The great escape room: How smart game design can turn ordinary people into heroes — for one hour at a time

Puzzles. Clues. Secret doors. Can you solve Professor Scott Nicholson’s riddles before the clock runs out?
By Patchen Barss - Published on January 14, 2019
a maze with a ladder in the middle
In a well-designed escape room, no one person can save the day; every player has a chance to shine. (iStock.com/filo)

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A serial killer runs amok, taunting the police with cryptic puzzles and clues. A quantum physicist enters an ultra-secure laboratory and disappears into the ether. An ancient monarch hides her most prized treasure in the heart of a booby-trapped dungeon.

These and hundreds of other scenarios — often lifted from sci-fi, fantasy, horror, espionage, heist, and other genre fiction — each hold a mystery, typically one that must be solved in exactly an hour by a team of four to eight people, each of whom has paid between $20 and $40 to take part.

Despite the name “escape room,” escape is rarely part of the game. Players disarm alarms, dodge lasers, crack codes, find hidden objects, open locks, enter passwords, reveal secret doors, and move the story forward to its conclusion before time runs out.

“I think it was unfortunate that the name ‘escape room’ stuck. Many rooms aren’t about escaping the space,” says Scott Nicholson, a professor of game design and development at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus. “Instead, I talk about escaping into another reality.”

Many forms of storytelling turn readers and player into heroes. Choose-your-own-adventure books, role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, videogames, and even scavenger hunts all give people a chance to become protagonists in a story far removed from everyday life. Escape rooms bring these stories into the physical world so that a group of friends can become a team of heroes, if only for an hour.

In a well-designed escape room, no one person can save the day. Every player has a chance to shine.

“You design challenges such that they require different types of skills,” says Nicholson, who has designed hundreds of escape rooms, including for the Red Bull Escape Room World Championships. “You set it up so that things have to be done simultaneously. You divide people by space and introduce elements of communication. Even just taking something that is normally small and making it very large can make it interesting.”

For instance, he once designed a puzzle in a hospital-themed room in which players had to roll a critically injured patient out the door on a stretcher that was blocked by several others. Players had to slide and move the stretchers to create an opening.

“We did it with large stretchers that required two people to move, and no one had an overhead view,” he says. “It made what would be a trivial Rush Hour–style puzzle into a fun, 10-minute, team-based challenge.”

In one Markham escape room, a player must guide a remote-controlled car into a small alcove, guided only by directions that other players call out from a different location.

Teamwork sometimes involves doing several jobs at once — some people work to crack codes and riddles, while others work on finding hidden objects and latches. Some players recommend designating a “project manager” who stays aware of what everyone else is doing. Players tend to communicate non-stop, calling out discoveries, positing theories, reviewing clues.

“It’s important to make sure everyone gets to be the hero at some point,” says Nicholson.

And anyone can be. Toronto journalist Emily Chung took her son with her to an escape room when he was just two years old.

“There was a broken radiator pipe beside a plant and a watering can,” she says. Her toddler was waving a flashlight around and happened to be the exact right height to spot an object lying at the bottom of the pipe.

“We floated it to the top by pouring water into the pipe,” Chung says. “He helped solve the best puzzle in the room.”

Elan Lee, a game designer who has played hundreds of rooms, thinks most companies don’t go far enough in turning players into heroes.

“I believe at a very core level that being inside an escape room is a celebration of you,” he says. “You should feel like you are a magical, powerful, enabled person who for a brief moment is an extraordinary version of yourself.”

He says that too many rooms celebrate their low solve rates (meaning that the time limit often runs out before the players are able to complete the challenges).

“Most of the time, designers have this horrible mentality that it’s me, the designer, against you, the audience, and if you solve the puzzle, I have failed,” he says.

In one recent scenario, he and six other players had an hour to stop a serial killer before he struck again. They decoded button sequences and key-pad combinations, revealing clues and advancing the story. For the final challenge, players had to deduce who sat where on a subway car from a set of clues left by the killer. The clues were divided between two rooms, so players had to split up and call information back and forth as the clock ticked down. They completed all the puzzles with more than 10 minutes to spare — only to be informed that they were in the bottom 15 per cent of solvers for that room.

“When we finished, we should have been celebrating. We should have been giving each other high fives. And instead, they’re like, ‘Oh, you guys are not so great,’” he says. “That feels horrible and there’s no reason for that. That’s just them being elitist. Everything about it feels technical and mathematical, and not jubilant, which is what we should feel.”

Escape-room regulars experience that joy on a deep level. Jenn Mizerovsky, a negotiator for a public-sector union, has done more than 100 escape rooms across Canada and internationally with her partner David Hauch.

“When friends first suggested escape rooms to me, I agreed to go, but I was skeptical. I’m a person who really hates to feel like I’m not contributing,” Mizerovsky says. “After the first one, I was addicted. I find them to be a great way to forget about everyday stresses. I love the teamwork aspect, and it’s such a great bonding activity. There are few things better than the feeling of accomplishing a goal co-operatively with friends and family.”

In his research, Nicholson has found that escape rooms attract more women (both as designers and as players), families, and intergenerational groups than other types of commercial social activities like paintball, golf, bowling, and laser tag. About 70 per cent of teams are mixed-gender, and single-gender groups are almost equally likely to be all men or all women.

“I was really happy to see it was one of the few spaces in gaming where there are almost as many women creators as there are men,” he says. “It’s nice to have that diversity, and I think it’s because of the variety of skills that have to come together.”

Escape rooms have become a go-to activity for corporate teambuilding events and date nights and for people seeking an alternative to more physically focused social activities.

“Other group activities don’t really emphasize the mental,” Nicholson says. “Escape rooms allow those of us who are gamers, those of us that add thought to our recreation, to be involved in a hobby that is popular. People want to explore puzzles together. What a cool thing that is.”

Journalist and author Patchen Barss has written, edited and produced stories about science, research and culture for more than 20 years.

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