Monday, September 3, 2018

Escape Rooms Have a Narrative

I like escape rooms. The kind where you (and possibly your friends) are stuck in a room and have to find your way out. My first introduction was the old Crimson Room flash game, but I mostly cut my teeth on the Zero Escape series on the handheld video games systems (and now on Steam!). While I was playing solo, physical escape rooms gradually became more popular in the US to the point that there are probably over a dozen of them within 30 miles of me.

I haven't done those as much, owing to the fact that they require a group and I'm not the best organizer, but I've done three now, the most recent one being on Saturday night, which is what inspired this post.

At its most basic level, the story of an escape room is that you have to escape. But that's not enough. There should be a reason why you're trapped. A video game has plenty of room to explore this. The Zero Escape series is largely a visual novel outside of the escape room segments for this very reason. However, a physical escape room in the real world doesn't have the time to sit the players down for an elaborate story. Generally a "room" is actually 2-4 rooms in which a small team of players work their way through multiple puzzles and have somewhere between 45-60 minutes to escape.

Typically any given escape room entertainment center will have multiple rooms, each with a different theme. You might be trying to escape zombies in one, or a detective's office in another. This gives players some variety and sets the atmosphere.

It's also what provides the story.

And it's how I realized that I didn't get into my third escape room as much as I could have.

Last Saturday my friend had a birthday get-together and had never done escape rooms before so a group of us went to one where we needed to escape an insane asylum. (Completely not my choice. I don't do well with horror attractions.) When start time hit, we were led into the room and the attendant prepared to close the door behind us, which was my first instinct that something was off.

It was well and good that we were inside the room and about to start, and obviously nobody wants to be locked in an insane asylum, but what was the story? Why were we there? Why were we trapped?

We had a good time anyway. A couple of us really got into it and I now have my friend's most blood-curdling scream to treasure for years to come, but the ending was a tad anti-climatic, even though we escaped with 8 minutes to spare. The problem was that the rooms were escalating the notion that there was something very wrong about this asylum, especially with the creepy words written all over the second room and the bloody handprints in the third, but the third room consisted of a single, relatively easy puzzle with a single part which ended up giving us a key. Rather than opening up to a fourth room, it turned out to be the exit key.

And that was it. We didn't learn the fate of the crazy inmate whose room we presumably rummaging through. We don't know why there were bloody handprints. The atmosphere was just fine (hence the screaming from my friends), but I felt like something was missing.

That's when I looked back at the two previous rooms I had done and realized why I had enjoyed them more.

The first room I ever did was a haunted theater, in which we were informed that we were the new stagehands and we had been trapped backstage by a ghost. The only way to escape was to find and perform a ritual to release the ghost before time was up.

We went through the puzzles, freaked out when we found out there was a second room (being my first real world game I thought it would be literally one room), and with a minute remaining we finally had all the objects we needed, shouted the words to the ritual and shook around the various objects we'd gathered, and the game ended with seconds to spare.

It was a rousing way to end the game. We knew why we were in the escape room scenario, and we had a hell of a way to successfully end it as well. Everything we were doing was building up to a single moment, that ritual, which made for an excellent payoff when we finally performed it.

My second game similarly had a narrative opening and ending (though it was based on the Zero Escape series, so it obviously needed to tie in for the sake of the fans).

Even though an escape room largely serves as a series of puzzles for real world players, it still could use a story, and is made a lot better for it.