The first step for a team organizing an MIT Mystery Hunt is selection of a theme; a basic idea that informs the story presented during the Hunt and helps inspire structure, puzzles, interactions, and characters. Theme selection is also the first step for a puzzle room designer. This month I participated in theme selection processes for both of these project types.
Members of Setec Astronomy, my Hunt team, met to brainstorm theme ideas. One topic that came up early in the discussion was whether the Hunt theme should be based on a specific pop culture property, like The Wizard of Oz Hunt in the 2000, or be in a general narrative category, like the 2006 S.P.I.E.S. Hunt. Our 2017 Hunt had references to Dungeons & Dragons but I would argue that it was a broad celebration of high fantasy role-playing games. Hunt organizers who prefer general themes tend to cite personal taste. When I select puzzle room themes I keep in mind that Puzzah!, unlike the Mystery Hunt, is a for-profit enterprise and much more susceptible to trademark infringement issues. I know a few escape room owners who have built rooms with egregious references to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. One such owner proudly displays framed copies of cease-and-desist letters on his office wall. Trademark use aside, I prefer selecting a general theme and coming up with an original story and characters.
My Setec teammates also expressed concerns about the target audience. Several theme ideas prompted the question, “Would that mean anything to a traditional MIT student?” I don have the experience of living in Massachusetts, attending an engineering school, or growing up in the 2000s, so I defer to my Setec teammates on these points of relevance. I don’t have teammates to fall back on at Puzzah! and I often struggle to design a theme that resonates with our customer base. My struggles are partly based on age but also in my affinity for traditional puzzling and my quirky pop culture tastes. An escape room owner recently told me that his two-room location will always have one tomb adventure and one sci-fi adventure because those are well-established entertainment genres that spark customer interest. If I adopted a similar approach to themes I would probably serve my employer better, but I’m a Gen-X maverick and the themes that excite me are also the ones that prompt the owners of Puzzah! to ask, “Would that mean anything to … anyone besides you, Todd?!”
The amount of story in a Mystery Hunt is topic that generated some disagreement in our Mystery Hunt theme discussion. Some feel that a rich, detailed narrative is a highlight of a Hunt solver’s experience. Others feel that heavy storytelling tends to get lost in web-page text and character interactions that only a small percentage of a solving team gets to see. I have attended several Hunt wrap-up meetings and learned surprising plot elements that never registered during the actual solving phase. In the puzzle room context, storytelling is a delicate art that I am still trying to master. I’ve written expository voice-overs that end up overlong to the point of disengaging customers. I’ve written narrative punch lines that hit the ground with a thud. My friend Cody Borst who owns Escape Realm is thoughtful storyteller and adept at weaving a compelling narrative into the structures of rooms he designs. I’m becoming a better storyteller through experience and the advice from people like Cody. I have seen many escape room business that use sophisticated fabrication and electronics to compensate for a thin plot, but feel that stronger storytelling will be a pack separator in the future of my industry.
Setec Astronomy started with about a dozen preliminary theme proposals. We voted to narrow those down to four semifinalists and then one eventual winner. At each voting stage, designated teammates drafted proposals that outlined story, structure, puzzle requirements. I wrote three theme proposals for “Room 9”, i.e. the yet-to-be titled ninth Puzzah! adventure. One is a fairly common escape room theme that Puzzah! has not used previously, one is variation on a less common escape room theme, and one is a theme that I haven’t seen done before but would have some high demands on sound and visuals. The owners and I ultimately decided on the second proposal, which could be included with reproductions of our sci-fi adventure Specimen and crime-fighting room M.A.S.K. to provide variety in a future location. Time to start developing some themes!