How important is story in escape rooms?
It’s probably the last thing you should care about
Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t care about it at all. It’s just the least important consideration of things you should be considering. Story can be a nice bonus to an already fun game. Or it can help tie a game together. I’ve written previously that escape facilities should implement story into their games, and I want to clarify exactly what I mean.
1) Story can help give direction to the gameplay elements.
I’ve written maybe a dozen times now in this blog about how players will find being confused by puzzles perfectly acceptable; Players get frustrated if they are confused between puzzles.
If given the choice, as a player, what do you think you would enjoy more?
A) You are confused by Puzzle 1 and spend 5 minutes on it. After you solve it, you quickly know where to move on to next. You are confused by Puzzle 2, and spend another 5 minutes to solve it.
B) You find Puzzle 1 easy, and solve it very quickly. You don’t know what to do next for 10 minutes. You find Puzzle 2, and also solver it very quickly.
I put in arbritrary numbers, but I think I would prefer A) even if you tweaked the numbers in favour of B).
So say that you’re designing your escape room , and for whatever reason, your plans for the room look more like B) than A). You can try to supplement the the lack of cohesion with story. Regardless of the theme, players inherently have some knowledge of the topic at hand. Say that you have random puzzles in a game dealing with stealing a jewel (heists are very in right now). Even if the puzzle has nothing to do with the theme, if you were to label one puzzle “Power generator for security system. Do not touch!”, it’ll clue players in that they should solve this puzzle before trying to extract the jewel itself.
2) Stories can reward players with Easter Eggs
One of my favourite game series has been the Portal games, made by Valve. If you haven’t played Portal, it’s a fantastic puzzle game that revolves around the mechanic of making portals. The entire ‘surface’ of the game is gameplay. There is only story if a player chooses to go deeper and to explore the levels further. I haven’t really seen an escape room that shares this sort of design, but I do think that it has some perks to keeping players happy. Hypothetically, players that care about story are rewarded by what they find. Players who don’t care about story won’t encounter any story. Win-win! The logistical concern is that if you throw in too much non-puzzle related elements, they will start resembling red herrings.
3) Your entire game can be a story.
This is similar to 1), with the difference that this is more a directive to consider when planning your game, whereas 1) is more of a band-aid to poorly designed game. To my knowledge, there aren’t really any escape rooms in Toronto that fit this archetype well. Two out-of-town examples are The Apartmentin Singapore and Spark of Resistance in Portland, Oregon. These games have a story to tell, and each puzzle or task you accomplish advances the player in that storyline. From what I understand, these games are especially immersive!
This doesn’t mean in any way that story is a requirement for a good game. One of my favourite 45 minute escape rooms, the Black Room at Escape Zone is essentially a story-less theme-less room. The backstory they do give you is: You have been handcuffed and kidnapped. You now find yourself held hostage inside of a pitch black room. You notice many gadgets set up to keep you from escaping. With limited time and vision, how will you escape?
The game was fun, and not hampered by its lack of story. The designers of the room made (or lucked into) good decisions about the general design that made it clear what to do at any given point in the game.