Bad Counting Puzzles in an Escape Room [Design Tips]

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.

The Count from Sesame Street kneeling and holding up 4 fingers.

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
A room with 4 electric guitars, a single light bulb, and a door.

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
A side of a building with a bicycle leaning against it.

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.

3. Zeros

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.

A 4 digit combination lock with a red, green, yellow, and blue disk.

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

Selling Hints in Escape Rooms & Puzzle Games is Bullshit

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. 

Bullshit leads to hints, hints lead to cash, cash leads to more bullshit. The cycle loops until collapse.

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.

Digital Games

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 Exception

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).

Same goes for something like a blood drive.

Then even if the puzzles are bullshit, at least there’s a good cause to support.

But then again… maybe check out the cause on Charity Navigator first?

Locking Players In & Restraining Them, Escape Room Meme

Man finds out his name isn't on the list for Hell. Explains that he "Owns an escape room that locks players in & restrains them with police handcuffs." He is brought to "Extra-Hell."

At this point you’re probably thinking, “that’s dark… but kind of funny…” or you’re in the teeny tiny minority of escape room owners who are really pissed off.

If you are in the vast majority of owners who understand the basics of how to run a safe business and are on board with me, feel free to carry on with the rest of your day.

If you’re feeling like telling the dumbass blogger off, come with me on a short history lesson and thought journey before writing a comment that you will probably regret.

Poland Fire

On January 5th, there was a fire in Poland that claimed the lives of 5 teenage girls. The escape room owner is in prison and is expected to serve a long sentence.

We covered it in depth. If you’re unfamiliar with what happened, read up.

As a result, escape rooms are slowly experiencing a crackdown by fire inspectors all over the world.

This Can’t Happen Again

If something like this happens again or happens on American soil, the ramifications will be catastrophic. They will be especially devastating if the company responsible was anywhere near as negligent as the culpable company in Poland.

Most escape rooms aren’t locking players in or restraining them without providing a self-service way of freeing themselves. Most escape rooms are safe.

There are still some companies, however, who haven’t caught on to the fact that it is not ok to lock your players in your games.

Over on Room Escape Artist, we’re all about grey area. This is not a murky subject. If you are still locking players in your games %^&*ING STOP.

If you feel like fighting me on this, I’ll call your local fire marshal to referee the debate.

Escape The Bathroom – Musings on Escape Room Facilities

Let’s talk toilets.

No, I’m not referring to my least favorite prison escape game trope, nor am I talking about when escape room games have bathrooms within the games (which we’ve seen a few times). I’m not talking about the outhouse in Escape Wood’s trailer park game, The Shiners either… although “THERE AIN’T NOTHING IN THE SHITTER!” is still the absolute greatest thing that a gamemaster has ever said to a teammate of mine.

We’re talking about the lavatories available to customers at escape room businesses.

Dan Egnor standing in an outhouse labeled "The Shitter" looking into the toilet.
Guinness World Record Holder Dan Egnor peering into the abyss at Escape Woods.

Review the Loo?

A few times a year someone suggests that we include commentary on the restrooms at the escape room companies that we review.

We just don’t care to devote a segment of each review to washrooms.

Yes, we believe that the state of a company’s privy reflects on the state of the business, how it conducts itself, and how a the company values their customers and their property… but commenting on this doesn’t serve our goals as escape room reviewers.

We care that each escape room company has a water closet available for customers. We care that it works and isn’t vile.

That said, we ain’t fancy when it comes to johns. (I’m starting to scrape the bottom of the synonym bowl here.)

So if we visit an escape room business, use the potty, and see things that cannot be unseen… then yeah… that’s the kind of thing that might turn up in a review.

Escape Rooms Should Scale Up [Design]

Over the years, certain design elements in escape rooms have repeatedly jumped out at us. One such design choice is scale.

Man holding a massive screwdriver.

Make it Bigger

Most escape room interactions can be improved by making them bigger.

Seeing this video reminded me of how much fun it can be when something mundane is blown up to a larger scale.

Choose Wisely

I’m not telling you to make a giant screwdriver. That’s a giant leverage tool and in the wrong player’s hands, things could get ugly fast. I know this.

That said, there are plenty of other items in escape rooms that would be far more interesting if they were larger than life.

Video found via BoingBoing.

The Split Team Regrouping Problem in Escape Rooms

The longer a player or a group of players works within a space in isolation, the harder it becomes for teams to fully reintegrate… and it’s often better for players to stick to the space that they intimately know.

The problem becomes more pronounced over time. It’s barely noticeable if the teams are only split up for a few minutes. When teams spend half of the game split, it becomes an annoyance. When teams spend more than 3 quarters of the game split, it can be downright irritating, even if no one has the language to vocalize it.

Stylized image of a woman's head splitting in two.

The Situation

When a player enters a space that has already been thoroughly searched and solved, that player has three options:

  1. Start playing normally and “find” a ton of stuff that’s already been found or solved. This usually leads to exchanges along the lines of, “hey… did y’all see this little trap door?” A teammate who has been in space from the beginning will have to stop and explain that it’s been found and used.
  2. Stop the entire game while teammates catch one another up on what’s been found, solved, and what still requires the team’s attention.
  3. Stay put. Nobody crosses the boundaries and everyone sticks with the content that they already know intimately.

We had been feeling this problem for years, and only started to put our finger on what was going on last year after playing The Order at I Survived The Room. Prior to identifying it, under circumstances like this, we would just say something like, “Hey… I think it’s easier for me to just solve this.” Which is a polite way of saying, “You don’t know what’s going on and you’re in the way.”

Stylized image of tomatoes and potatoes split up into separate piles.

Our Dominant Strategy

When faced with a challenge like this, if we’re choosing to play efficiently, we usually stick to the spaces that we have mastery over, even when free to roam. 

The pro is that we maintain efficiency. The con is that everyone kind of misses out. Another potential con is that we could really use person A’s skill set in space B and we’re avoiding that situation.

Regardless of what we choose to do, it usually feels like a bit of a wash because getting up to speed on someone else’s mostly solved section of a game is tedious.

Unevenness

It can be challenging to follow this strategy when the spaces are really different from one another. If the other space looks really inviting, as players, we have to go against our instincts to follow this efficiency strategy.

If we instead take the time to fully explore another teammate’s space, some players invariably feel like they drew the short straw, and they would have preferred to spend the majority of their time in the other space, the one the group deems more fun or more exciting.

Stylized image of a road splitting around a mountain.

Mitigating the Regrouping Problem

There are a few ways that we’ve thought of to prevent this problem from emerging: 

  • Limit the amount of time that teams spend split up. This is a problem that becomes increasingly pronounced with time.
  • Once the teams regroup, push them forward into a new space. If the previous spaces aren’t really relevant, then it’s a nonissue.
  • Make all of the puzzles within the split-team portion joint solves, so that seeing the other space feels more like seeing what you’ve already participated in, rather than something new that demands exploration.
  • Don’t bring the team together. If you want split-team gameplay, keep it split the entire time.

The regrouping problem isn’t a gamebreaker, but it can be a late-game momentum killer… which is less than ideal for both players and game designers. Teams should be excited to regroup. That momentum plays a crucial part in building the right vibe for any given moment of a game.

Red Herrings in Escape Rooms [Design]

Red herrings are one of the oldest and strangest debates in escape rooms.

This is an unusual hot-button issue because unlike the public vs. private ticketing debate, there isn’t even consensus as to what constitutes a red herring in an escape room.

A big red fish viewed from head on. It has an intense gaze.

Competing Red Herring Definitions

In my experience, it seems like there are 3 different red herring camps:

  1. Anything not directly related to a puzzle is a red herring.
  2. Red herrings require intentionality.
  3. Anything that is misleading is a red herring.

Camp 1

I don’t think the first definition holds up to any level of scrutiny. This basically suggests that the set is only there as a container for the puzzles. I don’t think that is true or advantageous.

Camp 2

I also don’t think that intentionality can be the measure because nearly every escape room has some non-deliberate interaction in it. If a red herring must be intentional, then an aloof designer – whose game has little intentionality behind it – could never have red herrings.

Camp 3

That leaves us with the definition that anything misleading is a red herring… so let’s play with that idea for a bit.

A school of red fish near the surface of the water.

Types of Red Herrings

Let’s look at a few types interactions that are misleading, intentionally or otherwise.

Fake Puzzles

A fake puzzle is an actual puzzle that resolves to dead end.

One example is a decipherment that translates to an answer along the lines of:

  • “You just wasted your time.”
  • “You should work on something different.”
  • “Unhelpful solution.”

We’ve seen this type of thing a few times .

Fake puzzles are demoralizing. They beg the question: why didn’t you just integrate this into the game?

Ghost Puzzles

Ghost puzzles are any props, writing, or other markings that are left over from a broken or removed puzzle.

These remnants transform into a point of confusion. We’ve written more extensively on the subject.

Puzzle LookAlikes

Sometimes something looks like a puzzle, acts like a puzzle, and quacks like a puzzle… but it isn’t a puzzle.

Maybe this puzzle lookalike was placed there to intentionally mislead or maybe it was a complete accident. Regardless of the intent, if something irrelevant is regularly suckering players into thinking its a puzzle, it’s a red herring.

Escape rooms should not punish people for exploring interesting things in the gamespace. That’s a good way to make a player leave feeling like they wasted their time.

Irrelevant Cool Objects

The red herring that I have really grown to resent most is the really cool but irrelevant object.

When I walk into a game, I’m there for an adventure. I’m there to play. When I look around any given gamespace, my assumption is that the most eye-catching and fun objects in the room will be integrated into the gameplay.

If there’s a periscope in a submarine, I expect that I will use it for something. If that isn’t the case, first I will be distracted by it as I try to use it for a puzzle… and then I will be disappointed by the lack of an interaction. (An inconsiderate player might break the thing.)

A red fish viewed from the side.

Our Definition of Red Herring

The more I think about red herrings as they pertain to escape room design, the more I think that “anything that’s misleading is a red herring” is the correct definition… but that is only half of the issue.

Once something is misleading, the follow-up question should be: is it detrimental?

Fake puzzles, ghost puzzles, puzzle lookalikes, and irrelevant cool objects are almost always detrimental to gameplay.

Additionally, when the majority of teams require the same hint to solve a single puzzle, that puzzle is harming the experience, regardless of whether it is a red herring that causes the teams to falter. This kind of content is junky.

In the end, my feelings aren’t that a red herring = 😡.

My anger is directed toward spending my time with junk content instead of quality content. Unfortunately, red herrings frequently mean junk content.

Eliminate the junk and have your players grapple with quality gameplay.

“It’s Supposed To Be Hard Bro”

The most common red herring defense is, “we put it in there for the challenge; it’s supposed to be hard.”

I like a difficult game as much (or more) than the next puzzle nerd. If a game is going to be hard, however, I want it to come from challenging, interesting, and clean puzzles.

Anyone can make a game incredibly hard by hiding multiple tiny components in obscure places. Difficulty has no inherent value, especially in absence of quality content.

Closing Thoughts

Two years ago, we had dinner with puzzle designer Eric Harshbarger the night before competing in his puzzle hunt Eric’s Puzzle Party 17. At one point in the meal, he told me something that I think all puzzle designers should apply to their designs:

“I never design with red herrings. The players will create their own.”