- How players navigate the room itself
- The center table
- Too much vs too little
- Placement of puzzles
- Tactile walking surface indicators
- Environmental storytelling
When players enter your room, they have no idea whether it’s round or square or any other shape. The shape of the room might be up to you if you designing from scratch or you might be beholden to the venue you’re hiring. Whatever the case, carefully consider how the shape of the room will inform how players are able to navigate the space.
Many players’ asked to see the venue after completing The Owl Job and were often shocked that their idea of the room that was in their head was different from what they saw. And often people had contradictory versions of the room in their head: I thought it was bigger. I thought it was smaller, I thought it was really long like a hallway, and so on.
Canadian writer Ryan Knighton tells the story of how he got lost in his hotel room on This American Life.
Ryan has been blind since he was 18, and he traced the walls of what he believed was a square room trying to find the way out. But it wasn’t a perfect square. It was a sort of L shape, with an alcove that the door was hiding in. Ryan explained later, “the problem is you get a picture in your mind and if you get it wrong, you just live inside the mistake.” It’s up to us as game designers to minimise the chance of players’ making these kind of mistakes.
In The Owl Job a table was placed in the center of the room. Players were told about this table during the game briefing and it was suggested that this would be a useful spot that players’ could place items. Rather than having to say “I left the key on the cupboard next to the fridge” they could just say “I put the key on table in the middle of the room.”
Every group made use of this and it was very useful for making sure that items didn’t get lost around the room or in people’s pockets. The center workbench table was also made distinct by being round and being covered by a tablecloth – two features that set it apart from any other table in the room. Lastly, it was on a rug, so players could feel when they were approaching the table when they stepped onto the rug. And of course, being in the center of the room made it easier to find.
For The Owl Job we had a room that was basically a square. Since the theme of the room was that players’ were breaking into someone’s home, the room had to feel like it could function like a home, while not being so cluttered as to be overwhelming. For example the room had a fridge and a bench to give the impression of a kitchen, but there wasn’t a bed to found. Additionally, at the start of the run the kitchen bench had a handful of different kitchen items. But having too many items on the bench led players’ to having to sort through a bunch of ‘junk data’ to find out if any of these random kitchen items were useful. In the end, we cut back to just a single soup ladle and a baking tray. Items that clearly said ‘kitchen’ but had no affordances as puzzle pieces.
On a side note about safety, it’s worth mentioning that there were no porcelain or glass items to avoid accidentally breakages.
The Owl Job took place in a square room. To help players navigate the space I grouped relevant pieces of furniture together to make stations.
- Kitchen area (Small fridge and a bench)
- Lounge area (Arm chair next to a set of drawers)
- Locked dresser
- Locked cupboards
These stations were all spaced out so they were distinct islands, but also not so far apart that peoples would get lost in the distance between each station. Each of these areas employed different tricks to try and guide the players’ hands and ears.
When players entered the house, they were greeted by a smart home AI. The speaker playing the voice of the AI was located just under the locked cupboards, to try and draw players towards the introductory puzzle those cupboards contained.
The locked dresser had an important item sitting atop it. So that players wouldn’t overlook this key item or knock it off without noticing, it was placed in a bowl that was fixed atop the dresser.
The kitchen area actually had no puzzles per se, but it was located just in front of an item that made a distinct noise when players bumped into it. The function of the kitchen was to draw the players in such that they would inevitably trigger that sound and discover the item.
For the lounge area, we picked a simple vinyl arm chair rather than a sofa so that players’ wouldn’t mistake the arm chair for something they had to search. If it was a sofa, players might have spent some time flipping, unzipping and feeling cushions to see if there was an item hiding somewhere. The vinyl arm chair was a simple piece of furniture, so it took no time at all for players to run a hand over it and deduce that it was just a chair and it wasn’t hiding any secrets.
Now something that we didn’t do in The Owl Job was have multiple spaces. On the plus side it meant that we didn’t have to worry about players and puzzle pieces getting spread out over two rooms. But it complicated things since it meant that players could solve puzzles in different orders. This was generally controlled by having the next puzzle box or puzzle item locked away in a cupboard. But generally there would be two puzzles that players could solve at any one time.
If you are going to have multiple rooms within your sightless escape room, consider how players will navigate between spaces. Can you differentiate the rooms by wall/floor texture or ambient sounds? Will you seal the door behind them to separate the old space from the new space – or would you want to try having two active puzzle rooms?
At the end of the day, always remember that how you design your room and arrange the furniture and props within it can help or hinder your players’ ability to navigate the room.
Tactical walking surface indicators is the fancy name for those yellow texture strips of bumps that you often find in train stations, which usually indicate an upcoming hazard. Of course the real world is full of surface indicators. You can tell when you’ve left the soft carpet of the lounge room and stepped onto the hard tile of the kitchen. If you’re walking through a grassy park and feel yourself step onto a gravel or paved path, you know it will likely lead you somewhere useful. As game designers we can use these same affordances of different walking surfaces to lead the players. Consider the following possibilities:
- Guide players by having a pebbled pathway that leads to the first puzzle.
- Having pressure plates in the floor with contrasting textured surfaces of smooth, rough and squishy. If these are buttons key to a puzzle, you could help players’ notice these pressure plates by having a sound play whenever they are stepped on.
- Having a soft rug on a hardwood floor, giving players something to orientate themselves. They can follow the edges of the carpet to something useful, or note whether an important room feature was on the carpet, or the hardwood flooring.
Every little bit that you put in to help guide your players is both good accessibility and good game design.
Environmental storytelling is essentially where the environment (the space, the props, the architecture etc) communicate narrative to the player. That storytelling might just be setting a mood, or explaining an event or a history.
Pictured above: A screenshot from the videogame Fallout 3. Two skeletons are on a bed, embracing one another.
This example from the video game Fallout 3 doesn’t just tell us that someone died here, it allows us to imagine a history for these people as dead lovers. Video games use environmental storytelling all the time, and escape rooms can use many of these exact same techniques. The topic is large enough to deserve its own website, so I’ll just recommend two great starting points to learn more. The first is A Taxonomy Of Environmental Narrative by William Owen (Website link) which provides many practical examples. Second is this video by Game Makers Toolkit (Website link) which has some big picture ideas on how environmental storytelling can communicate themes.
In a sightless escape room we don’t use visual cues such as lighting, colour, and posters – but we still have plenty of tools at our disposal:
The last two are of course unique to real world games. To give this list some context, let’s give some specific examples:
- The players open a door. The metal feels cold and rough, as though it’s rusty. The squeaking of the hinges confirms it. As they enter the door they find themselves walking down a very narrow corridor. It continues to narrow, forcing places to turn on their side to squeeze through. As they press themselves against the walls they feel something wet. Is that blood? Far behind them there’s a gust of wind and the metal door slams shut.
- The players enter a house where the air is warm and cozy. There’s the smell of coffee and bacon. The carpeting underfoot is thick and soft and plush. The ticking of an old grandfather clock can be heard. There’s a wooden table here that’s rough and uneven; probably handmade. It’s covered in a thin layer of dust and you find a number of items upon it: a dogs’ collar with a leash, a ukulele without strings and a miners helmet.
You’ll notice that many environmental storytelling techniques seem to invite the question ‘what happened here?’ But because these are games – and games are meant to be interacted with – it’s important to intertwine your gameplay with your environmental storytelling. Here’s some examples from The Owl Job:
- At the start of the game players’ hear 1940s blues music. This not only implies the age of the person who lives in the house, but is actually an important clue used later in the game.
- There’s a toy cupboard containing a teddy bear and a wooden block toy to imply the presence of a child. The owner of the house must be a parent. While the teddy bear is only there for flavour, the block toy is a puzzle piece.
- Players uncover voicemails from the homeowners’ sister. Her message includes information for solving a puzzle, but this also tells us about their relationship.
- When players finally find the safe, it includes a war medal, implying a military history somewhere. Players also find information that confirms it’s a Chinese war medal belonging to the homeowners’ grandfather, but also that he has put the medal up for sale online. Whether this means the homeowner is so strapped for cash he’ll sell a cherished family heirloom or just doesn’t respect his grandfather is up to the player.
Environmental storytelling is a vital tool in any escape room. But sightless escape rooms offer a unique opportunity for storytelling experiences based around touch, scent and sound. So keep this in mind as you’re building your world and your puzzles.