On podcasts

A microphone by a computerI recently very much enjoyed an old podcast about escape rooms and haunt attractions. (Haunt attractions are the generic name for haunted houses, noting that they’re not necessarily restricted to houses, whereas the term “escape room” seems to have won out over “escape game”, despite a related issue.) It’s episode 11 of No Proscenium, and one of the reasons it’s delightful is because it dates back to July 2015 and yet people who don’t seem to be in the escape room community seem, even then, to have independently reached the same conclusions as the rest of us.

It also has some really exciting ideas at the end, which I’m reasonably sure haven’t caught on in the UK and I’m not sure have caught on elsewhere. If you own a game, or series of games, and pride yourself on a continuous narrative, or set of characters, or game world in which they take place, there are interesting things that could be done to provide what this podcast refers to as “additive narrative”; your games would still stand alone, but there could be optional extras for people who want to dive further into the game world if they wanted to. The podcast suggests the possibility of an optional scavenger hunt beforehand, visiting a series of local businesses or locations, with the promise of extra information about the game world. It also points to the different escape-room-like-boxes-by-mail / puzzle-crate games that exist, and suggests that this could be a good way to extend a game world and hence a brand. There’s at least one game world where I’d love people to try this and surely others as well.

No Proscenium covers all manner of immersive entertainment, thus features escape rooms, their creators and their bloggers reasonably frequently, though the other topics they cover – while less familiar – are often at least as enticing. I discovered the podcast first through episode 73, an interview with Lisa and David from Room Escape Artist; they go in-depth on a particularly interesting room which I’ll never get the chance to play. They’ve cropped up on other podcasts in the past and are always worth listening to, notably the most recent episode (at time of writing) of Room Escape Divas.

Speaking of which, the previous episode of Room Escape Divas features an interview with Ken, who runs The Logic Escapes Me and also runs Exit Games UK much better than I ever did, and me. There are points in it where I give Ken quite a hard time for no good reason whatsoever. Sorry about that!

Sherlock unlocked?

Victorian detective silhouetteOne of the most familiar tropes in fiction is that of the Victorian London detective – and that’s a euphemism for one of them in particular, Sherlock Holmes, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original tales. He’s been in the news recently in terms of recent US court rulings over copyright; the Washington Post report is possibly the clearest, though the BBC one is worth reading as well.

Excerpting the Post: “For decades, the Doyle ((literary estate)) have jealously guarded all ‘literary, merchandising, and advertising rights’ for Doyle’s works. Anyone wanting to use Sherlock or his friend Dr. Watson has typically paid the estate a license fee.” However, an author has successfully argued in a US Appeals court that the characters are now in the public domain, and the Supreme Court has since rejected an appeal from the Doyle estate so the ruling stands.

The BBC make the distinction that “the character of Sherlock, along with 46 stories and four novels in which he has appeared, was in the public domain” though ten stories published between 1923 and 1927 do remain under copyright. Might this provide carte blanche to refer to Sherlock Holmes and other related characters within the context of an exit game, or a puzzle hunt, or some other puzzling endeavour? It’s known that some exit games around the world already do. It would be fascinating to hear whether the U.S. ruling might have implications on use of the characters elsewhere around the world.

The real-world story over who has the right to the address 221B Baker Street is rather fun; go to Baker Street and look between number 237 and number 241 for number 221B and you’ll find it leads to the Sherlock Holmes Museum – to whom, incidentally, the copyright of the graphic at the top of this post belongs. Perhaps some day it might lead to surely the most authentic of Sherlock-themed exit games, whether instead or as well. It would be likely to be about as expensive as an address would get, though.

Perhaps it’s marginally less unrealistic to hope for an exit game situated above Speedy’s Cafe on North Gower Street, famous for standing in for the location in the BBC’s latest version of the Sherlock tales. That would be fun, too!

Twists in the tale

Mobius strip graphicA little research last night pointed to one of the more interesting and controversial events in English-language exit game history: the ending of Real Escape Game 3: Real Escape Game x Evangelion in San Francisco in September 2012. This was a one-time event held over the course of a weekend. While the company behind it, SCRAP Entertainment Inc., have rerun some of their games in different cities across North America – not just San Francisco, but Los Angeles, New York City and Toronto – there are no signs of this one being repeated, so it’s probably fair game for discussion. (As well as interesting.)

A quick distinction: the same company have run these limited-duration event games several times, usually each lasting a few days or a week, but they also run Real Escape Room games at weekends and on weekday evenings on a long-term basis, which take the usual exit game format. The Real Escape Game can be much looser in scope, with many teams occupying the same physical space at once, working in parallel. In Real Escape Game x Evangelion, as the “Unwinnable” report puts it,

Sunday’s EVA event was “Mystery Hunt Style,” meaning the game’s already cryptic clues had been scattered all over Japantown. As players, we had to split our time between mentally arriving at solutions and physically arriving at solutions, and an hour of that can take a lot out of you.

Reaction to the majority of the game appears to be generally pretty positive, and certainly the company has gone on to run many more, similarly popular, English-language games after it; they’ve run games in so many countries, too, that I hold out hope that they might come to the UK some day, which would likely be a real treat.

Now the big twist came at the end of the game. People have been kind enough not to spoil the specifics, but the report linked to above later goes on to describe it, taking a similar tone to this report on an Evangelion fan site and Tyler Hinman’s no-punches-pulled report. Essentially, while only around 10% of teams solved all the puzzles over the course of the hour, the game had an extra step that was necessary for official victory, knocking the success rate down to around 2%. Some otherwise victorious teams considered this extra step to be unfair, or not properly clued, or otherwise not in the expected spirit. Some have made comparisons to the Japanese video game ethic of games having multiple endings; arguably this is fairer game if it is expected.

So here’s another thought. Suppose you and your team went to play an exit game. You had played a few before – won some, lost others, but were particularly attracted by this one, which happened to be clearly marked as being intended for those who had played other games before, rather than as an introduction to the genre.

You enjoy solving your way through many steps and reach what appears to be the final puzzle… then, at the last minute, there’s one unexpected step, and instead of the team winning or losing as a team, it becomes clear that the game will only permit one person to win, with all the rest of the team losing. Perhaps there is a single competitive puzzle to be completed individually to determine who gets the honour among the team. (Any metaphor is possible – perhaps you’re trying to land a spaceship safely before it runs out of its last hour of fuel, but no matter how close you get to a safe landing, you’re going to have to bail out… and there’s only room for one in the escape pod. Something like that.) You’re requested not to spoil this twist ending to other players, and the player photos don’t give it away.

Would that be fun, or would that leave a sour taste in the mouth?

You are not alone

A scroll and some actorsOne factor that seems to apply to many exit games is that the team playing them are in the room, alone except for contact with the outside world that may be supplying hints, whether by walkie-talkie, over a loudspeaker, onto a screen or by some other approach.

This solitude needn’t absolutely be the case; in the US, the Trapped In A Room With A Zombie series of games features a real live acted undead zombie in each room, chained to the wall. Every five minutes, the zombie’s chain is extended another foot so that they might have extra shambling radius. If the zombie touches you, you are… not eliminated from the game outright (that wouldn’t be fun, considering you’ve paid for the ticket) but have to sit down, rooted to the spot, and can only communicate verbally with the rest of your team.

This site is not aware of any UK exit game sites currently looking to increase their regular “fully manned” staffing levels. However, an exit game could be distinctive if it were to feature actors or other characters to interact with as part of playing the room. Yes, the cost of labour is expensive. (TIARWAZ, referred to above, has teams of 12 playing at any one time.) It might be possible for a single site with multiple games to contrive some sort of solution, though, with actors who are present at certain points of the game but not others.

One approach could be for these intermittent actors not to physically appear in the same space as the teams, though still to be available at certain points for crucial interaction. Could a game master from another game also act as a character when they happen not to be running a game or performing setup between games? Could it be possible to contrive a reason for a game master to be out of contact temporarily, while they are acting as a character in another game?

Another approach could be for one actor to play a variety of different roles (or play several simultaneous versions of the same character), dipping in and out of several games as appropriate. The entrances and exits would have to be very carefully handled in order not to disrupt the “exit the room” metaphor – there would have to be very convincing reason why an actor could get in or out of the room but the team could not use the same route in order to do so.

A real mind game would be to play fast and loose with the concept of a single permanent benign game master per group. For instance, you might interact with your game master for 80% of the hour in one way – then the game master might physically intrude into the game and interact with you in a different fashion for the rest of the game. Perhaps a game master from another game might continue to act as master for the last few minutes of your game, while you interact with this compromised game master as part of the game.

So many things that could be done, and this is surely only scratching the surface. Wouldn’t be cheap, but surely would be distinctive and memorable!

Coming back for more

Picture of an illustrated story bookA follow-up question to that of how popular exit games are is the issue of how to get players to come back for more, for repeat business may well play a significant part in keeping a site thriving over time. It may be easier to convince someone to play an exit game if they know what one is from having played one already.

Some sites offer more than one different room, which seems likely to be a lucrative move. Perhaps someone who enjoys one room at a site can be convinced that another room at the same site is likely to be of a similarly high quality; there will always be people for whom the novelty of playing an exit game once is sufficient, but there will also always be enthusiasts who are keen to get the joy of an exit game as many times as possible. Many sites say that they change their rooms from time to time, though this represents a considerable investment.

It has also been suggested that it’s difficult to tell much of a story within an hour. It’s tempting to wonder – asking in the context of a theorist, rather than someone with experience in the business – whether it might be possible to run a campaign of connected exit room games, at a single site, telling an extended story within the same universe. If someone enjoys a game, they might well be tempted to go back for the next episode, and the episode after that, and so on. Theoretically, it might even possible to permit the players to affect their ongoing story, with choices they make when playing an early episode having an effect on their experience in later episodes.

One model has people, when they book to play, specifying if they have played any episodes in the series previously, then the room is dressed in a slightly different way according to which part of the story happens next. This requires great communication between the players and the room dresser, for if players miscommunicate their needs then they may end up playing the wrong game (and possibly feeling aggrieved about it, even if it’s their own fault). Another downside is that it would probably be impractical to have different physical attributes of the room for each episode, unless a much bigger physical room is built and not all of it is used in each episode. This seems likely to be needlessly expensive.

Perhaps a workable solution would be to have several story episodes in a connected universe that can be played in any order, or story developments that can be caught up through narrative as well as through gameplay. (It’s easy to imagine a team of four coming for the first episode, then only three of them coming for the second episode, then a slightly different four for the third episode, and so on.) To be fair, this seems to be the approach taken by at least one site already.

It’s a considerable additional level of complication to consider, but one that potentially could multiply a site’s revenue several times without the expense of having to find new players over and over again…