Rating and Reviewing Escape Rooms

How do you rate an Escape Room? What makes one room better or worse than another? There’s a wide range of reviews at escapethereview.co.uk (EtR) as well as various blogging sites who constantly review rooms that they have played. I’ve not yet reviewed a room or venue on this blog but I do give brief reviews on EtR and they’re mostly subjective of what I thought of the room as opposed to any great depth. I do try and consider a room’s merits though. This usually consists of various points generally consisting of: –

  • Story/Theming
  • Puzzles
  • Flow
  • Theatricality
  • GameMaster

Story/Theming

The story is the hook that gets you into the room and the theming is how the design of that room compliments that story. I’ve written about Story in Escape Rooms before in a previous blog and that still holds. For a lot of rooms, the background story can be relatively simplistic, such as: –

  • “You are in a cell, innocent of the crimes against you, can you escape before you are moved to an unescapable prison?”
  • “You have broken into a bank vault, can you steal the diamond before the security guard returns?”
  • “You have been kidnapped by a serial killer, can you escape before he returns?”

And, of course, nearly all of these scenarios give you 60 minutes to achieve your goal. There’s nothing wrong with this approach and is used in the majority of rooms. The background story of a room is there to give you an indication of what you might find inside and what themes might be used (such as if it might be a scary room or not).

If the story is that you have been kidnapped by pirates, then you might be confused if you then found yourself in an Egyptian tomb. So the room you enter should reflect the story you were told on the outside, but how well does it? Quality of set design and props can vary wildly, but even in some relatively dour rooms, a good game can still be had. Some rooms (and their stories) are built on pre-existing environments, such as banks, offices, distilleries, former prisons, etc. All of which adds to and can reinforce the theming and then the story of the room. Sometimes the story of the room provides important clues you might need for solving elements of room as you progress.

Some rooms take a different path and you could have to read a page of text before you enter the room. I’m not a huge fan of this approach as I think it can detract from the overall experience via information overload.

In other rooms, the story might start relatively simplistic but is expanded through the course of the game. One of the best examples of this is the two Paradox Project games in Athens. The initial brief is relatively straight forward, you are there to retrieve a diamond. But throughout the two games (nearly 7 hours of play!) you delve into the background and history of the diamond in such a way it completely adds to the experience.

Other rooms that are based on licenced properties can have a rich story based on their licence. The best example of this that I’ve played is Immaterium by Escapologic in Nottingham. This is based on the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game that has been going for over 30 years. You don’t need to be a gamer to appreciate the amazing theming of this game but I imagine regular players will notice and appreciate elements better than I could. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not sure I would classify Immaterium as an Escape Room, it’s an incredible experience of a quality I’ve only experienced at a Disney theme park.

Another element of the story is immersion and how that is maintained. I played a remote escape game that involved time travel and thematically it was all on point, it looked fantastic, nothing out of place and then a musical cue at the end just jarred so badly, I wouldn’t say it ruined the room but I marked it down because of it.

So the story is important, as is the theming of the story in the room itself and how well that is executed.

Puzzles

Any Escape Room has puzzles that you have to solve to win the game. These puzzles can take any number of different forms from padlocks (in all forms and shapes) to more technological puzzles. The more games you play then familiar locks and puzzles become second nature (we all probably fumbled a directional lock the first time).

Some puzzles can be incredibly intricate, utilising technology such as Arduino microcontrollers, RFID tags, maglocks and other similar technologies. The option is also there to network puzzles now using MQTT (a network protocol used in the Internet of Things (IoT)) where progress on puzzles can be displayed on a dashboard for the GM. This kind of oversight aids the GM in keeping the game moving forward and being able to offer hints if they think the players are stuck.

Most rooms tend to have an “aha” moment where you step back and consider either how clever the puzzle is or what it does as it is solved. I’ve found that most players have puzzles that are their particular “kryptonite”, for example, my weak spot is music puzzles. I have great difficulty picking out the notes in music (there was a puzzle in Old Father Time at The Panic Room which I would probably still be there if we hadn’t got lucky). Others pick out maths puzzles or dexterity based, but usually, someone’s got one weak point.

Puzzle design is important, as is the theming of those puzzles, people might be critical of modern-day padlocks in a medieval setting but I’m generally more forgiving of stuff like that. If a puzzle is clever and well-executed then I’m willing to forgive a lot.

Flow

Directly linked to the above, what I mean by flow is how each element of the room flows to the next. In a linear room (where the puzzles are solved sequentially) flow is even more critical. Is there a logical path leading from one part to the next? It can be frustrating when you stand in the middle of a room looking around hoping for some kind of divine inspiration to show you the where to go next, each room has an element of this but after a while, you will become demoralised. You have probably missed something and are relying on the GM on overwatch to give you prod in the right direction.

What’s worse is when the next part of the game requires a leap of logic or some external knowledge, but potentially worse than that is if you still don’t understand how you would have put the facts together to get to that conclusion in the debrief.

Theatricality

One comment I make a lot is that I like a bit of theatrics in a room. Now, this can take various forms but it usually refers to when the room does something that might be out of the ordinary. Generic examples can include being led in blindfolded or a split start (where one or more members start in a different location or situation). Theatricality also includes the finale, how does the room end, do you simply walk out or is there more to it than that?

In terms of finale’s then certainly both the aforementioned Immaterium and Paradox 2 both deserve a mention as both feature frenetic finales which offer more than just opening a door and walking out of the room triumphant in your puzzle-solving abilities.

GM

I’ve often said that a good Games Master (GM) can turn a mediocre experience into a better one. But ultimately this comes down to good customer service if anything I want to feel like they are in the room with me and have my back metaphorically. So if clues are not forthcoming or other problems don’t get resolved or their attention is elsewhere then that can all affect your overall enjoyment of the room.  

If you’ve read my blog post on the Odysseus LARP then you will know how taken I was with the “play to lift” concept, where everyone works to make sure everyone else has the best time. I think that concept works here as well.

Remote Rooms

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention virtual rooms as they have become the mainstay during these times of lockdown. Mostly my points remain the same but with some tweaks and a couple of additions: –

Audio/Video

Quality of picture and audio are big factors in playing remote escape rooms. I’ve played with various solutions over the last 12 months but Zoom has quickly become the standard as when it comes to video conferencing it’s hard to beat, what it lacks in features it makes up for with quality. Camera choice is also a factor as they can vary both in quality and capabilities. Most rooms have gone down the mobile phone route (some use a GoPro but that seems to bring about a different set of problems). Lighting can be a concern as some rooms can be quite dark but some phone cameras cannot handle low light that well so it’s not been unusual to see additional lighting that looks slightly out of place in a room.

Inventory

Most rooms have an inventory system, this is a separate interface to the video where you can keep track of information. This can be items you’ve found, puzzles to solve or locks to unlock. We’ve seen google drive, Adobe Lightroom and other in-house solutions. Like Zoom has become the standard for video, the standard for inventory systems is Telescape which was developed specifically in response to the rise of virtual rooms. This does work the best and with the flexibility of the software, some companies have digitised whole rooms so you can play without an avatar.

The collaborative nature of Telescape is incredibly good for such a young product but my big issue is when avatar led rooms rely on it too much. A frequent phrase I’ve said is that “I want to play the room, not the inventory”. There is a danger of relying too much on the inventory but I can appreciate not every element of an in-person room translates to a remote but the best rooms will make adaptions to do so.

Avatar

I said earlier how important the GM was, the same is true for the Avatar (when they are your remote hands) but even more so. You want a GM who will engage with you, play with you and take you on a journey. We’ve played some incredible rooms where the avatar has stayed In Character the whole time and it’s enhanced the experience. Whether they are a magicians assistant, a Hollywood detective or a kidnap victim. There is a line to be tread though, sometimes the avatar is too exuberant and this can detract from the game experience as well.

In Conclusion

I’ve written a lot about how I review and score rooms. Ultimately how you exit a room will impact how you feel about it. I did a room last year that was prison-themed and we escaped in just over 20 minutes, but it was a fun 20 minutes and I exited with a broad smile on my face. Rooms will stick out in your memory for various reasons, a great puzzle, an amazing prop or a stunning setting. The opposite is also true, a broken set, props that don’t work or an inattentive GM can all ruin the overall experience. Like Room difficulty, room ratings can be incredibly subjective. Sometimes you can’t just engage with the room and it doesn’t work for you and then you start to find niggles. I’ve enjoyed rooms other haven’t and the reverse is also true, but it’s what you think of the room is what counts.

So thanks for reading, if indeed you still are.

Photo is from a successful escape from the Cypherdyne room at Cryptology Nottingham in June 2019.

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