Giving Escape Room Stories Room to Breathe through Theater

Madame Daphne’s Tarot Reading Room and Séance Parlor is hard to find without assistance, hidden away in a Houston artist’s studio. An invitation from Madame Daphne herself provides instructions through the former rice packaging plant’s stark white interior to the medium’s lair, its lavish decor making it feel like a room out of place. Stepping over the threshold begins a 90 minute experience that tells a tale of deception, magic, and love spanning almost a century.

Strange Bird Immersive’s production The Man From Beyond thrusts 4-8 players into a supernatural adventure that combines a masterfully crafted escape room themed around Harry Houdini with an immersive theater performance to frame the experience, set within the walls of Madame Daphne’s parlor.

An Immersive Theater Sandwich
The Man From Beyond‘s fictional narrative starts the minute players step into the room, as Madame Daphne greets her guests with a dramatic flourish. All the standard onboarding activities of an escape room are wrapped up into the context of the room, with a flair for the dramatic. The requisite waivers are still signed, but are done through the narrative conceit of the séance. Players are presented with the rules for the experience through a series of photographs in the hallway leading to the séance parlor, illuminated by candlelight. The séance itself sets the stage for the escape room portion, setting the narrative context for players when they take over the story’s agency.

Once the room’s clock starts ticking, the room transforms from séance parlor into a standard escape room. In a room surrounded by Houdini’s tools of the trade, players must tackle a century-old mystery on a deadline. At key milestones in the experience, micro-moments of theatrical exposition serve as narrative cut scenes, serving the dual purpose of rewarding player’s progress through the puzzle portion and reminding players of their broader purpose in the room. Solving a major puzzle might unlock information about Houdini’s wife Bess’ previous efforts to speak to her dead husband.

Most room escape games leave little room for telling a narrative that exists outside the room’s theming. A room based around an archaeological dig might hide some of its puzzles in a dig site and draw upon those themes to inform its puzzles, but a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required to tackle the room’s challenges. Even rooms that try to adhere to their own internal narrative consistency stick to a bare-bones plot due to the realities of room design. Players must often split themselves up into continually shifting groups to divide and conquer in the most efficient way possible. While this tactic is highly effective at uncovering a room’s secrets, it forces players to experience the room’s narrative in a disjointed fashion. Players might all be aware they’re escaping from a jail cell, but the specifics of their escape route might only be known to a few participants, on a need-to-know basis. This challenge is exacerbated in the final minutes of a room, as teams scramble to put together the final pieces needed to escape. Often, escape room operators’ explanations at the end of the room are as necessary to explain the accomplishments of teammates as they are to highlight overlooked puzzles and clues.

The Man From Beyond addresses that problem by explicitly carving out time outside the escape room’s unforgiving countdown to allow players time to take in the story. Every player is aware of what they’re doing because they experienced the introduction together, before the clock started ticking. Every player knows the main narrative beats because the information is broadcast to the group at key moments. And the grand finale can be fully experienced since it takes place after escaping the room, removing any time pressures that might otherwise cause players to gloss over the story.

Because Strange Bird Immersive created space for players to breathe and take in the narrative, it stopped the puzzles from overwhelming the game’s powerful narrative themes. During my team’s playthrough, we made it through the puzzles at a steady clip, but were so moved by the bittersweet tale that few of us made it out through the full experience without shedding a few tears along the way. It wasn’t just that the story was pulling on our heartstrings. It was knowing everything that happened was because of our actions.

Failure States But No Failure Rate
It’s possible to “fail” at the escape room portion of The Man From Beyond, and there’s more than one ending to reflect the consequences of player actions. However, unlike most room escape games, Strange Bird Immersive does not publish success rates for their room, and doesn’t maintain a leaderboard for teams with the fastest solves. As Strange Bird Immersive’s FAQ explains, “that’s not what we’re about.” By abandoning these competitive elements, it becomes easier to focus the room on cleverly manipulating objects in a manner that fits with their real world uses rather than falling back on “escape room logic”. With its focus on manipulating objects and the game’s thematic focus on Houdini, many of the room’s puzzles were designed to make players feel like magicians themselves, following the path of clues to perform magical tricks without even always knowing how they work.

Abandoning the success rate escape room trope also gave Strange Bird more flexibility in crafting the game’s epilogue. Rather than reducing the finale into a win/loss condition to be celebrated with a team photograph riddled with snarky signs, players were gifted with a short play concluding their experience before being gifted with an in-universe memento to commemorate the experience. The theater doesn’t end until players cross the final threshold, exiting Madame Daphne’s Tarot Reading Room and Séance Parlor one final time.

A Return to Older Models of Escape Rooms
Strange Bird Immersive’s The Man From Beyond is ending its run at its current location by the end of 2017, but playing through its experience leaves me more hopeful for the continued life of room escapes than any other room I’ve played. Escape rooms and immersive theater pair exceptionally well. Theatrical elements covering for escape rooms’ inherent narrative shortcomings, while the puzzles in escape rooms help normalize immersive theater to audiences who might otherwise be intimidated by the prospect of one-on-one interactions and narrative agency. At the same time, moving away from the current obsession with gauging a room’s difficulty by its success rate takes some of the pressure off puzzle designers to design challenges that are hard for the sake of being hard.

While these are breaks from current tropes in the room escape space, Strange Bird’s integration of live theater into its experience hearkens back to 5-Wits’ proto-escape rooms like Tomb. Before celebrating success rates became de rigeur for the industry, room design focused on creating the illusion of urgency, going so far as gradually dropping the ceiling on players as they tackled the game’s puzzles. And while 5-Wits guides embraced a more Vaudevillian tone to frame the experience, Strange Bird Immersive’s game is as much a return to the genre’s theatrical roots as it is a departure from the competitive puzzle solving present.

It’s heartening to see continued diversity in the types of room escape games available, and Strange Bird’s view of escape rooms through the lens of immersive theater is a welcome addition to the landscape.

To sign up for one of the final runs of The Man From Beyond in Houston, sign up for a slot at Strange Bird Immersive. If you’re interested in Strange Bird’s musings on experience design, also check out the Immersology blog.

1 Comment

  1. It will focus on theatricality, on the fact that players are more immersed in history – this is also interesting. To be honest, people are following this, and not for “I escape 10 seconds earlier!” And to create a plot, the atmosphere for the game is quite a difficult task. I attach a link to the site of one designer of escape rooms – he has stories of how he did this or that project. This is very interesting, but it is immediately clear that there are many nuances that you will not see until you start to do it.

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