Minkette on Escape Room design; Secret Studio

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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.

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Learning about Multiplayer Puzzle Design from Escape Rooms

I’m standing on a London street across from a scrap metal recycling establishment, in front of a door with no sign except a cryptic symbol. I’ve been told I will only be admitted if I press the buzzer at exactly the right time. A stranger asks me whether I’ve “had experiences like this” before.

I have, unless the stranger means “have you ever ridden the London Overground before this evening,” in which case the answer is no. We are a little outside my comfort zone there. But there are no Tube stops in this part of town.

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Time Run: the Lance of Longinus is a London escape room. There is an hour of gameplay, but if you count in brief and debrief time, it will take a good chunk of two hours to complete. We played with a team of four, which is the recommended number. They will let you play with three or five, but there were several of the puzzles that I think would have been just a bit more tricky to do with three (and fully impossible with two, so that’s fair enough). It was excellent fun; the team came out fairly psyched up and energized, and immediately talking about finding another escape room to do together.

I’d also say that, except for the travel to get to London in the first place, escape rooms turn out to fit my lifestyle surprisingly well: the gameplay itself is self-contained and memorable, it doesn’t take 60 hours to get a full experience, it doesn’t rely on reflexes I don’t have, and I’m less likely to get stuck than when playing a graphical adventure. No prep is required. It’s also a playful social experience with sufficient structure that you don’t need to Do Smalltalk, and enough adrenaline and excitement that you do build a sense of connection with the rest of your group. It doesn’t tend to involve the level of creativeness and emotional risk-taking that you see in storygaming, so it’s suitable to do with people you don’t yet know super-well, and it doesn’t require as much energy.

As with the previous escape game I played, it would be bad form to go into too much detail: a lot of the fun of an experience like this is in the discovery, and I won’t describe the puzzles or much about the format. But to speak very broadly, I felt that the individual puzzles in Longinus were a bit less difficult than in Enter the Oubliette, and the narrative frame less stressful. In Oubliette, you have to ask for hints when you’re ready for them; in Time Run, there’s a constant line open to a hint-giver who will nudge you along if you seem to be missing something, and we spent less time actively stuck. The “run” in Time Run doesn’t refer to any actual physical activity, but the game does keep up a pretty good pace, with new puzzle content reveals happening on a regular basis. Conversely, less of what you see in Time Run is there to help flesh out characters or develop the fiction of the surrounding world. None of this is a criticism of either Oubliette or Time Run — just a difference in flavor.

Perhaps in exchange for their non-central location, Time Run’s organizers have plenty of space at their disposal, and they make good use of it. The game uses some quite large-scale props, and a few puzzles that would be cramped in a smaller setting. The whole space, including the intro and exit rooms, has been imaginatively set-dressed, but in a way that doesn’t overload the team with red herrings. At the end, you get a score card for your team, and it’s printed on thick linen-finish stock with gold stamping. There are no actors in the escape rooms themselves, but there are several at intro and outro, and possibly more staff we didn’t see working levers behind the scenes while we played. The whole experience feels deluxe, which reflects the ticket prices, a few pounds more than average for a game of this type.

Multiple activities in the course of the game were adventure game-style puzzles that I have never seen executed in real life before. I won’t say what my favorite was, but I will say that when our team found it, there was a certain amount of incredulous, appreciative laughter that someone had *actually* built this setup.

I found this fascinating from a game design perspective. Escape rooms generally and Time Run in particular are very much multiplayer puzzle games, and we have so few of those in the IF space that it’s worth digging in for guidance wherever we can find that. Some thoughts, based on the grand total of two escape rooms I’ve done so far:

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Enter the Oubliette Room Escape

oubliette.jpgSunday a group from the London IF Meetup got together to tackle the Enter the Oubliette escape room. This was my first contact with escape rooms, though I’ve heard about a number from friends who’ve either played or worked on creating them. (If you’re in Seattle, here’s Sam Ashwell on the work of Puzzle Break. In London, I’ve also heard good things about Time Run; in fact, here’s a whole blog about escape rooms, biased towards but not exclusively focused on London, with a review that gives Oubliette five stars.)

Enter the Oubliette was put together by project members who have Punchdrunk experience, and indeed a number of things about the props did remind me of Punchdrunk things I’ve seen: the meticulous documents with retro design, paper types, and illustration; the functioning retro technology; the inventive use of sound, film, lighting, and smoke effects as well as space and objects to create a particular experience. The room wasn’t as crammed-full-of-stuff as the setting of a Punchdrunk stage production, but that was a mercy: we already had plenty to search and already had to have some strong hints to guide our attention to some missed items.

With something like this that thrives on novelty and where each person who sees spoilers is a person who can’t realistically be a customer, it seems actively hostile to give too much away. So I want to be extra careful not to do that.

If you’re just looking for advice about whether this is worth doing: we liked it. We had a great time with a mixed group; most of us hadn’t been to any kind of escape room before. We had different degrees of self-confidence about our puzzle solving ability, but we did fine and everyone got to contribute in meaningful ways. And although you might try to place it by saying it’s a bit like a cross between immersive theatre and a graphical adventure game, in practice it is still really, really different from either of those things.

Below are some fairly general comments about how this experience worked as an interactive story experience, which I will still cordon off in case you don’t want to see even those.

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