Yesterday I kicked off the new year by joining some friends at Clueology in Loveland. The independent escape room business features three adventures. Our foursome explored the cabin of a retired intelligence office in The Fallout Room and then saved a nuclear power plant in Quake, an adventure reminiscent of a classic 1970s disaster film. Both offerings were well staged with immersive sets and sophisticated technology. The Fallout Room was particularly dense with puzzles and narrative elements, and we later learned that it was designed for team-building groups of six or more. We held our own but required occasional nudges from the game master, generally in the form of “Take a look at the box in the front yard,” or “That desk is important.” We never needed a hint on how to solve a puzzle, rather what puzzle to solve next.
I shared the observation with my friends during lunch. They nodded in an unsurprised manner, adding that object-finding and puzzle-ordering are the escape room elements most likely to cause them difficulty. I reflected on past escape room experienced and recalled many times in which I focused less on individual puzzles and more on structural narrative. There’s an old saying that defines skill as knowing what to do and wisdom as knowing what to do next. One of my college professors adapted that saying to postmodern academics. After playing and creating a lot of escape rooms, I find it enjoyable to get into another room designer’s head and anticipate the intended solving path. I wasn’t a masterful pathfinder in The Fallout Room, but the amount of nudges from the game master suggest that the experience might have too many nonintuitive transitions. When we completed one of the puzzles, the game master, who was also the business owner and room designer, immediately jumped on the address system and suggested that we look for something that changed in another area of the room. When we completed the mission I asked about the abruptness of that clue. The game master admitted that the transition was designed to be an observational room-search challenge, but few solving groups made the connection without help. He was in the process of installing a better in-room clue for the transition.
I don’t want to come down too hard on the narrative structure at Clueology. I hear similar criticisms of my Puzzah! rooms, though in the opposite direction. Several guests have complained that the narrative path is too clearly marked, and wish they had more opportunities to discover the next puzzle rather than being told where to look. This explicitly linear narrative is a traditional requirement of Puzzah! design specifications, but I’m racking my brain for a work-around that will fit our parameters. Our next room will have a narrative structure somewhere between classic Puzzah! and Clueology, in which players can guide themselves through the story using reasonable intuition. My puzzle is to create an experience in which a team uses skill and wisdom in the right balance.