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:

— it helps to have a variety of puzzle types. This is not really surprising — indeed, it’s obvious when you think about it — but it does cut a bit against my general bias for game design around a specific puzzle style or mechanic. For multiple players, though, having options is good. Some of our group liked spatial puzzles more than others, or deciphering tasks, or detailed searching of the environment. Along with that:

— not everyone has to do/get/be part of the solution of every puzzle. This is something I found slightly disorienting about my first escape room. I wasn’t (and couldn’t have been) involved in solving *all* the puzzles, and that meant I came away not knowing exactly how some of them had been done, and feeling maybe like I hadn’t quite “done” the game fully.

In IF, I generally expect to come away understanding all the puzzle solutions in a game I just played, unless the author has designed a game in which it’s possible to solve some things accidentally. In an escape room, an individual person’s experience is likely to involve *awareness* of most or all of the puzzles, but not necessarily involvement in solving all of them. There are hidden things someone else will find, and you might not be watching when they do, because you’re busy entering a combination code into a lock at the other side of the room. And that’s fine.

This is more a revelation about changing player expectations as anything else: to enjoy this kind of game, I need to relax my idea that winning has to mean “I mastered all the challenges in this game.”

From a designer point of view, that shifts the possibilities for storytelling in a game. I’ve said elsewhere that, for single-player IF and many other types of games, you can focus your players on the content of the game by making sure every essential plot beat is tied to a puzzle solution, so that there’s no way to miss the information, and ideally so that they have to act on it. That imposes some natural limits: there is only so much plot you can reveal given a particular stock of puzzles. But even that doesn’t work in a multiplayer puzzle game! You don’t know which players will solve which puzzles or that every puzzle solution will be observed by all players. That ties to:

— when there is a big reveal, it’s useful to focus everyone in the correct direction first, e.g. by requiring them to bring together a set of props, or making the cool reveal dependent on a bottleneck puzzle so that there aren’t a lot of alternative puzzles for people to be concentrating on at the same time. Failing that, staging the reveal so that there is an attention-grabber noise or light first and then the actual revelation happens a few seconds later can work. On a platform like Seltani, that might mean a story-wide message to all players that would let them make sure they were in the right room.

— correspondingly, if a reveal is timer-based rather than solution-based, it’s harder to make sure that everyone is looking the right direction. This is notionally also a possible problem in single-player games — consider all the stuff that happens in Deadline that the player might just not be around to see.

— it’s fun to have puzzles that require the players to interact with each other as well as with the game’s props. My multiplayer Seltani game Aspel tried to do this a bit by encouraging players to communicate with one another and giving different players different information, but there’s more to learn in that space. Room escapes do this, among other things, with physical space, putting the information you need at some distance from where you’re going to be able to use it.

That suggests possibly a different spin on the plot/puzzle relationship: if you have vital plot beats, you could make them things that the players have to communicate *to* one another in order to solve the puzzle.

That’s probably easier said than done, though. Either you pick something to communicate that’s a bit esoteric, or you make your puzzle hackable if the players guess the plot point before they’ve arrived at it “correctly.”

— I feel like 3-5 players is a natural number for this. You can give some specialized abilities or props to certain players to make sure everyone has an important job to do, and no one player gets to do everything. You can have tasks at distributed stations around the room. You can require simultaneous actions. Enter the Oubliette would allow up to 8, but I felt like that might be too many, when I played.

This lines up with my experience writing Aspel: it was easier to see how to write coordinating content for three people than for 10. I don’t quite want to say that you can’t have a puzzle game for 10 or more people at once, but I think it would be a different beast again. The techniques used to involve several people at once in puzzle solving work well for a small group, but you might need different ones again to accommodate a larger one.

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Finally, one thought not about puzzles, and this is not really a spoiler because it’s right in the title: the game makes reference to the lance that is said to have pierced the side of Christ on the cross. The game treats this object as a piece of mystical woo-woo-ery, a thing that is magic and powerful but shorn of its theological context — essentially lifting the attitude of an Indiana Jones movie towards religious relics.

That much is hardly uncommon, but there was just a moment of dialogue in the framing of this story when I felt a twinge about how a character described the crucifixion. I wasn’t offended, precisely, but it was disorienting, hearing such a casual treatment of the central mystery of the religion in which I was raised. The thought process was more “oh, right: this is maybe 1/100th of the feeling someone in a marginalized religion would have about the appropriation of their beliefs — and in my case this event doesn’t occur in the context of centuries of prejudice, cultural suppression, or genocide.”

*

Finally, here are some more resources otherwhere on the net about escape room design, if, like me, you’re really interested in thinking about how these design lessons can be transferred to multiplayer IF.

Fast Company article talks about some of the methods, as well as the business and the fact that some companies are even selling prefab room escape props. Leigh Alexander has a brief Offworld article about the growing pains and challenges around this form.

This list introduces a lot of standard puzzle types; somewhat useful despite the list title.

Adam Clare has written a blog post on escape room design tips. Among his observations: it’s worth making sure the failure ending is also interesting, for player teams who fail. Multiplayer IF wouldn’t necessarily allow failure — it might be designed so that success is the only possible outcome if the players stick around long enough — but it’s worth thinking about. Our team won Time Run, but I know there was an interesting fiction prepared in case we had failed, as well.

Also among his observations:

“According to research done by Scott Nicholson the average group size in room escape games is 4.58 people. I agree that four and a half people is ideal. Where do you find half a person?”

Room Escape Artist writes about how to escape rooms, but looking at this from the player’s perspective is enlightening as well. Their blog also describes the set and setup of a number of different escape rooms, useful for just getting a feel for what is out there, and here’s a post about what it’s like to run the controls for a night, supervising players.

This blog gives a little more information about what to expect than some review sites, but probably not enough to damage the experience. Among the types of special features they call out are a game in which players are chained to the wall by one hand and must communicate to solve puzzles; and another in which each player has their own personal quest to resolve as well as the main puzzle set. Cases where the group actually has to make a decision seem to be rare, enough so that they specifically call out Crossroads for having this unusual feature. Room Escape Artist also discusses the accessibility of various escape rooms, which is useful.

Escape Game Design designs escape rooms and will even fully implement them on a site of your choosing; New Escape Room Designs Inc advertises some similar services.

12 thoughts on “Learning about Multiplayer Puzzle Design from Escape Rooms

  1. This all sounds familiar from medium-level puzzle events like DASH. (See http://playdash.org/faq.php .) Teams of about four. You get two or three puzzles at a time, or maybe a puzzle with a couple of parts, so that people can co-work but also shift back and forth as is comfortable. A range of puzzle types. Clear bottlenecks. (DASH has “solve the major puzzle at this location; talk to an admin to get the clue to the next location.”)

  2. This lines up with my experience writing Aspel: it was easier to see how to write coordinating content for three people than for 10. I don’t quite want to say that you can’t have a puzzle game for 10 or more people at once, but I think it would be a different beast again. The techniques used to involve several people at once in puzzle solving work well for a small group, but you might need different ones again to accommodate a larger one.

    Puzzle Break is more for larger groups, and it definitely adds an extra element to the puzzle: in groups larger than 4 or so, you need people who are specifically assigned to be dispatchers, essentially, keeping track of what everyone’s doing, assigning tasks, keeping communication open. This is a very different skill to ‘do this puzzle in front of you’, and it requires the group to socially organise themselves very quickly. (Jacqueline, unsurprisingly, is very good at this.)

  3. “I agree that four and a half people is ideal.”

    I used to enjoy ARGs which I’d describe as massively multiplayer puzzle games. The games demanded that a community form around the puzzles in order to solve puzzles.

    • I’m distinguishing DASH-like events from something like Mystery Hunt, which requires a team of at least 40 to have even a chance at winning! (And *a lot* of team self-organization.)

      • My sense has always been that Mystery Hunt isn’t really very *story*-heavy, though (unless that’s wrong?). And ARGs aren’t real-time in the same way — or rather, they are real-time, but unfolding over weeks rather than minutes, so it’s okay if people get through things at different rates, and also okay if some puzzles are truly fiendishly hard.

        So as models for Seltani-style multi-player IF, they may be farther afield from what I’d want to do, though still of course possibly productive of design lessons.

  4. Thank you for the Room Escape Artist shout out Emily.

    A lot of what you’ve raised here are hotly debated issues throughout the escape room community (“should every player be involved in solving every puzzle?” is seriously up for debate, I personally don’t think there is a correct answer).

    One other big factor is localized norms. These games change quite a bit from country to country and city to city, where the norms are frequently established by the earliest players in the local market. Most international visitors are shocked to learn that in the US, most companies will sell tickets to different groups for the same time slot creating situations where strangers play with one another (sometimes this is wonderful, and occasionally it’s a nightmare).

  5. Great trip report (you have never used the London Tube??). I think the part about feeling you’d missed puzzle solutions due to the timed and multiplayer nature of this (it only makes sense to split up rather than having everyone knock heads over one puzzle) is one of the big issues to figure out with Multiplayer IF — which some might seem to consider the elusive holy grail of our pastime.

    I remember this exact feeling in URU – specifically the age with the journey-cloths on separate trees that all had to be pressed in order within about ten seconds (an impossible task without maybe 3 or more people and a leader). I had been to the age solo, but when I finally managed to link in with a group, the puzzle was already solved and it was a matter of just following directions of the leader. I’m ordered to stand by a tree and push the cloth on the number the leader calls out, not even understanding why or how it affects the entire puzzle. I love the multiplayer URU concept, but this puzzle by nature is one that can feel wasted if one person knows what they are doing.

    I did enjoy solving it again later with newer groups — I always played the fool and managed to nudge people in the right direction so they could feel like they were solving it. This felt like I was a playing a role in the story (I was able to give directive cues to move the plot along, “Wait, did you all hear that??”), which was possibly more fun then actually solving the puzzle.

    This fits in with the type of thing that I imagine might be a solution in multiplayer IF – at different points separate players would need different roles “Find the person carrying the goblet and trade it for this secret code word”…which might be interesting if the author could disguise the actual intentions of each participant: the player with the code appears as a thirsty wanderer to the player with the goblet, who might appear as a potion seller to the person with the code.

    • Oh, I use the Tube all the time. The Overground is a separate line that I’m not used to, though.

      This fits in with the type of thing that I imagine might be a solution in multiplayer IF – at different points separate players would need different roles “Find the person carrying the goblet and trade it for this secret code word”…which might be interesting if the author could disguise the actual intentions of each participant: the player with the code appears as a thirsty wanderer to the player with the goblet, who might appear as a potion seller to the person with the code.

      Yeah, part of the trick I think is that if the players can openly chat with one another, they could easily just put everything they know out in the open, so you lose the opportunity to play games with transfer of information. Not everyone would be as good a sport about this as it sounds like you were in Uru — when I was playing Velvet Sundown, the other players there didn’t always really want to bother with the roleplaying aspect and sometimes got annoyed when I tried to do so.

      • [i]Yeah, part of the trick I think is that if the players can openly chat with one another, they could easily just put everything they know out in the open, so you lose the opportunity to play games with transfer of information.[/i]

        Which would be a great use for slyly tweaked choice-based communication where the initiator chooses “Hey, I’ve got this goblet for trade” and the recipient sees “Sooth, wanderer, you looketh parched, might thou know the coupon code for a free tankard of water?”

        I could see devious uses: A old-god horror game where multiple people attempt to reach the old tome in the attic but horrible presences emerge from there occasionally trying to kill them…upon reaching and reading the tome, the player is told “You need to get to the basement to close the portal you have opened, beware the minions that will attempt to stop you, use force if necessary!” and all the other players attempting to reach the attic then appear as monsters to the player trying to “fight” their way to the basement and vice-versa.

  6. Pingback: Minkette on Escape Room design; Secret Studio | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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