Design Doc #1.0: The components of a puzzle

At its core, a puzzle in an escape room is an activity that gates progress – a barrier that participants must overcome. However, asking “what is a puzzle?” is less important than asking “why is a puzzle?” What is the specific emotion or experience a designer needs to evoke in a player to justify the presence of a puzzle?

In general we use the term “satisfying” as a catch-all for a successful puzzle. Satisfaction can emerge from several facets of an experience, but in general refers to stimulation that meets or exceeds expectations. A puzzle’s purpose in an escape room is to stimulate certain sets of skills.

Mark Brown, who produces the excellent Youtube series Game Maker’s Toolkit, breaks successful puzzles in videogames into six parts: the mechanics, the catch, the revelation, the assumption, the presentation, and the curve. These are useful principles, explaining how satisfying puzzle experiences result from players gradually building up knowledge and understanding of the mechanics to overcome new wrinkles.

Escape rooms are not videogames, however. This means that there are some extra considerations required when breaking down what makes a satisfying puzzle in the context of escape rooms.

Mechanics

Game mechanics in a videogame are a result of the interactions between systems. These include the controls, actions a player can take, and the way items are programmed to behave. According to Brown, the ideal is to have clear, simple mechanics that are versatile in terms of possible outcomes.

There are limitations to this when it comes to escape rooms. Escape rooms are a live experience, which can be both limiting and freeing. It is freeing because players are not constrained to actions that have been specifically programmed, but it is limited by the realms of what is physically possible. There will be no physics-bending portal guns in a live escape room any time soon.

As a result puzzle mechanics in an escape room are dictated by external mechanisms. They are the rules governing specific objects and tools available within the room, as well as the general rule that everything required is provided within the design. They are not actions, as in videogames, but items.

Novelty

One essential component of puzzle design in videogames as Mark Brown sees it – the curve – is limited in escape rooms. In videogames, designers often design around a specific mechanic, gradually iterating upon this mechanic to develop a player’s expertise. This is possible in an escape room, but generally escape room players expect greater variety in the kinds of activities they must perform.

This is an extra layer to consider when designing a room’s overall puzzle structure. It is good to gradually layer greater complexity onto familiar actions and mechanics, but this could undermine the ability for a designer to keep things varied and interesting.

Time Constraints

The final component of puzzle design that makes it different from videogames is the strict time limit. In a videogame puzzles can be designed to take a long time to complete. This means that it is possible to have players experiment with different solutions and gradually iterate upon these. This isn’t impossible in an escape room, but the length of time taken experimenting must be taken into consideration.

There is a tendency to assume that this means puzzles in escape rooms need to have limited difficulty. However, difficulty is not the only thing that impacts the time taken to complete a puzzle. It is also important to observe that a clever, complex puzzle can be presented in a way that ensures players feel constantly stimulated and active. When thinking about time constraints, then, this is the important factor – not specifically how long is spent on a puzzle, but how long the puzzle requires inaction or repetitive behaviours.

Conclusion

Escape rooms require a different kind of puzzle than videogames due to their unique circumstances. However, many of the features that make a videogame puzzle successful have analogues in the escape room context. A satisfying puzzle for an escape room is one that promises to challenge a specific skill in a unique or interesting way. It consists of something blocking progress – a lock – that requires knowledge or information – a key – to bypass. To use or obtain this key participants must make use of tools following an intended sequence.

In the next few design docs, I will be delving into the different components of a puzzle and discussing how these can make the puzzle more or less satisfying: the lock, the key, the tools, and the intended sequence. The final article in this series will then look at how the different components interact with each other. I believe that these four components are present in all escape room puzzles, and that different approaches to them can result in different experiences. Understanding the purpose of each of these components in the overall puzzle structure and how smart designers can manipulate them and their interactions can only improve the quality of escape room designs overall.

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Industry Interviews: Joshua, owner and designer at The Mystery Rooms, Melbourne

Quotes are taken from an interview conducted via email. Minor formatting changes have been made to the original quotations to ensure consistency.

Joshua is the owner and designer of The Mystery Rooms located in Fitzroy, Melbourne. At The Mystery Rooms players are recruited by the GRIMM Agency to combat the influence of the Snow Queen across three different chapters set in different historical settings – ancient Egypt, colonial Australia, and medieval Europe. Completing these three chapters allows access to a final mission where players must take the fight to the Snow Queen’s lair.

Joshua wants his rooms to be appealing to all ages, focusing on creating an immersive experience from beginning to end. “We would rather tell a great exciting story than stump people with too complicated puzzles,” he tells me. Perhaps the accessibility of his designs is driven by his background in outdoor education: “Seeing how people can work together and communicate in a more unusual setting – the Australian bush versus the school classroom – really helps with the game design.” The story he tells through his venue is further supported by tertiary studies in English Language and Literature.

The overarching narrative that connects the four different experiences offered at The Mystery Rooms is a core feature of the venue. “I felt that there was an opportunity to create something a bit bigger that had one cohesive story across all the challenges as well as provide a great out of game experience to encourage large groups and corporates,” he explains. For Joshua, it is therefore essential that every facet of the experience is built around that narrative.

“Our pre-game information and reminders are written from the GRIMM agency that players are coming to assist,” he says. “When they arrive on site they are taken into our briefing area, which looks like the GRIMM headquarters. The staff deliver the story and safety brief in character. Instead of saying ‘don’t climb’ and leaving it there […] they may say ‘no need to climb as if you fall you are at the mercy of the health care of the time period you are in. Ancient Egypt – well, that’s mummification and not fun for anyone.’ Once the team completes their mission we then take them to our separate debriefing area where we explain the next challenge that awaits them. They also receive emails after the game requesting further assistance to stop the Snow Queen.”

Creating these narrative connections between the different rooms offered presents some design limitations. Joshua states that due to these links, “We had to have an object that’s obtainable and meaningful to the overall story but that also fits the time period and individual room story. These items also need to be something we can actually use for puzzles in the final game.” Another important consideration with this design philosophy is accessibility. “We also need to ensure the overall venue theme and feel across all the games matches, as we want all players to complete all the games,” Joshua explains. “We can’t suddenly have an over eighteen only game as it excludes younger players from completing the story.”

This makes narrative the priority when designing new rooms. “For us the theme, narrative and immersion are the priority. The puzzles need to be memorable and fun but not too complicated that a brand new player wouldn’t be able to solve.” But Joshua does ensure his rooms offer an extra challenge to skilled players. “So that we can appeal to both new players and enthusiasts we have a bonus puzzle or two in each room. These are clearly marked and are more complicated puzzles with a reward for completion.”

When designing his rooms, Joshua first considered which themes would best suit the overall narrative in the venue. “The first three games are historical,” he explains, “and the mission is to obtain an object you will need in the final exclusive game.”

“With historical games it’s all about research. I will learn everything I can about that period. This will start to form a few puzzle ideas. An example would be Chapter 1 – The Lost Tomb, which is based in ancient Egypt. One of the first things you find when looking into Egypt is hieroglyphics, which form a perfect cipher style puzzle.”

With the core elements of the design locked in, Joshua turns to some more practical considerations. “Once we have a few key puzzles we design a room to maximise the amount of floor space available for groups. This may mean making the room multi-levelled. We heat map the space and ensure that a group won’t get bottlenecked.”

Bottlenecking can be a conceptual problem as well as a spatial one, requiring consideration of puzzle design. “We design open flow games so that multiple puzzles can be solved at the same time,” Joshua explains. “We draw up a flow map of the room and then start to install.”

The build generally begins once 80% of the room has been designed. “This naturally helps with the last 20%,” Joshua says. Then comes testing, which can be a long-term iterative process. “After a few months the enthusiast players will have played and we will start to see more new players so we may need to add further clues.”

Building these rooms introduces some unique challenges. “The big challenge we have in our venue is that because it is an old wool mill and we wanted to maximise space many of our walls are not straight. This means that every cut has to be measured and adjusted. If we ever build another venue we would build a room inside a shell with a rat run around the outside for cables.”

Ambitious designs can also create challenges. “The ancient Egypt game contains seven tonnes of sand. The sand is excellent for immersion and as far as I know we are the only [escape room] in the world full of sand. Sand however destroys locks, hinges and any movable parts. The fix for this is regular preventative maintenance and spares of everything.” Other rooms have comparable challenges. “The Snow Queen’s kingdom is refrigerated to about seven degrees which some of the tech components don’t like.”

But one of the biggest challenges Joshua identifies in the industry is understanding business. “I feel the biggest stumbling point in opening an escape room is the knowledge of running a small business. Many companies do ‘napkin math’ and feel that escape rooms are great moneymaking opportunities and that they like puzzles and could design something. This may be true but building a good game is the first step. After that it’s all about running a business, managing staff, social media, marketing and demand.”

What does Joshua do if he finds he doesn’t have the specific skills necessary for a particular idea? “If a task requires a skill I feel I am a five out of ten with then I will up-skill myself – an example here would be Arduino and the 12-volt technology that runs many escape games. If I am less than a five out of ten then rather than waste time learning that skill I will outsource the work. An example here would be structural carpentry.”

Given unlimited resources, Joshua would be keen to work with a large, established IP. “It annoys me that so many games use licensed property without the license and then do a mediocre job and therefore put a sour taste on that brand,” he explains. “I would love to build an X-Men room where each player has a different mutant power and they would need to use their specific skills to solve different elements of the game. I would only ever consider it though if I could actually work with Marvel and Fox Studios.”

“I would also like to get creative with things that are potentially unsafe,” he continues. “A slowly descending ceiling would be great but comes with a lot of OH&S problems in Australia.”

If you would like to visit The Mystery Rooms for yourself, you can find more information and make bookings at their website here.

Industry interviews: Nikita and Andrej, owners of Quest Room Brisbane

Nikita and Andrej opened their escape room business Quest Room in South Brisbane in early 2017. They started with two rooms – a Sherlock Holmes theme and one based on the style of the Saw franchise – and have recently opened a third room set in an Egyptian tomb.

Both Nikita and Andrej are originally from Russia, where escape rooms are big business. “In Russia it started from the beginning with this direct style, with professional stories and so on,” Nikita says. “There was one company that started maybe six years ago that started the [style] and then it started to grow up really fast and now we have five hundred rooms only in Moscow. So it’s around the whole country and it’s really different things, like zombies, starships.”

The Australian escape room industry is considerably smaller than the one in Russia. The approach Andrej and Nikita take is inspired by the rooms they experienced overseas, so they focus on eliminating padlocks where possible and installing immersive sets.

Their design process therefore begins with the theme. “Then,” Andrej says, “once we agree on the theme we have a scriptwriter that we employ to write us the script.” It is very important to them that everything within their rooms makes sense in relation to the narrative, though these scripts often require changes to make them feasible. Nikita describes a few ideas that had to be changed, chuckling at the memory: “He was like, oh, then hands come down from the ceiling and we were like, no that’s not going to happen; or he says oh, the floor is moving and there is a corpse there and we’re like no the floor’s not moving.” Nikita and Andrej will usually change forty percent or more of the script to make it implementable, but having a professional script as a starting point ensures they embed a logical narrative progression into the experiences.

Andrej’s background is in project management in both the IT and construction industries, while Nikita is an electronics engineer and hobbyist model painter. These backgrounds are useful to designing and building escape rooms, but there are other skills that they had to teach themselves. Nikita identifies one example: “Painting, aging – you need to do like weathering, aging stuff sometimes. That’s what I learned from modelling but for the big things it’s different.” Andrej adds, “We had to learn tiling for the new room.”

The reason they needed to learn to build and manufacture their own props and sets was due to the difficulty of sourcing high quality props in Australia. A smaller industry means less local infrastructure for things like prop making and set building. Buying props online comes with its own set of challenges. As Andrej explains, “You go to Ebay and stuff, buy things that look good, and then something like this arrives.”

He shows me a plasticky dagger and severed arm. “It will look like a toy straight away,” Nikita sighs. These unused props are now given to players for use in their postgame photos. Nikita and Andrej therefore make many of their own props to achieve the quality they are looking for.

Hiring builders and prop makers in Australia can also be prohibitively expensive due to the limited options. Nikita explains that in places like Los Angeles or Moscow and St Petersburg, there are a larger number of prop makers to choose from, which can result in more competitive pricing. To achieve the quality they are looking for at a sustainable cost, then, Nikita and Andrej do a lot of the construction work themselves.

“Yes, achieving that level of quality can be both challenging and time consuming,” Nikita admits, “but it is entirely worth it and we thoroughly enjoy both the process and outcomes.” They see themselves at the tip of the iceberg in terms of room complexity, fitout quality and authenticity of the customer experience, and they profess a drive to constantly iterate and improve upon those core features of their business.

Andrej and Nikita also work with a different regulatory framework in comparison to some international escape rooms. They identify components like handcuffing players as things they had to work closely with police and council to be able to implement. Though they mention Russian rooms in particular as ones that tended to avoid council or government restrictions, Nikita points out that the limited regulation there may be approaching an end. “They started to [introduce regulations] because there are too many now and there were a few accidents in small towns. Like there were accidents with injuries and that’s why the government I think now started to look at it and started to do the rules for it.”

Regulations and feasibility are not the only considerations they have to make in their designs. Andrej and Nikita must also consider how players may interact with their rooms. “With Egypt our original hope was to make it as close to ancient Egypt as possible, which means no electronics, all mechanical puzzles, and we did spend maybe around three months, four months trying to figure out how we were going to do this, open doors, open locks, open this and that,” says Andrej. “And then we realised that with mechanical it can be very difficult to control how people use them because if you just use force you cannot control mechanically that the doors will not open, so some people who don’t care they can just go in and open everything.”

But what would be their dream escape room to design if they were free from all limitations? With an unlimited budget they would go all out. Andrej offers an example: “In St Petersburg they had a room like the Minotaur, so there was a room like that but it’s not a room, it’s a house. Like they had two storeys with lifts and everything, it’s like a maze there. That would be really cool to do. We’d probably like to do something with actors.”

But a project like that would be an expensive prospect in an industry that can already be costly. “I think a lot of people in Australia they don’t understand or don’t recognise how much money can be spent on those rooms, like they think you can build a room for a thousand dollars or something, but that is not the case,” says Andrej.

In the case of Quest Room, their effort appears to have paid off. “People are different, but in most cases they are excited to do our rooms,” Nikita says. The customer experience is of the utmost importance to Andrej and Nikita, and they hope to continue to surprise and delight both new and seasoned players long into the future.

If you would like to visit Quest Rooms for yourself, you can find more information and make bookings at their website here.

The Lost Tomb @ Quest Room

My grandfather had dedicated his life to discovering a certain tomb in Egypt. One day I receive a letter from him – he has discovered the tomb, but is now too old to explore it himself. Armed with his notes I enter The Lost Tomb to discover the treasures within.

General Details

“The Lost Tomb”
Quest Room, 13 Cordelia Street, South Brisbane 4101
60 minutes
2-6 players allowed
Listed difficulty: Challenging
Website

How We Played

21 April 2018
2 players
Succeeded
Hints: 1
53 minutes

The Experience

As I have come to expect from Quest Room, The Lost Tomb envelops you in a beautiful, convincing space. Armed with a flickering torch each and a few dog-eared pages of notes, we crawled, lifted, turned, pushed and explored our way through the pitch-black tomb.

The puzzles all feel very appropriate to the Tomb Raider vibe, including ancient riddles and carvings to ponder. Quest Room has put a great deal of effort into ensuring every prop feels like it belongs and they have succeeded admirably. Everything feels like it belongs. One prop has a particularly magical effect that will make you feel like Indiana Jones.

It is important to note that this room has some accessibility issues as it requires crawling. There isn’t any way around this built into the room unfortunately and the crawling section is right at the start, meaning those with mobility issues will miss almost the entirety of The Lost Tomb.

Speaking of accessibility, this is also a dark room. The torches are thematically perfect, but people who have difficulty with darkness may wish to make their concerns known to the gamemaster just in case. There are no scary elements in the room – it is just dark.

Puzzle Design

The Lost Tomb features a path-based structure in which a series of puzzle strands contribute to an overarching goal. Each of these paths is logically connected not only to the theme but to the overall goal, and each results in a satisfying discovery.

Due to the open structure, large teams may find they can blitz this room without much trouble since there are not a huge number of puzzles. I actually found a team of two to be perfect, as we each contributed to all puzzles and got to see everything. There are some really fun moments in The Lost Tomb, and in a larger group you may not get to see everything.

We had some problems with the darkness obscuring an important detail in a certain puzzle, creating considerable confusion. The owners are aware of this, and I suspect it will be fixed soon. There are also a couple of hidden items that are a little tricky to find because players may assume certain props are not moveable. When a room has so many automated components, it becomes easy to expect that everything will just open automatically. Your mileage may vary on this point – I tend to be pretty slack when it comes to experimenting with props, so often miss hidden items.

At the start of the room you receive notes from your Grandfather, which was a really nice way of tying all the puzzles into a something that felt cohesive. The notes provide pieces of information that are relevant to different puzzles, which ensures everything feels connected even though each puzzle belongs to its own path. It also allows for some puzzles that incorporate Egyptian mythology and hieroglyphics in a manner that flows nicely and doesn’t feel forced.

The Bottom Line

The Lost Tomb is an immersive room with tactile puzzles that make you feel like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. It’s unlikely to tax anyone’s critical faculties, but everything in it is physical and satisfying. Even though it has an open puzzle structure, I think it is better for a smaller team due to some chokepoints and the fact that a large team could spread out and blitz through the puzzles very quickly. It is also very important that no members of the team have mobility issues. If you enjoyed the style of Quest Room’s Sherlocked room, I definitely recommend booking yourself into The Lost Tomb.

Design Doc #0: What is an escape room?

Escape rooms are a difficult thing to define clearly. Indeed, it seems that the more the concept evolves the further it departs from its descriptive designation. It may involve an escape, but it doesn’t have to. In fact it is not even necessary for it to be contained within a room. For many the question is an instinctual one: you can just ‘tell’ if something is an escape room or not.

As the concept evolves, the boundaries between it and other forms of entertainment are beginning to blur. How do we distinguish an escape room from an immersive theatre experience, a haunted house, a VR puzzle game, or a theme park ride? Is there any value bothering to do so?

If we are to develop a consistent and useful set of design principles for escape rooms then I believe it is essential to define the form clearly and precisely. This means we need to identify what is distinctive about escape rooms compared to those other forms I mentioned earlier.

A good place to start is with Scott Nicholson’s 2016 paper ‘The State of Escape: Escape Room Design and Facilities’. In it, Nicholson defines escape rooms as ‘live-action team-based games where players discover clues, solve puzzles, and accomplish tasks in one or more rooms in order to accomplish a specific goal (usually escaping the room) in a limited amount of time.’

This definition is limited as its objective is to provide a layman’s overview rather than a classification that can be used for furthering design principles and theory. One obvious flaw is the use of the descriptor ‘team-based’, for though that describes most escape rooms, it is not an essential characteristic. Many escape rooms can be completed solo (for example, Paris Escape at Social Escape Rooms in Sydney, Australia).

Nicholson is describing rather than defining here. His list of activities (discovering, solving, accomplishing) are certainly activities performed in escape rooms, but are they necessarily what makes it an escape room? We need to distinguish between core features of an escape room and conventions that result due to economic necessities, audience expectations, and hesitance to innovate.

What might these core features look like? Using Nicholson’s assumptions as a starting point, we can begin to identify what makes an escape room an escape room.

Live-action

The term ‘live-action’ refers to a simulation that takes place using physical props that closely approximates the experience being simulated. It is distinct from digital, in which the simulation is managed via computer graphics, or tabletop in which events are simulated through symbolic means (usually cardboard or plastic tokens as with board games) or verbally (as with tabletop roleplaying games).

At first glance live-action would appear to be a core feature of escape rooms, but things become complicated with the introduction of virtual reality. A thought experiment: if a creator were to take a pre-existing escape room and digitise the entire experience to be consumed through virtual reality devices, is it still an escape room? What if the technology improved to the point where the virtual and real worlds were indistinguishable (as in the 1999 film The Matrix)? How would we distinguish an escape room VR game from any other puzzle VR game?

Given that escape room venues are already offering VR experiences as a substitute for their regular rooms these questions are becoming increasingly relevant despite the technology’s lingering limitations. While those limitations remain, however, the live nature of escape rooms persists as a core feature.

When we say they are live-action, then, we mean that escape rooms are activities where participants physically inhabit a created world (which I refer to as the diegesis) in which the fiction participants experience aligns as closely as possible to their actual physical interactions.

Team-based

As indicated above, this is not a defining feature of escape rooms. It is a convention, likely because offering these experiences to individuals would not be cost effective.

Game

The word ‘game’ can refer to a wide range of experiences, but there are certain consistencies existing between them. In a 1967 article entitled ‘What Is a Game?’ Bernard Suits argued, ‘To play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity’ (148). Let’s break this down a little further and apply it to escape rooms.

First, as Nicholson states in his definition, an escape room has an objective – the ‘specific state of affairs’. The designation ‘escape room’ implies that this objective is an escape, but it does not have to be. The point is that there is a predetermined end point or win condition. Perhaps the objective is not obvious to participants from the beginning, but it must exist.

Escape rooms also have a single golden rule: to achieve the objective participants may only use the tools provided to them within the context of the game world. There may or may not be scope for creativity within the confines of the tools provided, but a participant who bypasses a lock using a bolt cutter they brought from outside would be acting outside the rules of an escape room. Certain skills also fall under the category of ‘tools’ – for instance, unless given explicit instruction in the context of the game world, an implied rule is that you should not pick any locks even if you are physically able to.

From this, we can conclude that escape rooms must have an objective that is completed using tools supplied within the context of the diegesis.

Discover clues, solve puzzles, and accomplish tasks

Participants in an escape room are not passive – they are actively involved in seeking out a solution. In the previous section I concluded that escape rooms must involve an objective completed using provided tools. We can refine that further by examining precisely how those tools are used – there is some kind of challenge, whether intellectual, physical, or (rarely) emotional.

Participants’ interactions with elements of the diegesis drive progress in an escape room. It is therefore a player-directed experience, differentiating it from immersive theatre in which actors dictate narrative progress.

In escape rooms, then, participants drive progress through their interactions with the diegesis to overcome challenges.

In one or more rooms

One of the features of an escape room that distinguishes it from a narrative scavenger hunt is geographic. Scavenger hunts take place across entire cities, whereas an escape room has strict boundaries dictating the borders of the diegesis. Leave this space to go to the toilet and you have briefly exited the story world (though it is worth mentioning that some venues extend their narrative world into the foyer, in which case the boundary is dictated by the venue itself).

Is it necessary for this space to be a room or rooms? In practice, even if the diegetic world is not a room (forest/desert etc.) the physical space still takes place in a room with walls painted to simulate a larger area beyond. Nevertheless, to me this is not a core defining feature of escape rooms. If not in a room, however, there must be some explicit border or boundary that limits the space in which the activity takes place. For example, some escape rooms have occurred within vehicles, stretching the definition of a ‘room’.

In a limited amount of time

Again, this is an attribute that I believe is more a convention that economic realities necessitate rather than a defining feature of escape rooms. We are seeing increasing experimentation with the time component of escape room design. Some entertainment venues have adapted the conventional design into shorter experiences that share a great deal with traditional escape rooms but dispense with a countdown, instead opting for fail states occurring due to particular actions like touching the ground during a balancing task. I am hesitant to exclude experiences like this from the definition of an escape room, as I feel doing so could limit experimentation and innovation within the format.

Nevertheless, the threat of some kind of fail state is necessary to distinguish escape room from immersive theatre and ensure it adheres to the conventions of a game.

Conclusion

Having broken down these different elements, we get a working definition for escape rooms:

‘An escape room is an activity in which participant(s) inhabit and interact with a spatially contained fiction that closely aligns with their physical experience. They must overcome challenges utilising tools provided within the diegesis until they progress to a predetermined endpoint, though there must also be a possibility that they will fail.’

With this definition in mind, we can now begin to explore some design principles that help to guide the experiences of participants given the specificities of the escape room form. These design documents are short articles that analyse in detail specific design elements of escape rooms, acting as a resource to stimulate creative thinking and push the boundaries of the form.

Do you see ways in which we could refine this definition? How can we strike a balance between a definition that is both specific and comprehensive? What elements of escape room design are you interested in seeing explored in-depth? I’d love to see your thoughts, musings and critiques in the comments below!

Total Carnage @ Cryptology Chermside

I seem to be getting into a habit of being captured by serial killers. This time I found myself cuffed to the floor in a pitch black room. The killer would return soon, and I’d need to escape to avoid the Total Carnage they were bringing.

General Details

“Total Carnage”
Cryptology, Kingpin Bowling, Chermside Shopping Centre
60 minutes
2-6 players allowed
Listed difficulty: 9.5/10
Website

How We Played

2 October 2017
3 players
Succeeded
Hints: 1 official, many extras
Around 45 minutes

The Experience

Cryptology is a business similar to Exitus. It is an offshoot of a large entertainment franchise surrounded with arcade machines and a bowling alley. It’s therefore better suited to parties or events rather than the more personal experiences of some of the independent escape room businesses.

It shares some of Exitus’ problems: sound leakage from the shopping centre and arcade undermine the room’s aura, the props were heavily worn (despite this being a newly opened business) and a more corporate, commercial approach to room design (noticeable in comparison to the inventive and experimental rooms I tried in Melbourne). However, Cryptology does improve on Exitus when it comes to staff, providing a dedicated gamemaster who watches and communicates with you the entire time.

In a way this is good, but it does draw attention to the biggest issue with Total Carnage: the effort to create a scary room is undermined by the company’s business practices. Some of the props and room design elements evoke an eerie feel, but it is undermined substantially when the gamemaster’s voice is constantly flowing from the room’s speakers. A pitch black room is a lot less scary when the light and sound of the surrounding arcade remains a constant companion.

Nevertheless, Total Carnage’s approach to set and prop design is a definite step up from the equivalent room in Exitus (Butcher’s Burrow). Though the room is fairly sparse, what is there fits the theme well. Unfortunately, the maintenance on some of the puzzle-essential props is lacking, making some details difficult to distinguish.

Though Total Carnage doesn’t do anything particularly imaginative with narrative, it does provide a decent amount of variety and interest in the activities it asks of you. The puzzles are also appropriate for the theme. Though Total Carnage does not go out of its way to offer anything truly innovative, enough care has gone into its design to avoid accusations of being a bland cash-in.

Do keep in mind that Total Carnage does require you to be comfortable with being handcuffed to the floor in the dark. There is not really any way to avoid this without skipping a chunk of the experience, so if that does not sound appealing this room may not be appropriate for you.

Puzzle Design

Though I found the puzzles in Total Carnage provided a decent amount of variety, there were some frustrations that definitely coloured my opinion of the room. Cryptology identifies Total Carnage as their hardest room, but apart from one or two clever twists to the puzzles, I found the difficulty to be frustrating more than it was fun.

The problem was insufficient indication of how puzzle elements combined, or what was required. There were cases where actions would provide a code, but with the numbers jumbled and no indication of how to order them. Similarly, there were devices that had to be used in a specific way, but provided no feedback to indicate this. This creates an anticlimactic finale due to a lack of instruction about how the final puzzles work.

The problem with these awkward design flaws is that the gamemaster is required to constantly interject to inform players that they were doing the right thing before and just need to keep doing it, or to provide information that players have already intuited. It is frustrating rather than fun to sit around plugging various iterations of the same four digits into a keypad because the puzzle lacks information about how to order them.

Similarly, there are problems with hidden items. I have no problem with searching for objects as long as it is clear that there is a piece missing from a puzzle. In these cases, the puzzles appeared solvable, and the gamemaster needed to tell us we were missing something.

These flaws are frustrating because they undermine what is, at heart, a decent set of ideas with a couple of surprising and clever twists thrown in. With a bit more thought about communcating information to the player, Total Carnage could be a superb room.

The Bottom Line

Total Carnage is an enjoyable room that suits its role as an addition to the Chermside entertainment precinct. It doesn’t do anything particularly special or unique, but it provides a solid experience and ensures teams have a dedicated gamemaster, which is a step up from similar businesses.

There is a solid puzzle foundation here, but it needs a bit more consideration given to the game’s flow to help guide players through the experience. With these more intricate details solved, Total Carnage could easily go from frustrating to inspired.

I was invited to join the folks from Lock Me If You Can for this escape room experience. You can check out their escape room reviews here.

Circus @ Time Is Key

A circus master was looking for new acts to replace the recently departed magician, sharpshooter, clown, and strongman. We agreed to an audition – but would we regret joining this Circus?

General Details

“Circus”
Time is Key, 2–4 Alexander Avenue, Dandenong
90 minutes
2-6 players allowed
Difficulty unlisted
Website

How We Played

2 September 2017
2 players
Succeeded
Hints: 1
Approx 48 minutes

The Experience

Circus is scary. I’m not talking one or two jump scares. I’m not talking moody lighting or creepy music and sound effects. I’m talking fear-for-your-life levels of terror. We played Time is Key’s other room, Bradshaw Manor (review on its way), purportedly the scariest escape room in Melbourne, and we both felt it didn’t hold a candle to Circus.

This isn’t inherently a problem, but it did hurt the experience for one of us. See, we didn’t know Circus was going to be a scary room. I have been to other rooms that start innocuous before introducing a scary twist, but in those rooms the “scares” amount to little more than an eerie ambience.

Circus is more than that.

As such, I think it is extremely important that participants know in advance what they are signing up for. Though Bradshaw Manor is clearly identified as a scary room on Time is Key’s website, Circus is not. There are hints early on that “something is not right” but I can guarantee the finale goes further than you think it will.

I may seem to be belaboring the point, and perhaps I am, but this room had a profound effect on us, and it was not a good one. It left one of us emotionally distraught with a heightened sensitivity to many of the later rooms we attempted. More warning about what to expect is really required here, and perhaps even the option to tone things down – a possibility since the eerie music and lighting at the end were more than adequate for narrative purposes. In fact, I got the impression that the room is normally not as scary as it was for us, and that evening sessions have certain things added to make it scarier. Perhaps a daytime session would have suited us better (we originally planned to do it in the day, but were too late with the booking).

The shame of it is, this was otherwise one of our favourite rooms in Melbourne. The set design is superb, the narrative expertly interwoven into the puzzles. The room’s attention to detail is immaculate. And, though I just complained about the room’s scariness, my only real complaint is the lack of warning about how much the intensity ramps up. The scares demonstrated a mastery of sound effects, timing and atmosphere. One issue, however, is sound bleed between Circus and Bradshaw Manor. There are some very loud effects in the latter that we could hear easily in Circus. Given the rooms are built in an open warehouse space, I don’t have any real solution for this. It is not overly obtrusive (though the other team playing parallel to us was not that loud except for the occasional scream) but you will definitely hear things from the other room as you play.

Puzzle Design

Circus offers some ingenious puzzles that buy into the logic of misdirection, spectacle and madness that characterizes the circus. The narrative leads you through a series of linear challenges brilliantly themed around certain acts, making it ideal for smaller teams (though you may want to bring a few extra people for emotional support…) The puzzles gradually reveal a central mystery, and puzzle and narrative are deeply interrelated, which is fantastic.

The tasks themselves are all immensely enjoyable, making use of clever tricks to constantly confound your expectations. One puzzle might be a little controversial for many enthusiasts, but we loved the way it was implemented. Circus’ puzzles have a pleasing physicality, with lots of stuff to maneuver and play with.

I did have a small issue with the final puzzle, however. As you may already have guessed, Circus ramps up the tension in the final moments. The puzzle filling these moments has a bit of a trick to it, and unfortunately that trick has the potential to bring things to a crashing halt. This is bad for a team like ours, where at that stage one of us was having a major anxiety attack, but for other teams it could have the opposite effect of sucking the tension out of the moment and making it drag. This was more a problem with the timing of the puzzle than with the puzzle itself, as I find that simple process puzzles work best in these kinds of moments. What with everything else happening at that time it was easy to miss the puzzle’s trick. This probably wouldn’t have been such an issue without the more intense components of Circus’ final moments, so perhaps daytime sessions won’t have the same problems.

The Bottom Line

Circus is a phenomenal room. It ties narrative and puzzle design together expertly to create an immersive experience. Everything from the sound and lighting to the props has been thoughtfully placed and included. However, this is not a room for everyone. Publicity material for Circus is not, in my view, sufficiently open about how extreme the experience is. In particular, it should be made clear that there are differences to the game in nighttime sessions compared with daytime ones to give players more flexibility about how they wish to play. My experience at a nighttime session was extremely confronting, with a very real and immediate feeling of danger that goes beyond ordinary jump scares. Though there isn’t any real danger, it is a very realistic simulation, so you should seriously consider whether this is an appropriate room for your team.