Escape Room Narrative: The Power of Post-its

Post-its…are amazing.

Especially when you make them an accordian!

No, really. I adore them. Unfortunately, it’s not because I am incredibly adept at using them to organize my life. It’s because they can be a very powerful narrative tool. Over the last couple of years, I have really come to appreciate the story telling power of that little yellow square. In fact, in my most recent project, I have begun to use them as a way to shorten what are otherwise lengthy passages of text.

I will admit. I am someone who struggles with…efficiency in her writing. This blog is proof of concept for that idea. There I will be, trying to write a journal passage at 200 words max and suddenly it’s 1,000. I recently submitted a magazine article where the editor told me not to worry, I had PLENTY of words at 1,250. I hit the limit halfway through my article.

Then it occurred to me. What if I took those long, meandering journal entries, and tried to distill their essence onto a single post-it. Would I be able to get the same information across limited to a few words?

It’s not like it’s a new idea. Years ago the game Gone Home (and yes, it’s old now, but it set the bar for so much environmental storytelling) introduced the concept to me. In the game you find a book with a single post-it note on it.

Now, the post-it note works in conjunction with the book. The book tells us our main character might struggle with making friends. The post-it tells us everything we need to know about who wrote this and what the state of their relationship is. From the post-it we learn Sam’s dad bought her a book. We can infer that her dad cares about her very much but has a tough time relating. Note that it doesn’t say “Love, Dad”. He obviously has trouble actually talking things through with his daughter. He would rather leave the book on a table with an explanatory note than actually talk through his daughter’s struggles face to face. But the fact that he did anything indicates he does care very much.

All of this from a book and a single post-it.

Now let’s shift to escape rooms. Let’s pretend we have a teenage character here as well. You approach a locked door. Earlier, you found a diary, a natural thing for a teenage girl to have. Inside, you find an entry:

Ugh. Dad is so annoying. He keeps barging into my room without my permission! Doesn’t he have ANY boundaries? It’s SOOOO embarrassing to be on a video call with my friends and have them watch him barge into the room and ask about my laundry. My LAUNDRY, for crap’s sake! He even brought up me getting taco sauce on my shirt! I bet everyone thinks I’m some slob now! Ugh! I don’t even know what to do. If he just knocked, it wouldn’t be so bad. It’s just common decency to ask permission before you enter someone’s private space!

This is not a knock against journals and diaries. There are a LOT of fun things you can do with those in the right circumstances.

The entry itself is not that long, but it’s a lot of details to parse through and, as with a lot of journals in escape rooms, it’s often only one person reading it. You can’t guarantee what details they are going to pick up on. Are they going to focus on the taco sauce? The laundry? Will they pick up the fact that this girl just wants her dad to knock? Maybe. Maybe not.

What if instead of writing a description in a journal, there was a single post-it on the door instead. All it contains are the words “Sarah’s room. Knock first! (that means you, Dad!!!)”

How I assume all teenagers look

What does this get across? We have a character name: Sarah. We have a relationship: she obviously has a somewhat antagonistic relationship with her father. We have a tone: Sarah is annoyed. Most importantly, it gives an action: knock. Because the post-it is right on the door, most players should be able to see it.

This brings us up the “Need to know”, “Nice to know”, “Superfluous” rules of narrative design for games. What do the players need to know? They need to know to knock to progress the game. They know the owner of this bedroom is named Sarah, which might be important later.

What is nice to know? Sarah lives with her father and is annoyed at him. It’s not necessary for the story to progress, but it does add important character information to the narrative and can enhance the experience.

What is superfluous? I left out information on the Zoom call, the laundry talks, the taco sauce, and her embarrassment. The embarrassment should be evident in the tone. The rest of it is great for designers needing to flesh out a world, but serves absolutely no purpose but to reinforce what the players already know. And in a timed environment like an escape room, efficiency in narrative is key.

I might be craving tacos right now…that is absolutely driving how I chose this example

At this point, the players might knock on the door having been hinted by the post-it, and the door will open automatically. In my dream world, this is a haunted house game and it’s the ghost opening the door. But it could be used in other contexts as well.

How about another example?

Let’s say you are in a bank. There is a thick manual on what to do in case you forget your password. The process is long and involved, and it’s not entirely clear what section of the manual you need to go to. Perhaps though you find a post-it on the front of the manual: “Jay! Forgot your password AGAIN?! Just go to page 50. You’re lucky I love you. Jack.”

Now we’ve added a bit more flavour to what would otherwise be a tedious searching task. We now know immediately where to go and get a sense of what these two characters mean to each other.

This is not to say that post-its have to be littering your room. But it’s a good exercise to do yourself. It might help you figure out how much of the reading your players have to do could be cut down, or even how much of an audio monologue is actually superfluous information.

There are things to consider when writing your post-it narratives: who is the post-it from? Who is it being written to? What is the purpose? What does the sender want the receiver to know? How do they feel about what they are saying? Exclamation points can get across just as much emotion as a five-minute monologue.

Look at your narrative. Look at all of your narrative devices (books, journals, screens of text, audio monologues, etc) and give yourself a challenge: can you fit your story beats onto a post-it? How much can you still get across without having more than handful of words? You might surprise yourself on how little of the story you lose.

An Escape Enthusiast Abroad- RECON Boston Day 3

I’m sitting in the hotel lobby writing this up. All around me tired but happy enthusiasts are bidding each other goodbye as they head to a flight or an escape or to take in what Boston has to offer. It has been a whirlwind trip, and it’s definitely a bittersweet ending as I’m definitely wanting more but also craving holing away with some garbage TV for a while.

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An Escape Enthusiast Abroad- RECON Boston Day 2

The first official day of RECON has passed. I am exhausted but very satisfied. There is SO much to talk about!

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An Escape Enthusiast Abroad: RECON Boston Day 1

I’m BAAAAAAAACK! And travelling no less! To Boston! For RECON (Reality Escape Convention)! For the past two years, RECON has had to be a virtual event due to that big event we all have ingrained in our brains by now. This year though they were finally able to have it in person, and so far I am so glad I was able to come!

I was a bit nervous to travel again, more because of getting to places on time than COVID nerves. Luckily it was a series of fortunate events and the flight and customs were pretty smooth. But enough about that, time to get to the fun stuff!

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Escape Room Narrative: Dialogue Considerations

Back when I was acting more often, I was in a Fringe play in Toronto. I was 25, and soaked up every project my hungry acting soul could consume. This one was particularly exciting. Like most Fringe shows, it was an original script, something I had never encountered outside of terrible university shows. It was also my first time doing something semi-professionally, and the anxiety of making a fool of myself in front of swarming throngs of judgey theatre critics was strong.

Me during every opening night

There was one line in particular I simply could not seem to deliver properly. For weeks, I had been struggling with it. The director/writer was extremely patient with me, giving me some direction, even trying to do a line reading. But no, every time the words came out of my mouth, they sounded like an elementary school kid trying to be an adult…or maybe it was the other way around.

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Escape Room Narrative: The Teaser

As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold…. When Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.” Howard Carter

As a kid, I was a pretty big King Tut nerd. Perhaps to an unhealthy degree, but I couldn’t help it. Like millions of others over the decades, I was fascinated by the discovery of the boy king’s tomb and the stories, both mysterious and controversial, that came out of it.

Fake curses and British colonization issues included…

One of those stories was the moment Howard Carter, an archaeologist desperate to find a rumoured tomb of an almost forgotten king but on the brink of running out of funding, literally stumbled upon a set of steps that, when cleared, would lead down to the now famed tomb. He called his funder, Lord Carnarvon, immediately to come down.

And when they reached the sealed door of the tomb, Carter cleared away just enough of a gap to be able to stick a candle through. And when he did…he got a glimpse of the “wonderful things” mentioned in the quote above.

BR6AK1 Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, near Luxor in Egypt in November 1922. Image shot 1922. Exact date unknown.

The next few days he and his team would be hard at work to fully open the tomb in all its glory. Of course they would have done so regardless if Carter had glimpsed the treasures beyond. But that glimpse, that small teaser for the excitement that awaited him, most certainly must have fueled his excitement and imagination.

In narratives, reveals are tricky to figure out. How much of a major plot point or grand setpiece do you reveal to an audience? How much do you hold back? How much do you tease? Too little and your audience might forget or lose interest in the story. Too much and you’ve given away the best parts of your story or world far earlier than you should, and the audience loses interest in the rest.

Escape Rooms like to play it safe. A lot of money and energy and time and blood and sweat is put into set pieces. Why would you spoil the fun by showing these big reveals earlier on? And so players are often kept in the dark until the great big “Wow!” moment when all is revealed in a grandiose transition.

But what if it went the opposite way? What if you teased the big reveal earlier, gave the players a bit of a taste of what’s come? Does it ruin the surprise? Or…will players, much like Howard Carter putting a candle into a tomb, be fueled by the brief glimpse of the treasures that await them?

Video games do this more often than you think. Showing an area that looks enticing but is otherwise inaccessible does two things to the player:

  1. It gets them excited for what’s to come
  2. It gives them a clear goal: this awesome place is where you want to be. Figure it out.
Games like the Uncharted series does this very well

I recently did a room in Montreal that incorporated this idea wonderfully. Alas, I cannot spoil which one or what that reveal was, but I can say that shortly into the game we came into an area with a gate in front of us. Normally it would not be a gate. It would flat out be a door, solid and sturdy, blocking our view of what lay beyond. But we could clearly see through the gate in this place.

The designers helped keep the bulk of the mystery intact with some clever use of lighting. We could see there was a big, exciting room beyond, but much of it was shrouded in shadows.

This was at least a good 5-10 minutes before we actually got through. I did not feel deflated. I did not feel like some surprise had been ruined. Instead I thought “wow, this looks insane! I really want to get I to that room and see what else there is.”

Sure, we were obviously keen to finish the room regardless of what was shown to us, that small teaser helped further fuel our resolve and excitement.

So the next time you are concerned about your players seeing too much too soon, consider the value of teasing a big setpiece. That’s not to say holding everything back until the right moment does not have any effect. Some of my favourite rooms had a sudden transformation.

But sometimes even just a small tease can help convince your players that it’s very much worth going through these puzzles to get to the really great stuff. And it will make the eventual true reveal that much more thrilling. Give them a glimpse of the gold. Then let them excavate the rest of the tomb.

Escape Room Narrative: What Spiderverse Can Teach Us About Intro Videos

So two weeks ago I finally saw Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. Yes, I know. I’m more than slightly late to the game here. Part of it was intimidation of my Marvel fan friends (they can be intense). Part of it was my fatigue with Marvel and Spider-Man movies in general. A very small and petulant part of me simply didn’t want to get on the hype train. Whatever the reason, the important thing is that I saw it!



Yes, the hype was real. Despite knowing only the very basics of Spider-Man, I was still in love with this movie. And there is a lot to love. The ground-breaking animation, the engaging characters, the humour, the heart, everything was almost pitch perfect in execution.

But there was one scene in particular that caught my eye. And I’m not talking about the “What’s Up Danger” sequence…although that is an incredible sequence, and it definitely took my breath away and I may or may not have that song on my jogging playlist now so that I too can feel like a Spider-Person while I huff and wheeze my way down the street.

Every frame of this scene looks iconic.

No, the scene I am talking about comes almost exactly one hour into the movie. It lasts approximately thirty-five seconds. And it is an excellent example of what we could be doing with our escape room intro videos.

I am talking about the Kingpin backstory reveal. Spoilers ahead for…well…a very tropey backstory, I guess…

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The Haunting of Bly Manor: A Defense

Warning: This does NOT contain spoilers for Bly Manor. I am actually going to write a spoiler heavy post later for that. So if you are hoping for a deep dive on the themes, characters, and ooga boogas, this rant is probably not for you. Otherwise, enjoy!

Also, some of the concepts and anecdotes talked about I learned from a Lindsay Ellis video. She does some amazing video essays, and you should definitely check it out here.

Recently I began watching a BBC show called Inside No. 9. It’s an anthology show, meaning that each episode is a self-contained story. A similar show would be Tales of the Crypt, Twilight Zone, or the more recent Black Mirror. Though the stories are self-contained, they do usually have some sort of thematic thread linking them together. Scary stories, odd stories, tech based stories that reveal our existential dread, overreliance on technology, and eventual downfall…

Damn you, John Hamm…

Inside No. 9‘s only connecting thread is in the title itself. Every episode either takes place inside a building with “9” as the address or the number nine will appear very early in the episode somewhere. That was supposed to be it. But soon the show got to be known for another connecting thread: every episode managed to end in a dark plot twist. And they were extremely well written.

Learning this, the creators decided to take it upon themselves to “correct” this. They did not want the audience simply waiting for a plot twist like every bad M. Night Shyamalon movie.

Damn YOU, The Village!

Soon it became impossible to determine what tone an episode would take. Would it be darkly comedic like the bulk of episodes? Would there be a twist? Would it be a straight up drama? Who knew?! When asked about it, the creators remarked that they did not want to be constrained by branding. They wanted the freedom to create whatever they wanted, and if the audience did not like that, then tough. They did not owe plot twists to anyone.

So why am I talking about Inside No. 9 when I have indicated Bly Manor in the title of this article? Well…you will have to wait for me to get to that point. In the meantime, let’s finally talk about the “House” series.

Like many other haunted house, vengeful ghost, spooky shadows loving horror fans out there, Haunting at Hill House satiated a lot of my horror needs. It was a good old fashioned haunted house story, complete with horrifying ghosts and stupid people making poor decisions and then fighting about it before getting scared by said horrifying ghosts.

It was masterful, though not completely perfect. I did not have nearly as much patience for nine hours of family in-fighting as others did, it seems. Luckily it was made up for by some truly “clutch-your-pillow” horror, including the gift of the bent neck lady.

Seriously…amazing nightmare fuel.

When the creators announced a second series, the internet was naturally beside themselves with excitement. When the trailer dropped, that excitement intensified:

Like Hill House, Bly Manor was based on a classic horror book: Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. It would feature a few alumni actors of Hill House. But the creators warned that while there were similarities, this would be a very different show from Hill House. We did not care. We wanted us all of the scares.

The Haunting of Bly Manor finally was released. I eagerly watched it and…I loved it. I loved the characters. I loved the house. I loved the ghosts. I loved the slow, foreboding pace. I cried a couple of times (you know who you are, Episode 5), and when the final episode rolled to credits I sat listening to the haunting soundtrack and letting the entire story sink in.

Everyone who has seen this episode knows what I am talking about!

Like its predecessor, it was not perfect. But it was exactly what I needed. And yet…and yet I knew exactly what the sentiments would be of others who watched the show. And sure enough, all over social media there was a resounding:

“It’s not as good as Hill House.”

Sigh….Deep sigh….

Now…I’m not begrudging anyone their opinion. If you loved Hill House, and you expected another Hill House, you are going to be pretty disappointed in this entry. But to say it’s not as good…

Admittedly, more of Owen would have made it better.

Okay, anyone who knows me well knows my hatred of direct confrontation. I like to hear the other opinions. I will not bother to argue with anyone who is dead set in their opinion because it’s a waste of energy. Even in this blog, I am very careful about any extreme opinions of my own I may have.

And yet…I feel compelled to defend this show. I was triggered by that sentence…by even just those words…”as good.”

If you are comparing Bly Manor to Hill House as another psychological horror mixed with some classic haunted house scares, then yes, Bly Manor is not as good. There’s just one problem. Bly Manor is not a psychological horror.

It’s a gothic horror.

Gothic horror is very unlike the horror we have grown accustomed to watching during the 21st century. The emotions are big. The scares are not as frequent. It is highly romanticized. There is more of a focus on a slow building atmosphere, remote countryside, and romance than there is with things jumping out going ooga booga.

Thanks Crimson Peak for encompassing all of that in one poster.

When people hear gothic horror, they tend to think of gloomy old mansions, ingenues wandering in nightgowns, and the eccentric/haunted men who entrap them within their clutches. There are certainly older examples. Phantom of the Opera is one of the more classic ones. The Turn of the Screw, the book Haunting of Bly Manor was based on, is another. In film, The Others is one of my favourite gothic horrors. Seriously, if you liked Bly Manor, check it out.

Haunting of Bly Manor is well written. It is consistent with the genre and tone of the book upon which it is based. The actors, including even the child actors, are giving amazingly compelling performances. The rules of the ghost world appear to be mostly consistent, though not all is revealed to us. The ooga booga scares are few, but when they are there they make up for lost time. At times, it almost feels like a fairy tale, those tragic fairy tales that parents don’t like their children to discover.

You know…the nightmare fuel fairy tales…

In other words, Haunting of Bly Manor is good. To me, it was more than good. If you did not like it, it is a matter of not liking the genre. To try to compare it to Haunting of Hill House would be to try to compare a muffin to a cupcake. The basic principles are there, but you have two very different products.

Honestly, in a world of Sinister and Conjuring movies, I wondered if we collectively forgot that there are other types of ghost stories out there. They do not pack as many scares per minute, or blood, or horrific faces contorted in agony…but they are no less haunting.

But when I thought about it more, I realized we did not forget about the different genres of horror. This was much more about branding and audience expectations.

And so we come back to Inside No. 9.

Probably one of my favourite, ridiculous episodes

Inside No. 9 established early on that they would play by their own rules. In a way, not having a brand IS their brand (although it could be argued that dark comedy is prevalent throughout). It is extremely rare to see this in the entertainment world. Creators are constantly talking about developing their own style and brand. Once their style is established, their audience expects that style to be adhered to. If you are not consistent, you risk losing that audience.

Every creator eventually struggles with this. Walt Disney himself once lamented while watching To Kill a Mockingbird that this was a movie he could only wish to make. By that point, he had been so successful in establishing the Disney brand, he had essentially trapped himself within it.

And we do not make it easy for creators should they deviate from their established style. When a creator decides to take a risk and try something a little different, there is a very real risk they might upset their audience’s expectations and lose more than just money.

In this sense, Mike Flanagan is pretty brave. Even with all the warnings he gave of the two series being very different, we still held up the expectation that it needed to be the same type of story that Hill House was. The fact that it was not disappointed many, and the series may very well lose viewers because of it.

And BELIEVE me, I have been guilty of this in the past. Seeing my favourite creators of classic adventure games experiment with new forms resulted in many an entitled rant from early-20’s Manda that I am embarrassed about to this day.

I’m sorry Dreamfall…you tried new things and…I…respect that….

Like the creators of Inside No. 9, Mike Flanagan wants to tell whatever story he feels inspired by. The main difference is that he has created a brand now: haunted house story based on a novel. What form that story takes on though is up for grabs. And who knows, perhaps he will even break that pattern on the next series (I hope there will be a next series).

All of this is a very long winded way of saying that before you start calling a show “not as good” as your other favourite media, do consider the other factors. What genre and tone was the media going for? Were they successful within the constraints of the given genre?

In my opinion, Haunting of Bly Manor is a great take on the gothic horror genre. It did have some pacing issues, and yeah, there are a couple of gaping plot holes, but the pros do outweigh the cons. If you did not like it, consider responding with “I don’t like gothic horror.” the next time someone asks you what you thought. Or if you have thoughts on just why it is not good, I would love to hear them! But do try to separate it a bit from Hill House before bringing down the gavel.

Escape Room Narrative: My Favourite Character-Driven Escapes (That I have Played…Mostly)

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at RECON Global about characters. In it, I did a high level 101 talk about how characters can be presented in escape rooms. At the end of the presentation I made a vague reference to the interesting things I have seen some escape rooms do with their characters. And because I didn’t have an additional two hours to ramble, I left it at that.

So, I decided I would use my very unlimited word limit here to talk about them in more detail! Enjoy the spoiler free list of the escape rooms that are pushing the boundaries of characters!

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Escape Room Narrative: The Remote Avatar

It’s been three months since my city locked down. I’ve had to adapt to working from my dining room chair and lining up with anxious citizens outside a grocery store.

Likewise, Escape Rooms have had to pivot to try to survive the next few months. How successful they are is still up for debate, but it has resulted in some interesting new trends that are becoming the new norm.

Now is a time of uncertainty. But it is also a time of opportunity. Innovation is often born out of  limitations. There are creative mines to be delved here. I wanted to dedicate my next few entries to some of these trends and narrative possibilities: what’s working, what’s not working, and what we could be doing with the time we have now.

The first thing to talk about is one of the first things escape rooms decided to employ: the remote avatar.

No…not that one…although he is awesome
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