There are a few easy to identify trends going on right now in the escape room world. Some are good, (larger room sizes) some are bad (all our rooms have a 3% escape rate) and some can be both, depending on execution. We’ll touch on the first two in another post but for now let's focus on “continuing storylines” or as fancy people on the internet call it, story arc.
While not the most prevalent trend in the industry, it is something we run into from time to time while looking for a game. “A TRULY UNIQUE escape room adventure. All our rooms follow the journey of Jane Doe and her quest to uncover the inventor of Tiddley Winks” says Escape Room ABC’s (not a real ER, I hope) website. Pretty cool concept, or it could be. Honestly, it’s a great way of differentiating yourself from the competition albeit something that, for the most part, only enthusiasts are going to care about. I mean it would be if you actually were telling a story…
Of the places we’ve played that employ this concept, very few of them actually employ this concept. As escape room owners in Largo, when looking for a game either locally or when we travel, we will reach out to the ER we plan on playing, tell them a bit about our group dynamic and ask for a suggestion as to which room they think would be the most fun for us. Usually the owner/manager will respond and give us a recommendation and we usually go with that.
At a “continuing storyline” ER they usually add that they do, in fact, have a story that progresses throughout all of their rooms however it doesn’t matter if we play them in order or not! Whoa, hang on a sec, what do you mean it doesn’t matter? If it doesn’t matter, then what’s the point?
We have, on a rare occasion, had the ER, frimly recommend that we play the rooms in a particular order, which we did, and those rare occasions were the only times we left with any idea as to what the overarching story was actually about. Now this is not to say that there aren’t many other ER’s who do a good job at this but… it’s seems many use this idea more like a used car sales tactic than anything else.
Case and Point. Not too long ago we travelled and meet up with some good friends of our who live far away. As we always do when we travel, we wanted to do an escape room. Our friends, they were virgins (to ER’s, I assume to not much else) and we took that into account when selecting our room. We reached out to the ER and got the standard all our rooms follow a larger story but it doesn’t matter which order you play them in. Now in hindsight, that should have raised a tiny red flag but it didn’t and the fact that this particular ER came highly recommended, we pulled the trigger and booked the room they recommended which was, towards the end of their “continuing story”.
As being one of those rare people who actually have an interest in what the escape room we are about to play is about, I actually read the room info on the website. In this particular case, that amounted to four very short sentences which, didn’t tell us much. Our friends even asked us what the room was about and we had to tell them we weren't sure.
We arrive at the escape room, in the lobby is a poster for the room, same pic as the website, same four sentences. The host/GM takes us into our room after the rules briefing and it looks like it’s going to be pretty awesome at this point. She pulls a remote control out of her pocket and says: “I’m gonna start your timer now… go!” and leaves the room. A bit abrupt but ok, I mean we have no idea what we’re doing here. We obviously need to get through that door but other than that, no clue as to our purpose, mission, goal etc. “It must become apparent as we work our way through the game” I say to myself. Off we go, working our way through, get past the first few things, still no clue as to what our purpose is. Into the second area, now this must be where it all becomes clear right? Uh… not so much, in fact, not at all.
By this point, if you’re not given a story, you kind of forget that a story is even part of it and just go through the motions doing the puzzles and moving on to the next. Honestly, as a player, there’s nothing wrong with that in my eyes. Give me a well done room, this room surely was. Give me some good puzzles of varying complexity, which this room had. Finally, give me a game master who knows what we’re doing if we need help, this venue did not (we’ll discuss GM’s more in another post), and I’m as happy as a clam. Two out of three’s not bad until… this game takes, probably the strangest, most mind boggling turn we’ve ever encountered in all the rooms we’ve done.
If you haven’t noticed, I’m trying to be a bit vague when describing this room as my point here has nothing to do with a particular venue but everything to do with venues in general who use this “continuing story” ploy to attract players but give you no actual story. As such, to explain the “turn”. I’m gonna try and relay this part using a different example. You know, the whole protect the innocent thing.
So imagine you spent most of the hour in a really well done environment that was, let’s say, wild west themed in the late 1800’s. Then all of the sudden, you move through, what you think is the final door, and you’re now in an egyptian tomb! (I assure you, time travel had nothing to do with this) This is really a bad example but without being specific, it’s the best I can come up with. The movement from one space to the a completely different environment was so abrupt, so outside the realm of plausibility, it was literally shocking. These two environments, being attached to each other, made absolutely zero sense! Then to add some additional confusion to the mix, you quickly move to a third disconnected environment at the finish. It was easily the most confused we have ever been and it had nothing to do with a bad puzzle or leap of logic.
Here’s the thing. It was a really well done room, no doubt about it. Knowing what I know now (after leaving the facility and then later talking with the owner), The three disconnected environments, they could have made sense. The could have made sense if we were given any prelude to the story we now found ourselves in. A short video at the beginning, a 30 second narrative by the GM, some pieces of the story revealed to us throughout the game. Alas, there was none of this and due to that omission, we had no clue what the heck was going on.
One of the first things our “virgin” friends said as we hit the parking lot was: “That was fun but, what were we supposed to be doing? As very experienced players, we thought exactly the same thing. For that to happen to two groups from opposite ends of the experience spectrum, it was not an anomaly.
Our escape rooms in Largo at Escape FLA don’t follow a continuing storyline. Not because we don’t like the idea but mostly because we don’t design that way. We like to play around with different story ideas and environments. That alone doesn’t exclude the storyline model as we’ve seen it done well and the environments from game to game are very different. What should exclude you from using the continuing storyline is this. If there is not one tiny shred of story to be found either before or during the game, please don’t tell people there’s an overarching story.
The story might exist in the mind of the designer but your players can’t read the designers mind. There might a continuing story if you stand back and look at each individual game as one whole entire game. If that’s your plan, you need to make it very clear to your players that they need to play these rooms in order. If that’s your plan, you need to realize that your customers, most won’t take your advice. Since most won’t heed your advice, you need to have a very apparent story interwoven into each room… please! What could have been a top 10 room for us became a lesson in what not to do.
Ryan and Jen
Owners and Designers
Escape Rooms in Largo, Florida