By the time you play your twentieth room escape, you might have noticed something (other than a severe dent in your bank balance) – certain elements keep cropping up over and over again. It doesn’t seem to matter what city you’re playing in, nor who owns the room. These puzzles are as ubiquitous as headdress-wearing idiots at music festivals. It’s not just likely that you’ll run into them time after time. It’s fate.
Which isn’t, by the way, to say that they’re inherently bad puzzles. Hunting out hidden clues with a blacklight is a seriously cool experience the first time you get to do it. The trouble is that around the dozenth time you have to patiently scan a room’s walls, floor and ceiling with an ailing little pocket torch the whole production can start to feel a bit like… well… work.
Escape rooms as a form haven’t had a huge amount of time to develop. As such there isn’t quite the awareness of cliché and trope that there might be among creators in other forms. The genre is too new for everyone to know the kinds of puzzles that are, by now, getting a little stale. Puzzles that could benefit from being, as a certain modernist poet would say, made new.
So here’s our list – a living document that we’ll add to over time. The puzzles and game elements below are ones that have a tendency to pop up more often than Saturday morning cartoon villains, and are often just as lame and annoying.
The Object Hunt
The late great Terry Pratchett said that “the reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication”. He was right, of course. Hunting around a room in order to collect hidden items is a classic of escape room design because it’s essential. Many rooms wouldn’t work without it. It’s a screwdriver – and a heavy-duty, reliable one with a grippy handle and changeable heads at that.
However, we do have to ask ourselves a question when it comes to object hunting: is it actually fun? Used sparingly, maybe. But if every other step in a given escape involves conducting a fingertip search of the room it can end up feeling as though you’ve just lost your wallet – a definitively not-fun experience I have on a weekly basis without ever having to pay a penny.
I have to admit to feeling a certain fondness for blacklights. They’re so ubiquitous that, in franchise games, I’m often willing to bet good money that they’ll make an appearance. And there’s a certain excitement in discovering a scrawl of cryptic writing where previously nothing was visible. When an escape room presents me with a blacklight, I know I’m back on familiar territory. I’m home.
But let’s put my fondness for them aside for a moment. Hunting out clues in this fashion eats up the minutes like a faulty microwave, but isn’t actually a task that could officially be called challenging. Additionally, blacklights are often presented entirely out of context. Nothing shatters the illusion like finding a battery-powered flashlight in a medieval dungeon… especially since the only kind of invisible ink widely available in that time period was most likely made of peasant urine.
Lots And Lots Of Locks
If object hunting is a screwdriver, combination locks are a hammer. They do the job. They work. When you want a numerical clue to lead to the opening of a physical object they are the business. But, to be clear, they’re really not the only kind of lock on the marketplace. Keys. Fingerprints. Sensors. RFID tags. Magnets. Air pressure. There are a billion cool mechanisms that aren’t combination-based, and I love it when I get to play with some of them.
Flimsy rooms are often marked out by an over-reliance on combination locks. Adding in lock after lock doesn’t just save money and imaginative energy – it also bulks out the room without the need to add extra content. If you have to enter every likely combination into twenty different padlocks it’s a toss-up between what will disappear first: your remaining time, or the mobility in your fingers.
It’s only been a year or so since directional locks started cropping up in escape rooms, but they’ve proliferated like a particularly virulent sexually transmitted infection. I’ll admit, up front, that the first time I got my hands on one I thought it was pretty neat. But, clearly, escape room designers the world over thought exactly the same thing, and promptly incorporated directional locks into every single one of their designs.
Directional locks do offer a little bit of variety in rooms otherwise filled with combination and key locks. But, as of the time of writing, they are officially no longer as original as most people seem to think they are. Oh, and they’re hella fiddly as well. If – as is the case with several rooms I’ve visited – you need to show guests a demo model of a given lock before letting them into a room, perhaps it’s time to switch out that lock for something a little more intuitive.
Over the last two years I’ve patiently calculated the perfect number of crossword and Sudoku puzzles for the average escape room. It is zero. Although, in a well-designed room, I’m happy to accept about half of one. If I wanted to sit in an armchair and patiently do word jumbles I would have purchased the latest edition of Puzzler. To have to complete them in the middle of an escape room is like asking me to take a break in the middle of a paintball match to knock out a couple of games of backgammon.
Perhaps the misplaced enthusiasm for these paper-based time sucks stems from the fact that the word puzzle is right there in the name. And I can’t argue with that. Yes, they are puzzles. But they’re the kind of puzzles I do when I don’t have anything more interesting to focus my brain on. Thusly: not ideal.
Some of the most fun times in my life have been had while fumbling around in semi-darkness, but when I enter an escape room to find the lights pre-dimmed I can’t help but roll my eyes (which is fine, since nobody can see). Yes, being unable to see makes things more difficult. Yes, it adds a challenge. But nine times out of ten it’s an entirely artificial layer of complexity.
Puzzles that aren’t actually particularly intricate can be a devil to solve when you can’t see what you’re doing, and for this reason low light is often used to bulk out game time in flimsy rooms. If you find yourself in a darkened escape room, it can be an interesting exercise to ask yourself why it’s dark in there. If it makes sense to the story, all is well and good. If it doesn’t, start looking for a light switch.