Escape Room Commandment #1: Thou Shalt Not Make The Player Read

Find the right book to open the door! Easy!

Find the right book to open the door! Easy!

Reading is good, right? Who doesn’t like to snuggle down with a good book at the end of the day, or peruse a few dozen long-form listicles about colony collapse disorder or the making of Stranger Things while the boss is looking the other way?

Only here’s the thing: escape rooms aren’t your nightly de-stressing ritual or your boring job. They’re better than that, dammit—or at least they ought to be. To which point, here is a short list of reasons you shouldn’t force people to read stuff in escape rooms.

1. Reading is boring (i.e. show, don’t tell)

Ezra Pound once described literature as “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.” Escape rooms represent a similar sort of charging, in that they try to evoke an entire adventure in the course of an hour. To that end, every moment needs to be exciting, moving, intriguing, or at the very least, entertaining. But being told stuff is very seldom exciting, or moving, or intriguing; we’re all desperate to be shown.

Forcing players to read is the ultimate tell, and perhaps the least interesting way that a game designer can transmit information to the player. Triple-A video games, which are a couple decades farther along the evolutionary road than escape rooms, haven’t depended on straight text since the 80s. In fact, they have their own unfortunate cliché: the dreaded audiolog. Here’s a whole article about it. (This trope is so common that the first South Park RPG saw fit to build a whole meta-joke around it: “Day 4. I’ve looked everywhere, but I can’t find anything to eat or a clue to get me off the ship. Just more audiologs! They’re everywhere! For some reason I keep listening to every minute of every one thinking there’ll be some useful information but…they’re just filler! Filler that’s driving me to madness!” If that made you laugh, you should probably watch this video of all of them.)

It’s worth remembering that one of the most beloved action heroes in American cinema is an archaeology professor. (One can imagine a slightly less successful series of films that portray his day job translating dusty tomes in an empty library, the only sound the distant shushing of the librarian.) But take a look at the following clip, starting at around the 1:55 mark. Here, when Indy has cause to consult his journal, he opens it, looks at something, and closes it again. That’s exactly how much patience an audience would have to watch him reading. (And that’s a young Harrison Ford we’re watching, mind you. Do you have a young Harrison Ford in your escape room? I didn’t think so. I could watch that guy watch grass grow.) Why are you making your players do something that Indiana Jones wouldn’t do? His movies last twice as long as an escape room, and he still won’t waste a second reading. What a boss.

2. Reading is physically problematic

So let’s imagine your escape room can fit a max of eight people. Now let’s imagine they’re provided with a piece of reading material. Obviously it would break immersion if they happened upon eight copies of the same text, so let’s take it as a given that the room only provides a single copy. Now, the group, which is almost certainly operating under a time constraint, has to make a decision. Does one person read the document aloud while everybody else scampers about the room, loudly poking and prodding the shelves full of nameless old books glued into place? Does everybody stand still and, in an orderly fashion, take a turn reading it? Should the document be placed somewhere that everyone can eventually get around to having a look-see, though a few will invariably forget as they’re distracted by other doodads and doohickeys and doo-wop music?

You might argue that such questions of prioritization are an integral part of how puzzles are solved in escape rooms, except for the fact that this sort of puzzle exists solely because the designers of the room didn’t find a more interesting and practical way of transmitting the information. Everyday tasks made difficult by bad design do not a puzzle make. For example, I could build a section of my escape room around a complex cipher that has to be decoded while two actors in gorilla costumes vigorously slap players in the face, but there’s a difference between something that’s difficult to do and a puzzle. Figuring out how to distribute the information on a piece of paper (or, heaven forbid, a whole bunch of pieces of papers) to a large group is definitely difficult. But it isn’t fun, and it isn’t a puzzle.

The answer to the puzzle is somewhere in this volume. Good luck searching!

The answer to the puzzle is somewhere in this volume. Good luck searching!

And that’s not the only difficulty presented by reading material in escape rooms. The very existence of writing on paper (which is often illegibly “handwritten” in order to add to the authenticity factor) necessitates a compromise on lighting. In general, escape rooms thrive on mystery and obscurity. But without some bright-ass lights, it can be extremely difficult for people to read whatever’s written on the paper/janky laminated nonsense. Unfortunately, unless the room takes place in a dentist’s office, a bar just after last call, or the surface of the sun, bright-ass lights are going to break the players’ sense of immersion. And this issue is only exacerbated if you’ve only got the one document for a group of eight people. We’ve all had the experience of trying to read a busted piece of “parchment,” the text of which was printed in an eye-watering 11-point Lucida Calligraphy, while huddled around an escape room’s single flickering electric “candle.” Again, is this difficult? Hell to the yes. Is it a puzzle? Hell to the no.

3. Reading itself breaks immersion (usually)

It may seem logical that you will be asked to read in an escape room. What else would that dying pirate have done but pen a letter obliquely explaining where he hid his treasure? How else but by means of a large book of codes and ciphers can the dastardly serial killer play cat to your mouse? What space station overrun by aliens doesn’t have a control panel whose password happens to be an acrostic made up of the names of all the dead crew members in order of height?

Putting aside the fact that all those scenarios are stupid, the underlying problem is that even if the existence of a document can be justified by the narrative, it’s quite difficult to present a robust physical document that doesn’t break immersion. A real piece of paper would have to be themed and aged to fit the period in which the game is set, but old-timey parchment is expensive, and would likely need to be replaced every few games. (“Run Books,” which Room Escape Artist talks about here, tend to wear out extremely quickly, and are never replaced as often as they should be. Of course, they shouldn’t be used at all, for all the other reasons on this list.) Similarly, a handwritten note would need to be actually handwritten, not printed in a handwritten font, which would make replacement even more complicated. The most common workaround for both of these problems is lamination, which is always a problem. This is how we were given handouts in grade school—because you can’t trust grade schoolers not to spill juice or pee on anything you give them—but there’s precious little laminating in adult life, and certainly not in the circumstances represented by the average escape room. In other words, this “solution” always breaks immersion immediately.

4. Reading is a cliché

In the preface to his collection of criticism, The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000, Martin Amis writes, “To idealize: all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting clichés. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice.”

Let’s take a basic escape room conundrum: I need to get people to look for an object hidden under a desk in the office of a detective who was recently killed. I tried just putting the damn thing there, but nobody ever found it during beta testing. So I decide to have the recently murdered detective leave a note for the players:

“To Whoever’s Reading This, I hope you have more luck evading Boss Mafiosini’s thugs than I did. The man is too powerful, too rich. Don’t Ever Say Krime doesn’t pay, eh? Anyway, I left you something that should help, but I don’t want the wrong people to find it, so I’ve hidden it somewhere in the room. If you read this note carefully enough, you should be able to figure it out. I’d say more, but I think they’re coming back for me. Oh God, tell my wife I hate…” [writing trails off into a few blood stains made with fruit punch]

The biggest problem here isn’t the terrible writing (see #5 below), nor is it even the cheap wordplay, it’s that we’ve seen this sort of “puzzle” a million times before. Hidden messages in text are old news. Maybe that wasn’t true five years ago, but it’s true now—the medium has progressed. And that means we all have to work that much harder to give our players a satisfying game.

So how else can you get your players to look under the desk? Well…

  1. They follow a subtle trail of blood stains from the bathroom to the desk, which is uplit to draw people’s attention to the area you want them to look at.

  2. There’s a scale model of the room somewhere, because the detective was considering some renovations, with the desk turned upside down and a gold star on the bottom.

  3. Outside the windows, lit mysteriously, two silhouettes pass by, though they immediately disappear if anyone in our group makes a sound. If we stay still enough, they have a brief conversation. “So you took care of the detective?” “You know I did.” “Any fun last words? I love it when they croak out a few before they, you know, croak.” “I wasn’t really paying attention. Something about the bottom of a disk or something?” “Disk? You sure it wasn’t dusk? Or duck?” “Bottom of a duck? Maybe. Who cares. Let’s go get drunk. Killing people makes me thirsty.”

  4. We see a picture of the crime scene when the detective was killed. The chalk outline clearly shows the body in a supine position right under the desk, with a small red marker just next to where the hand would be, as if the victim was writing something when he died.

Are any of these good ideas? Not particularly. I’d probably brainstorm another 20 before I’d pick one (or I wouldn’t have a hidden item puzzle at all, to be honest). My point is that this is the job. You come up with idea after idea until one of them, to quote our friend Marie Kondo, sparks joy.

5. Writing is hard (i.e. your writing sucks)

One of the reasons it’s taken video games so damn long to start telling quality stories (see What Remains of Edith Finch, Florence, Her Story, the new God of War, some of the David Cage/Quantic Dream stuff, anything made by Tim Schaffer, and a bunch more) is that, for a good thirty-five years, programmers have been doing all the writing. Why? Well, it’s a cost-saving measure, and maybe a bit of an auteur attitude that’s been with games from the beginning, but I think it’s mostly because everybody can technically write, so everybody thinks they can write well.

In truth, good writing is rare, and if you don’t do it regularly in a professional fashion, you probably aren’t as good at it as you think. Do you know how to use a colon? A semicolon? An em dash? Do you know what participles and gerunds are? Do you know how to manipulate sentence structure to manipulate emotion, for example by shortening sentences and word length to accelerate pace? This might sound over the top, but it really isn’t. Most professional writers know how to do those things, just as most composers know what rubato and legato mean and what combinations of instruments might be used to achieve a certain emotional effect. If you wouldn’t have your music composed by someone who doesn’t know how to compose music, why have your writing done by someone who doesn’t know how to write?

Robert McKee talks about the rarity of good work in his seminal text on screenwriting, Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, “By the 1990s script development in Hollywood climbed to over $500 million per annum, three quarters of which is paid to writers for options and rewrites on films that will never be made. Despite a half-billion dollars and the exhaustive efforts of development personnel, Hollywood cannot find better material than it produces. The hard-to-believe truth is that what we see on the screen each year is a reasonable reflection of the best writing of the last few years.”

In other words, the garbage movies clogging the multiplex every summer are the best scripts anybody wrote in the preceding 24 months. So why are they so shitty? Because it’s hard to write well. And unless you write well, why are you putting writing on display in your escape room? The truth is, very few people come to making escape rooms by way of writing prose. The draw is more often puzzling, technology, design, or live performance. (And sometimes the draw is just money, which, well…haha hahahaha hahaha ha ha *wipes away tears*). If those are your strengths, play to them! Draw attention to the things you do well, and cut out the things you don’t.

6. Epilogue

This article was born out of a post my collaborator Terry made on the escape room enthusiast Facebook group. He laid out a few general guidelines for making quality escape rooms, and people responded with a fair bit of…well, let’s say passion. Let me tell you: I love that. I think we need to be talking passionately about design, because every time somebody plays a badly designed escape room as their first escape room, we lose them for years, if not forever. We need to give our fellow escape room proprietors shit when they fall back on lazy, derivative storylines and basic, repetitive puzzles, on hastily designed sets and props that are falling apart. Because the truth is we’re all in this together. We rise and fall together—and the goal is to keep rising.

So I’m gonna be making more of these posts with more of these rules. Suck it up, nerds.

- Tommy