As someone who’s professionally reviewed books, films, games, theatre, music and hand driers, I can’t help but notice there’s something strange about the way reviewers usually approach Escape Games. Something… oddly reluctant. Something… cagey. More often than not, when I read reviews of escape rooms, I’m struck by the fact that the reviewer really doesn’t seem to want to tell me anything specific about the room in question.
I’m not talking about Google (“Nice chairs in the waiting room. Four Stars.“) or Tripadvisor (“We arrived three hours late and were told we could not play. One Star.“) reviews, by the way. Those are, at best, occasionally useful for evaluating the customer service credentials of a given venue, but for the most part all but the most dire of rooms usually rate at least five stars. After all, to the average member of public an escape game is a new and novel experience. They have nothing to compare it to, and who doesn’t love trying something new with friends?
I expect a review from the general public to tell me whether that particular group had a good time or not. What I don’t expect from them is any indication of the kind of puzzles you might find in a given room, or how well they flowed together. When I want to know details about a room, I turn to bloggers and critics…
..aaaaaand I’m usually disappointed. While specialist reviewers do tend to go into a bit more detail, they also rarely actually answer the kinds of questions I have. About 100% of the time they’re hamstrung by a very earnest and very extreme desire not to give away any of the room’s secrets. Which is very noble of them.
The trouble is, remaining tight-lipped doesn’t make for a particularly good review. By its nature a review is a piece that reveals detail – that illuminates selected elements of the room or book or game or experience that it’s focussed on. Imagine a film review that refused to say anything specific about the movie, but instead simply insisted that it was “great” or “bad” or “surprising” or “dark”. At most you’d get a vague idea of whether the reviewer liked it or not. But unless your personal tastes happen to match up more or less perfectly with those of the reviewer that’s not actually at all useful.
Of course, as with any medium that relies on secrets, twists and surprises, there are things that shouldn’t be given away. But there’s a pretty limited range of those. In fact, for the sake of completeness, here’s a list:
- The solution to any of the puzzles
- The exact nature of any elements intended to surprise
- The resolution of any story that underpins the room
Simple stuff. But instead of just avoiding these few elements, most reviewers go about fifty furlongs further and refuse to disclose anything about the interior of the room itself. They might drop a hint or two that the room is well-appointed, but good luck finding out what’s actually in there. Which is frustrating. Is it just me, or does it not bother you at all to know that there’s a magnetic puzzle or a blacklight torch? Do you mind knowing what fixtures and fittings you might find in the room? That’s there’s a lot of maths involved? That you may have to work as a team?
I, personally, am absolutely fine with knowing these things. In fact, they’re exactly the kind of things I want to get from a specialist review. Tell me when there’s a particularly good search and find puzzle… just don’t tell me where to look. Tell me that there’s a bunch of giant mirrors in a room… just don’t tell me what those mirrors are used for.
This tendency to circumspection isn’t helped by the fact that many rooms attempt to operate underneath a totally unecessary veil of secrecy. Refusing to put pictures online creates the impression that even the merest glimpse inside the room could spoil the surprise. But that’s not the case. Think about it. How many rooms have you played where seeing a picture of the space in advance would have let the air out of future gameplay?
The shyness inherent in speaking about escape rooms isn’t something that dogs other mediums. Computer games, mystery novels and crime dramas all rely, to a certain extent, on keeping their cards close to their chest. But we’ve managed to find ways of writing about those that are useful and specific, but don’t give the game away. Why shouldn’t we do the same for escape games?
Perhaps this reticence is just a sign that the genre is fairly young and undeveloped. Perhaps when many rooms don’t have much in the way of story to hold them together it can feel wrong to talk to specifically about what little scraps of narrative there are. But if we want to see more interesting rooms and more developed experiences in the future, we’re going to need to find ways of writing about them that don’t sound like we’re trying to protect state secrets.
So to room owners and designers I’d say this: don’t be afraid to show what you’ve got. Hints and samples and glimpses are only going to increase the excitement people feel about your work, rather than collapsing it altogether. The fun of your room is not that fragile! And as for reviewers, to them I’d simply say: actually I would like some spoilers, please. Little ones at least.