Welcome to our new series, where we look at the intricacies of designing an escape room from start to finish. Since we create all our escape rooms in house at Arcadia Adventures Escape Room, we’ve learned quite a few tricks along the way and pitfalls to avoid. We hope that these guides will be useful to other aspiring designers or those interested in the behind the scenes of Escape Rooms.
For this first article in the series, we will start with the seed of all escape rooms: Theme. A theme is the overriding designing principle that everything else in the pre-production process will revolve around, including puzzles, interior design, difficulty, prop build, electronic work, etc. It is usually summarized in a single sentence that begins with “Wouldn’t it be cool…?”
“Wouldn’t it be cool if you could steal an artifact from a museum?” Wouldn’t it be cool to have a race between a horde of zombies and desperate scientists?” ” Wouldn’t it be cool to escape a dungeon filled with magical fairy-tales?”
The theme is typically the first thing designers imagine; however, it is fully extracting the best gameplay and potential that is difficult. From our experience, here are our Do’s and Dont’s when it comes to choosing a Theme:
DON’T BE SATISFIED WITH CLICHE
The worst thing you can do with an idea is to take the surface layer of a concept and start production right away. Take some time to explore the idea and how you can make it interesting. Suppose your idea is a bank heist. You could design a vault and give players 60 minutes to escape. But what if you approached it from another angle? Players are cops and must find a way into a vault within 60 minutes before the thieves escape. What possibility does that open up? How do the puzzles change? Is this a fresh take or a gimmick? At this stage, look for different angles and get your creative juices flowing. Don’t be satisfied with genre clichés.
DO RESEARCH YOUR THEME
That being said, do research your theme so you get a better concept of the possibility of your idea. Look for pictures online that match the feeling and design you want your room to have. Watch movies, read books, play video games based on your theme and look for things you can use for your own design. In the example of the heist room, one movie that comes to mind is Ocean’s Eleven. As they plan and pull off the elements of the heist, could you make a puzzle out of each part? What about having players crawl through a vent to get to a secret door? Is the design of the casino what you are looking for or do you want something closer to an actual vault like Inside Man? Research, research, research.
DON’T FORCE YOUR PUZZLES
I’ve been to countless rooms where the atmosphere is perfect, the lighting is spot on and the music sets the mood. We’re ready to tackle the challenge and the puzzles we come across have nothing to do with the theme. In fact, they could easily be transported to another room and nothing would change. Why go through all the work designing a room to look and feel great but the actual gameplay feels tacked on. Our trick is to take an element of our theme and see if we can create a puzzle out of it, not vice versa. For the heist example, could we make a puzzle out of the players gathering valuables from the vault? Maybe some are fake and they have to figure out which ones are correct? Maybe they need to divide the loot correctly into the right bags. Take a concept and see if you can squeeze gameplay out of it. If you can do this with every puzzle in your room, you will have successfully integrated gameplay and theme in your escape room.
DO COMBINE IDEAS WHEN STUCK
Even the best ideas can become stagnant once researched and explored. Many times we’ve come up with a theme that we were sure was going to be our next room, only to walk back to the drawing board when we fully explored the concept. The good news is that not much time is lost in this early stage. The second good news is when faced with a handful of decent but not great ideas, smash them together and see what happens. Maybe a bank heist feels too boring. What if you combine it with an equally boring outer space theme. A bank heist in space? That might be interesting, having the players board a cargo vessel, each with a role to get past the ships security systems. But of course, there’s an AI watching so they would have to disable that and…the possibilities are endless.
These are just some tips to help in this most crucial process. While puzzle design, set dressing, gameplay flow can offer difficult challenges, there’s nothing worse than going through that knowing the theme just isn’t clicking for you. Take your time at the start. Nail down the concept and relax. At this stage, everything can be easily be changed if it doesn’t work. When your group stumbles upon that theme that they just can’t stop talking about, you’ll know you have a winner.