Constraints and the Design of Escape Rooms
Games are defined by the rules and limits placed on them and on those who play them. Chess wouldn’t be as strategically interesting if you could decide to play with all queens. Poker wouldn’t be as competitive if everyone had an ace or two up their sleeve. These limits trim all the fat off of the players’ list of possible choices, and make them operate within a set of defined moves and outcomes. In game design, these rules and limits are often referred to as constraints.
In physical games, like the aforementioned chess, many of the rules are implicit. Physically, you could move your pieces wherever you want on the board. Agreeing to play the game is opting in to the game’s rules, for the sake of a more interesting strategic experience. In digital games, constraints are even easier to enforce. If the designer doesn’t want to give players access to something, it simply isn’t included or is disabled in the game’s code. These limits are more explicit- they can’t be worked around even if you tried. Constraints allow a game to be focused, and let players know what to expect within the game’s framework every time they play. But what happens when one of the main goals of the game is player discovery? Constraints can get in the way of this, by letting players know what to expect before they find it. This is absolutely the case in escape room design. Most of the fun for the players stems from figuring out what in the room they do and don’t need and piecing small bits of information together to progress. Because of this, the balance between implicit and explicit constraints is very important, and it’s critical that the players think about the constraints as little as possible while playing.
In some escape rooms, they use explicit constraints like putting “do not touch” stickers on objects that are purely decorative or not part of a puzzle, as well as objects that are breakable or could easily be tampered with. Explicit constraints are also common, and often unavoidable, in the pre-game briefing. Our briefing says things like “there is nothing in the ceiling or the floorboards,” and “you don’t need to break anything open or force anything open.” These constraints let players know what to expect as far as the physicality of the the room, and are critical to ensuring certain important props don’t get broken. There are also many implicit constraints on escape rooms- players know that they’re there to solve puzzles and find a solution through their wits, not to kick down the door as soon as they get in.
The balancing of these constraints is what separates an immersive and interesting escape room experience from a sterile, detached room full of props. Designers want to leave as few constraints as possible while still ensuring the room and props will stay intact for future groups and the sequence of puzzles can’t be worked around or skipped. At Escapeocity, we try to balance these constraints to allow for as much player discovery in our rooms as possible. This is why we use as many period-accurate props as we can in our Time Machine room, and also why we don’t use “do not touch” stickers in our rooms. We think that these choices allow players to experiment with the room and to try to execute any idea they have to solve a puzzle, rather than players being funneled along a linear path and only being limited by the speed in which they progress along that path. We’re always open to constructive criticism on our rooms, and would love to hear from you! Contact us at www.facebook.com/escapeocity or https://twitter.com/Escapeocity.