Tag: escape room game

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.

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The Puzzling Rise of the Escape Room Game

the-tomb-boston

Image of Tomb’s sarcophagus illumination puzzle. ©2015, 5 Wits Productions, Inc.  Used by permission.

The first time I visited Boston, I met up with a group of friends and broke into an ancient Egyptian burial chamber. The tomb’s resident pharaoh was not exceptionally happy about our flagrant act of trespass, and forced our group of amateur archaeologists to solve a series of puzzles before barely escaping with our lives.

The rooms in the tomb were designed with a family-friendly audience in mind, and our guide throughout the experience embraced his role with an exuberant gusto I had only seen before from a skipper on Disney’s Jungle Cruise. The experience managed to make even familiar puzzles feel extraordinary: no matter how many times you’ve solved Tower of Hanoi puzzles in the comfort of your own home, it’s a completely different experience when you’re passing oversized pieces across the room while the ceiling is slowly crashing down overhead.

When 5 Wits‘ puzzle adventure Tomb set up shop in Boston in 2004, it was something of a rarity. The interactive exhibit mixed theatrics with physical puzzles to make its guests feel like swashbuckling adventurers narrowly escaping danger thanks to their collective intelligence. And the design was flexible enough to reward that success, allowing for multiple endings based on groups’  performance. While the original location is now closed, the 5-Wits moved Tomb to Tennessee, launching additional puzzle experiences in Washington DC, Massachusetts, and New York covering themes ranging from undersea exploration to espionage. Over the past decade, this type of immersive puzzle experience has expanded exponentially, with hundreds of locations putting down roots across the globe. For many, visiting the nearest real-life escape room is a day-trip away.

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