“Real” Escape Rooms: A long ranty rant
I’ve been seeing lots of talk about the Red Bull Mindgamers tournament that happened recently. It’s sparked some interesting discussion but there’s one point in particular that seems to keep coming up that almost warrants its own post.
That point is the competition design did not really feel like an escape room. Either the puzzles were too cerebral or it did not feel immersive enough (To the viewers. According to the players, there was much more story there to follow) or there were too many task based puzzles or a myriad of other complaints.
It annoys me. A lot actually. I hate hearing the phrase “not a real escape room”. Because what is a “real escape room”? Sure, there are a few basic things most escape rooms have in common (escaping, problem solving, live action) but they vary wildly from place to place. Some rooms are more theatrical and immersive. Some are a collection of insane cerebral puzzles. Some have task puzzles. Some are tech heavy. Some are not. Some have hints through radios. Some have actors. Some have a lot of story. Some, the lucky few, manage to fit all of these elements in together.
Regardless, an escape room does not have a single, static style. Nor should they, if they are to grow as a medium. Designers and owners will continue to experiment with what they can do with these new toys. Of course, there will always be a space for that original recipe escape room: the collection of puzzles in a themed room that will more than likely involve black lights, laser mazes and math problems. Those can still be fun despite our diva complaints.
But evolution and change will happen. We need to embrace this rather than fight it. Which brings me back to Redbull. You might have liked the tournament. You might not have. You might have felt like there were too many puzzles. You might have thought it felt too much like a reality tv show. But when it comes to the design of the room just admit that it was an escape style that YOU would not like. That is not what we should be discussing.
What we should be discussing is how well it was pulled off. Is it possible to have an escape room on television and have it be exciting for viewers? Did the puzzles they ended up keeping make sense? Were the tasks fair? If they were not effective in the room they designed, fine. Complain away. But don’t tell me it’s not an escape room. It’s not YOUR escape room. That’s all.
I hate physical challenges. I hate when I have to play them in an escape room. I will admit part of the allure of escape rooms is I can use my brain to get us out. It’s an activity I can actually be somewhat decent at and I never like it when laser mazes get in the way of that. But I recognize, begrudgingly, that other players love them. Other players go to escape rooms to have an adventure and don’t want to be bogged down by difficult puzzles. It’s not my style, but who cares?
I’m being oversensitive, I know, but I have been exposed to this crap before in the video game community. The traditionalists are constantly telling me that the stuff I play are not really video games. They believe titles like Gone Home or That Dragon, Cancer are ruining the genre. Don’t even get them started on mobile games.
But video games have evolved. They are no longer just a form of entertainment. People now use them to tell their stories and teach lessons. I still love to hurl Nathan Drake around an ancient temple while shooting all who stand in my path. I love pointing and clicking at Myst puzzles in adventure games. But I also love just how much variety and experimenting there is out there. It’s wonderful.
Escape Rooms are not at that point. Their main purpose right now is still pure entertainment and that is perfectly fine. But if there is no room to experiment, no room to grow that very narrow definition, there is only one outcome: stagnation. If every art form remained the same we would still be performing plays like the ancient Greeks. Heck, we would still be drawing on caves.
So instead of deriding a room/event for its inability to meet your expectations, ask yourself some different questions. What was the room trying to achieve? Did they achieve it? Are they trying new things? How could they have done better to achieve their goals? Were the puzzles fair given their challenge level? Did other people have fun? Why did they have fun? Which part of the spectrum does this particular escape room fall on if not your own? Is it an action escape room, a puzzle one, a story one, a mix of the three? Is it something else entirely?
The more we ask these questions the more we can understand and evolve ourselves. Hopefully someday escape rooms will be lauded as an art form as well as entertainment. Until then learn the difference between your opinion and critical analysis.