This post is a two-parter. Recently I went to Secret Studio, my third experience with room escapes; and Minkette, one of the creators of Oubliette, came to the Oxford/London IF Meetup to talk about the design and creation process.
I’d asked Minkette to come talk about the kind of storytelling she does: often location-based, often using physical props to communicate backstory or the flavor of the world you’re in.
She started us off with an overview of related projects, including Sleep No More, Wiretapper (reviewed here), and 2.8 Hours Later, a zombie chase game that runs through London. She also spoke about her own Train of Thought, an experience designed for the Underground, in which participants were able to listen to pre-recorded tracks that were meant to be the thoughts of one of the other passengers in their coach. (Here’s an audience member’s description of that experience.)
Next, Minkette took us through the process of constructing the Oubliette escape room, with lots of pictures of the various props in construction. It was fascinating to see what went into these: Oubliette featured a vacuum tube setup that (seemed to) let you pneumatically send messages to other characters, but that was actually just operated by someone pulling a magnet on a string.
But the parts of her talk that were newest to me were the ones where she talked about the psychological purpose of their design choices.
The Oubliette site was designed to bring the player step by step into an alternate world, starting with a fake storefront and proceeding through a “portal” (a conceit also used by several other escape rooms I’ve played or read about) into the world of New Pelagia; continuing with a video briefing, performed in a small, austere blue-grey room where the audience had to look up at quite an angle in order to view their instructions. I love this: it’s the kind of thing that’s very hard to use in a computer game (unless you manage to get your players to draw on their own skin), but very powerful. I bet it will be more possible in VR, though, where the placement of an object or a viewing angle could force the player into particular positions.
Oubliette‘s video briefing welcomed the audience members as new employees in a creepy, panoptic regime inspired by 1984 and “Brazil.” At the end of that sequence, the players are told to surreptitiously check around under their seats to look for some useful items — as it turns out, a flashlight and a book of ration tickets that can be used for bribery.
At this point in my own experience of the game, I was keenly conscious that I might screw up by mis-acting: I’m not an especially stealthy person and if I’m looking for something underneath my seat, the rest of the room is probably going to know about it. The fear that I’m about to do something wrong and ruin the experience for everyone is a sensation I usually try to squash as much as possible when I’m playing RPGs and similar games, because otherwise I block myself so hard I can’t contribute at all. But in this particular case, the sense of unease was really suitable to the occasion.
Next, the party enters a room with a secretary at a desk, who has the power to let the players into the main puzzle room beyond. There’s a correct solution to this — offer the secretary the ration tickets you just found, as a bribe — but as Minkette explained, the scenario is intended to accomplish some other things as well.
First, one person has to take enough initiative and overcome the social awkwardness enough to actually make that bargain, which establishes that player as a kind of natural group leader. (Time Run also does something that identifies roles within the player group in advance of play.) Second, this establishes the bribery mechanic that also applies to hints later on — and in fact it’s possible to solve one other problem with a bribe to the game-runners. (Our team solved that particular problem the hard way, with me bent over a reconfigured typewriter madly typing in the dark.)
I’m not capturing nearly everything she discussed, here — she talked about the difficulty of doing branching narrative in this context; about the source material they used for their video, and the inspirations for everything down to the color of the paint on the walls; about trying to set things up so that multiple players got heroic moments where they Pressed A Huge Button or otherwise dramatically triggered something. Perhaps at some point she’ll share her slides. But I do want to mention one other charming story she told in a response to audience questions:
Apparently at one point they ran Oubliette in a special way for a guest who was also a supporter and had helped them a lot in getting the room up and running. This person didn’t want to participate in solving the puzzles himself, but did want to bring his family — so they staged a version of the game where, during the initial briefing, one of the game actors came in and “arrested” the person in question, taking him off stage. From there, he got to sit and watch from the game-running room as his family worked through the experience; and when it looked like they weren’t quite going to make it out in time, they gave him the final couple of codes and sent him in to “rescue” his family. This is the kind of by-hand remix that’s almost impossible to design into a digital experience.
The flavor of the game was rather different from either Oubliette (difficult and rich in atmosphere in a way that persisted from your first contact with the game) or Time Run (where the emphasis was more on the spectacle and the daring set pieces used for the puzzles).
In Secret Studio, the puzzles were easier and less rigorous than in the other pieces we’d played: there were a few bits where we got stumped, but in those cases it was typically because something was really hidden in an obscure location, not because there was a train of logic we hadn’t figured out.
The puzzles were also more loosely connected to the story’s central premise or to any plausible configuration of the environment; we encountered lots of soup cans. And there was less emphasis on the mechanical: a lot of the solutions involve the players performing certain actions or arranging things in a particular way, with the game master triggering the next reveal when they’ve got it right, rather than setting up a physical prop that is going to pop open at the right time.
The puzzle sequence is designed more with the intention that everyone will focus on the same puzzles at the same time, rather than that you will each go to your own corner and make individual progress. When we started, we (as semi-seasoned players) split up to try to give the room a bit of a shakedown, but the game master almost immediately started sending us messages through the hint screen, trying to get us to work together on one particular puzzle. My initial reaction was “hang on, let us finish doing our inventory on the room and puzzles before you try to send us hints!”
Still, there was some useful information in that interaction, namely that a) we were better off collaborating on one thing at a time and b) that first puzzle was actually a lot less intricate than we’d been assuming, so we didn’t actually need to scour the room for additional information because we already had everything vital in fron tof us.
Once we’d settled into that groove for playing, we made pretty steady progress and were more in tune with the game. Secret Studio deploys a number of surprise tricks — things I might have expected more in a haunted house than in an escape room — including one that did genuinely make me shriek in startlement. And when I look back on the experience, I think of it as a series of high-point moments — this reveal, that jump-scare, the other nifty prop use — with the intervening material existing mostly to make those moments possible. The players’ emotional arc is much more the key here than an actual coherent story.
Still, all of that made for a pretty strong contrast with Oubliette — not because Oubliette didn’t have an emotional arc, but because the route it took to get there was more demanding of both the creators and the players. Oubliette doesn’t really let you into any of the puzzles until you’ve committed to the scenario enough to have an argument with a highly obstructive actor. In Secret Studio, we got an email instructing us to ring a certain doorbell and say a weird passphrase… unless we felt like that was weird, in which case we could just identify ourselves and be let in.