Escape Room Narrative: Exposition Part 3
And now we get into some of the more involved escape room exposition tools. Super exciting times! (said the nerd)
The Live Actor
You walk into an escape room. You pay your fee to the front desk clerk who leads you back to the room. You are given a quick synopsis as well as a lock demonstration before the GM leaves. Moments after the door shuts behind you, a figure appears from the shadows. He motions to you.
“You must be the detectives. Hi…I’m Nick. I spoke with one of you earlier, I’m sure. Um…sorry for the secrecy…I don’t normally do stuff like this but…Robert has been missing for two weeks now. I can’t trust the police to solve this. I’ve heard you…you’re willing to do what it takes to solve a case. Well…this is one of the places my brother was suspected to be last. He had insomnia and this doctor was doing some experimental treatment. It’s a long shot…but I have to find him. I can’t do it alone though. Can you help me break in?”
With his help, you eventually break into the room. He follows you in, aiding you where possible but ultimately staying on the sidelines letting you do your thing.
Live actors can help heighten the immersion of an escape room. Unlike GM’s, professional actors are determined to put in a convincing performance each and every time (one would hope anyway).
An actor playing a character gives someone for the players to interact and connect with throughout their room experience. It allows them an opportunity to become more invested in the story if there is someone who is emotionally invested in the room with them.
An actor will also be able to sense when the players are paying attention and adjust their performance accordingly. If there is an incredibly important bit of dialogue he needs them to hear but they are too busy looking at puzzles, he can shout louder or simply walk over to them to get their attention.
A designer does not have to be limited to just one actor or one place for exposition either. For consistencies’ sake, I used the brother as the character to introduce the room but it could have easily been the doctor himself as he warmly welcomed players into the room. It could even have been the missing brother, found halfway through the game locked up in some basement dungeon. Because…come on. You all knew it was going there.
Live actors are expensive. It’s the cold, hard truth. As much as I love having characters to interact with, it’s one of the more unsustainable business models to use. The only escape company here in Toronto that uses actors consistently is Secret City Adventures. That’s in a city with over sixty facilities.
As well, depending on what character is being portrayed, it begins to get a bit unbelievable that they would not at least try a little harder to help you. I was in an escape once that involved finding a secret code of a scientist. The scientist’s son was in the room with us and seemed to know even less than we did.
And of course, depending once again on who is being portrayed, there is always the risk that one of your players will throw caution to the wind and potentially troll/harm one of your actors.
If You Are Going to Use
Make sure you have the budget to pay your actors. That’s the obvious one.
Get actors who have strong improv skills. Believe me, they are going to get a lot thrown at them by the players. Sometimes it will be because the players are invested in interacting as much as possible. Sometimes it will be because the players want to mess with the actor and see if they can make him crack. My team will do this…all the time. Either way, it’s good to have an actor who will stay on their toes.
For the purposes of exposition, if you are going to have an actor be with our players for an extended time, make sure it’s in a role in which they are in almost the same position as the players.
A clueless but well-meaning brother who has never done any breaking and entering makes more sense than being joined by a seasoned criminal who is trying to help you out. Or set them up as the antagonist. A character who is actively trying to stop the players is believable in an escape room. There are many options!
The more elaborate these techniques get, the longer the description gets. Here we go!
You walk toward a building. There is a man outside nervously looking around. He spots you and seems to recognize you. He quickly looks around and walks over to you, asking urgently if you are the detectives.
He sighs with relief when you reply yes, and explains the case he has hired you to solve. It seems his brother is missing. He hands you a photo of what he looks like and implores you to find him. He mentions his brother had told him he was going to a doctor’s office shortly before he disappeared. He does not want to raise any alarm bells and has hired you to go in.
You nod, then continue walking into the building. At the front desk a receptionist welcomes you warmly. You have the choice of showing her the photo and decide it might be best. She doesn’t seem to recognize the face, but does look up your names in the registry. You all have an appointment with the doctor. Unfortunately your insurance does not cover the cost, so you each pay for your appointment ahead of time. The doctor has had bad luck with walk-outs it seems.
While you wait for your team to pay, you take notice of the posters on the wall and the brochure available describing the treatment. The receptionist is interrupted as you finish paying by a voice from down the hall. A smiling man walks toward you. This must be Doctor Brown.
He greets you before leading you down the hall. For fun, you decide to show him the photo of Robert again. His mouth twitches as he looks at it but he says he hasn’t seen Robert for quite some time. He leads you to an examination room and tells you to wait. He shuts the door behind him. There is an audible click as he leaves. For whatever reason, he has locked you in. You decide to look around anyway.
Having the escape room begin even before you enter the building is something we are starting to see more of as escape rooms evolve. The pros on this method are more obvious.
For one, it immerses the player more naturally into the world. There is no separation of real world and escape world. To the player now they are all one and it makes the transition into their own player role all the easier.
It also limits the info dump. In this example the biggest risk of the info dump comes from the character of the brother simply because he needs to let the players know why they are there. After that however, the players are free to explore the space and glean details of the world through observation rather than narration.
Which leads to the biggest pro, at least to me. By beginning the escape experience before that timer starts, it gives the players more time to get to know the world at their leisure. There is no exposition that needs to be forced this way. It can all be naturally integrated into the environment. When the timer does start to go off, the players now have more of a sense of the world.
This certainly does limit an escape facility. By starting the experience so early, you are essentially limiting yourself to one room. Which makes it, once again, a costly endeavor.
When you have rent, maintenance costs, actor costs and utility costs (just to name a few), you want to be able to funnel as many players through as often as possible in order to make a profit. That is awfully difficult to do when your experience is almost two hours and you have a limit of six players.
If You Are Going to Use
As much as it pains me, the public ticketing system and a limit of 10-15 players would help make this more sustainable. Much as I love private ticketing, even I can admit that it’s extremely difficult to make the player count smaller on this.
It does not necessarily mean that you are limited to one escape room however. Try to imagine a world in which players would enter, leisurely learn the world of the game and then have one of six rooms to choose from, all of them related to the world you have just introduced them to.
One example of this I saw was to have a time travelling crime agency. It’s still in the works, but the idea is to have the ability to go to different times to solve crimes. This allows for a great immersive framework and still gives the opportunity to play around with room design.
You can even go one step further. Design your website like the company you want to portray. Strangebird Immersive’s Houdini experience even talks about characters as though they are real right on their FAQ.
However, depending on how much you enjoy watching people’s confusion, you might want to let your players know ahead of time that the experience begins the moment they enter the building.
For our large-scale train event, Terminus, we decided not to tell players they were even participating in an escape room. The moment they arrived at the train station, their experience began. What we did not realize was that many of the players were simply joining their friends who had bought the tickets.
They had no idea what they were actually going to. It did lead to some amusing moments such as them mistaking me for actual train staff but it also meant we had to occasionally break character to reassure them they were in the right place. As much as we love immersion, we should not force it on players who are overly uncomfortable.
Environmental Exposition/The Combo
You walk into an escape facility and are greeted by a friendly GM. You pay and are led to the room with no instruction. All you are given is a phone and a coat to put on. As the door shuts behind you reach into the pocket. Inside is a business card with the name: Sacks Private Investigators with a website.
You consider going to the website but there is no time and besides, the phone doesn’t seem to have data. It buzzes though. Someone is texting you.
“It’s Nick. Let me know when you are inside.”
You decide to answer him. Meanwhile the rest of your team are rifling through the office they have just arrived in. One of them finds the light switch which triggers a television. It plays an ad for a special treatment for insomnia. Many smiling faces evidently satisfied with their stay float past the screen. There is a demonstration of the machine the doctor uses. You note it for later use.
You receive a text back. “Robert’s file should be here somewhere. It may have a clue to his whereabouts. Be quick. The doctor is known to work alone in the evening and he could be back any moment.”
A bright light catches your eye. It looks like the office computer was left on. It’s a good a place to start as any. You begin to search through the computer and find the file for Robert…
This method was more difficult to write a unique scenario for because it uses elements of most of the previously discussed exposition tools. There are videos, audio, interactive texts and a variety of environmental cues.
The difference is the complete lack of an info dump. Escape rooms don’t always give players enough credit when it comes to putting pieces together. If the right bits of information are given, you don’t need an overly complicated narration to start your story. You can use the environment itself to get the message across.
You could be told “Your friend has just been murdered. We need to find the murderer before he strikes again. Or did he ever leave?”
That would be fine. However imagine just walking into a living room. You see a blood trail leading out a door. Objects are strewn about. A phone keeps beeping with notifications from concerned friends. That paints the exact same picture with zero dialogue.
By embedding narrative clues into the environment and letting players discover it for themselves, you allow them to become an active participant in their own story rather than passively waiting for the chance to enter.
There are almost none. Designing the exposition to be delivered by the environment (and this includes puzzles) is something all escape rooms, regardless of budget and tech, can do. It is an extremely minimal amount of set-up for players but a lot of design in the background.
The only downside I would say exists is you are leaving it up to the players to learn the story themselves. And if they are anything like my team, they are going to be very lazy about it. There are solutions to this however…
If You Are Going to Use It
Figure out which information is vital to understand the story. This is important for any story but when you do not have the crutch of an opening narration to lean on you will have to make sure you design your room in such a way that the players will naturally go to learn the most important information first.
I had said humans are smart, and we are, but we are also easily manipulated. Signposting will be your friend here. This is the method by which game designers use subtle clues to lead players (there is a great video on this but darned if I can find it).
There are many ways to implement this. You could use lighting to draw the player’s eye to important objects. It could be more subtle such as the computer monitor example I used above or it could be a glaring spotlight. Just make sure it still fits your theme.
You could use sound. You can use video that is more subtle than an outright narration (movies constantly use the news broadcast to quickly get across exposition for instance). They can even wear the exposition such as the coat holding the business card. It quickly allowed the player to discover the role they were playing and what was expected of them.
Regardless of what you use, environmental storytelling, as far as I have seen, is one of the most effective way for escape rooms to convey story while the timer is still going. Anything extra players manage to notice is simply gravy.
That’s it for now! What are some of your favourite pre-game experiences? How do you feel escape rooms will evolve? I’d love to see what new ideas are being tested!