An Escape Enthusiast Abroad: Netherlands Summary
Welp, that’s that. I went on my first European trip and did not die in a plane crash/got lost down an alley/got run down by a bike.
I’m STILL letting the whole experience sink in, but here is my best attempt at summing up the whole trip.
European Escape Rooms
If this trip taught me anything it’s that I need to experience more escape rooms around the world. It’s really interesting to see the trends and habits of the most successful escape rooms worldwide.
From what I have seen of European escapes, the focus is far more on making an immersive experience. The innovation I saw happening with the pre-game experience with games like The Vault and The Catacombs is the kind of thing I would love to see more of in the escape games of Canada.
Even when we were stuck on a potential tech problem, the GM/actor did everything in their power not to come in and interrupt our experience. They wanted us to have as smooth a process as possible and I appreciated the effort.
The sound and light design were some of the best I have seen. It was not just there to provide atmosphere. It also provided subtle signposting to guide us along the way. There was usually a narrative reason for a sound to appear, and the player would be rewarded later if they were paying attention.
I also liked seeing how endings were treated. In the better games we played, every player got an ending, regardless of win or loss. Both endings were satisfying even if they were not happy. I really wish I saw more of that in future escape rooms.
On the flip side, I did notice the puzzles tended to be on the simpler side since they had to fit more naturally into the environment. This is not a bad thing. They still made sense and were all logical and enjoyable. It’s just something I observed. It’s a topic I know is beginning to be discussed in the enthusiast group. I’ll be curious to see if challenging puzzles in an immersive game are possible.
I realize the majority of the escape rooms I played in the Netherlands were cherry picked from the best. I am aware there are bad escape experiences in the country as well. I am also aware of the amazing experimentation that is beginning to happen in the US and Canada (Strange Bird Immersive, Escape My Room and Secret City Adventures are three that immediately spring to mind).
But the one thing my continent does not seem to have is that atmosphere of creative focus. When I spoke with owners in Europe, I rarely heard talk of business practices. I only heard ideas and recommendations for similar escape rooms nearby. There is not nearly the competitive streak that I see in North America. It was very refreshing.
There are theories flying around about why European games are so elaborate. Personally, I think they are getting past the point of being marketed mostly toward the newcomer who “will have fun no matter what”. The initial phase of a fun new form of entertainment is ending and designers are beginning to see how they can make satisfying experiences as well as a successful business. North America is getting there, but it might be another couple of years.
Lessons as a Narrative Designer
I have now designed the narrative for three large scale theatrical escape events. Prison Escape was the first time I got to experience such an event from the player perspective. I am so glad I did.
I have put this here because of the advice I read in every book about video game narrative: if you want to write games, play games. Understand what makes them work, take note of where you are frustrated, take note of where you feel joy.
Prison Escape attempted something I have been far too afraid to undertake: multiple storylines. I do not envy anyone who has to design that and I really admire them. Some storylines were constant, hair raising adventures. Others felt somewhat tacked on and resulted in a disappointed player.
It made me realize how difficult it is to provide a consistent experience to every single player of a large scale event. It makes me wonder if it is possible. I did have fun in the end, but I knew other players who did not. It made me wonder about my own events and what I could do to improve them. So I am happy to have walked away with so much to think about.
Up The Game
This was my first time attending Up The Game. It is the second official escape room conference I have been to (third if you count the Unconference). It is by far my favourite so far.
Speaking with others, I feel like there are three different experiences:
The first are for those who attended last year and were returning. In general, they seemed to have enjoyed last year’s content more but did enjoy the talks and to reconnect with friends old and new.
The second was for people like myself who were attending for the first time. Most of the talks were about theories we already knew of but it was refreshing to be in a room of like minded individuals and satisfying to see practical examples to back up the theories. Occasionally we would attend a talk which introduced ideas we had not thought much about yet but for the most part it was reaffirming what we already believed.
The third and final group were newcomers who were also new owners. These were the attendees that benefited most from this year’s conference in my opinion. When I spoke with them, they were wide eyed and brimming with inspiration and ideas. Most of the talks were on topics they had rarely considered in their designs. These were the most fun people to talk to at the conference.
Yes, there were organisation problems. We often did not know where to go to register. Our lunch vouchers only covered one drink and it was very warm. The activities booked up too quickly before most could take advantage of them.
But these are nitpicks in what was largely an incredibly positive experience for me. Up The Game is the most important escape conference I have been to. The talks going on here are the ones necessary to further this industry beyond just another fad. If you get a chance next year, I would highly recommend trying it out.
If I were to do anything different, I think I would put a couple of more talks focusing on puzzle design and tech. Much as I love immersion, escape rooms are like theatre. There are a lot of wheels and cogs required to make them work so it’s good to have a balance.
If I were to talk about story again, I would also want to focus on something more specific. We have had the generic “story is important” talk many times now. Up The Game seems like the perfect place to start to focus on specific topics like the pre-game experience, player roles, non-player roles, flow, climaxes, hint systems, and so much more.
With that said, thanks so much to everyone who read! It was fun to chronicle my journey! Thanks to all the friends, new and old, who let me join them on escape and for all the awesome conversations during and after the conference!
Most importantly, thanks to the folks at Up The Game for organizing this! It is not easy to run such an event and it was well done! It also prompted me to finally get up off my butt and actually travel outside my country. I hope you are all getting sleep!
I know I am. I am a big jet lag wimp. Until next time!