Escape Room Narrative: Losing
Last summer I played a large scale escape room. There were sixty players in total. Due to a series of unfortunate events (ie we are sucky searchers), we ended up losing the game. After the time ran out, all players were ushered into a large area together where we all experienced the end.
Those who had won knew what was going on. The rest of us were quite lost. We were dragged through the final sequence with little to no idea what the outcome was. Nothing really made sense.
A few months later it happened again in another large scale event. In this particular case I had actually won. However a few of my friends did not make it out in time and were left waiting for ten minutes while the winners finished up their games. It bothered me. A lot.
When we brought it up with one of the organizers afterward, they nodded in agreement but said the designers disagreed. Not everyone can win, and so not everyone can be happy with their experience. They cannot please everyone, so let the losers deal with it.
I want to talk about losing.
Losing is a part of life. It sucks to experience. Naturally, we tend to avoid it at all costs. If we do experience failure, we put all our efforts into ensuring it will not happen again. Sometimes it involves getting better at a skill. Other times it means never trying it again.
Because we are humans and we are competitive and masochistic, losing occurs not only in our day to day lives but in our leisure activities. This includes, of course, our games.
Video games, the direct predecessor to escape rooms, usually have some sort of lose state. Mario falls down the pit of doom. Lara Croft gets arrowed by five nearby booby traps. And, in the more narrative driven games at least, some narrative choice is made that results in the “bad ending”.
Escape rooms have very natural, black and white lose states: either you accomplish your task or you don’t. If you do achieve your goals, there is much fanfare and celebration. You are rewarded with the rest of the narrative as well as a jovial GM and all the best signage in your team photo.
If you lose…well, you are left in a puzzle and narrative purgatory. You do not get to find out what happens. You might get a comforting speech from the GM stating just how very close you were and your team fighting over the “I’m with Stupid” sign but…that’s about it.
So yes. Technically it’s true. Losing sucks. But does it have to?
Losing in Stories
My issue in the above example was not that we lost the games. It was that we lost and we never found out what happened. We lacked a complete experience.
Imagine you are watching The Empire Strikes Back. There are Han, Chewie and Leia having all sorts of fun in Cloud City. Leia is being a stick in the mud about Lando, but otherwise things appear to be going just fine.
Lo and behold, they are invited to a meeting by their supposed friend only to discover they have been betrayed. They ignored the warning signs and now Darth Vader stands in front of them, ready to kill.
All of our heroes are shocked. They try to fight back but Darth Vader effortlessly deflects all of their laser blasts. Lando apologizes. The screen cuts to black.
And that’s it. That’s where it ends. No torture scene. No frozen in carbonite. No Return of the Jedi. You never find out what happens to the poor protagonists.
This is not typically how we tell stories.
By all means, The Empire Strikes Back is not a pleasant movie to watch. To ten year old Manda, it was downright traumatizing. Due to growing up in the eighties and nineties with no video camera, I cannot prove this, so I will show my friend’s kid’s reaction instead. And yes. When I learned he was showing his son the movie, I specifically requested he do this.
And yet when you ask any Star Wars fan what their favourite movie of the franchise is, the majority all seem to settle on The Empire Strikes Back. The one where absolutely every hero failed miserably.
Regardless of the situation, most audiences want the same thing from stories: closure.
If a character loses or does not achieve their goals, we want to see the consequences of their actions. Regardless of the outcome, we want to hear the rest of the story. It might not make us feel happy, but it can make us feel satisfied.
Movies, television theatre, books and now even video games would never dream of cutting off a story like that (at least not the good ones).
So why are we so okay with doing it in escape rooms?
A Complete Narrative
When we design our large scale events, one of our main goals is to make sure every player has a complete experience. This means putting just as much thought into what happens when the players lose as when they win.
When we did our Night At The Wedding event, we decided to have a binary choice at the end of the game which would result in a win or loss state. Those that lost ended up in scenario that resulted in all of the NPC’s and themselves dying during the end scene. Those that won got to see the bad guy get taken down.
Surprisingly, those that lost did not actually mind. In fact, most of them seemed to have more fun with the losing scenario as they did the win scenario. When we finally broke character and took our bows, we talked with many players after who took great joy in comparing notes and telling stories of all the mistakes they made. They did not win, but they were satisfied.
There is a room in Amsterdam called The Catacombs which as of the writing of this article opened up fairly recently. A lot of the rooms I played in the Netherlands were stellar, but this one really stuck with me.
Why? Because when the timer stopped, the story did not. Of course I am not going to spoil anything because it is a room you should experience for yourself. But when our time ran out (we could not actually see the timer in the room), an actor burst into the room and ushered us to the final scene.
Our game was not over but our ability to make decisions and gather information had come to an end. Now we had to find out if our hard work would pay off or if we made any fateful errors. Luckily for us, we had enough information to put us into the win state. But that is not always the case.
Regardless, every single player gets an ending. I asked them afterward what would happen if we had lost. Needless to say, it would have been just as satisfying.
Scott Nicholson taught a course on Escape Room Design at Wilfred Laurier Brantford. His class’ final project involved an escape room scavenger hunt in which we were time travel criminologists trying to solve a crime from the past.
This culminated in having to make a choice at the end. This is less a loss state as it’s more a case of multiple endings, but that’s another topic for another time.
If you made the “bad” choice (and that is in quotations because really…every choice had some moral ambiguity), you would fail your mission but you would be offered another opportunity which in some ways was more thrilling than the “win” scenario.
Do you see a pattern here? In every case, players got to experience a complete narrative. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. Even though they might lose, they leave far more satisfied.
Players as Characters
Remember. Every player in a narrative is a character. They may just be themselves, but now they are themselves in extraordinary circumstances. They are the protagonist in their story. They may not win. But they deserve an ending.
To leave them hanging is to yank them out of that experience. It can leave a subconscious (or conscious) sour taste in their mouths. That opportunity to give them a stellar experience from beginning to end has now turned to just a “meh” experience that they will probably forget sooner rather than later.
This article has dealt more with losing from a narrative perspective, but it’s worth it to touch on losing in non-narrative rooms as well.
The argument that losers in escape rooms simply have to “deal with it” is a weak one. Practically speaking, escape rooms are a part of the customer service industry. You want to keep that customer’s energy high and positive to ensure that not only will they come back, but that they will spread the word of their experience.
Some of the better escape rooms I have been to find ways to make the experience fun even when players lose. These are not difficult things to do either.
Offering to provide a walkthrough of the remaining bits of the room or to go over some mistakes they made helps gives players a sense of closure. Harsh as this sounds, it is very unlikely they will play the same room again. The least you can do is provide some feedback.
Getting players to laugh at themselves is very effective. I have played rooms in which we were monitored by a GM and afterwards that GM gives out their favourite quotes we said during the game. Another GM actually showed us video of ourselves reacting to the jump scares in the room and it made for a great entertaining end to our experience.
These are just a couple of examples in which you can still make for a fun experience without having to give everyone a gold medal. Losing can still be fun!
It’s Tough But Worth It
Admittedly, making sure every player has that complete experience can be difficult. This is especially true in large scale events where hundreds of players might be involved. Ensuring that every storyline is satisfying can be subjective.
But the majority of your players will simply appreciate getting an ending. It’s well worth the effort to do so. Plus…it’s just good story etiquette.
What are some of your favourite moments of losing? Do you have rooms where players have just as much fun losing as winning? Share and discuss!
Until next time!