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.
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.
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.
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.
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.