Escape Room Narrative: Visual Shorthand
One of the difficult aspects of writing escape room narrative, and in fact all narrative, is to convey potentially complicated plot points or themes without overloading the audience/player with a mountain of exposition. Because escape rooms are relatively new, they are still somewhat guilty of trying to shove too much explanation at the player.
This is seen most often in the dreaded introductory narration. We have all been there: a game master either comes up with a single spaced page of plot or turns on a video which tells us every single piece of backstory we need to understand the situation we are walking into. I talked more about this in my exposition blog posts.
It is not just the opening narration though. Throughout the room, pieces of plot are usually discovered by a lost journal or letter that suddenly needs to explain everything that has been happening to the players up until now. It usually involves an outside character who went crazy/invented a time machine/killed everyone/was killed by everyone.
It feels necessary, but ends up bogging down the flow of the game and is rarely paid attention to by the players who just want to get to the end before that timer goes down. But if we want narrative to become more of a driving force in our escape rooms, we have to somehow get players to pay attention. So how do we convey important information without taking several journal entries and videos to explain it all?
This is when we can use visual shorthand.
Visual shorthand, not to be confused with the technical shorthand used in typing and writing, is a technique used in visual and interactive mediums such as film, video games, and comics. Unlike novels, which has the luxury of words to explain every theme and place, visual mediums need a quick way to get across themes, characterizations and plot without losing any vital parts of the story.
To do this, creators use familiar and iconic imagery or symbols that they know the majority of their audience will immediately recognize. For instance, in classic good vs. evil stories we know that a character wearing white is probably our hero and a character wearing black is evil. The easiest example of this is, unsurprisingly, Star Wars.
There is a lot of imagery we may not even be aware we recognize: rain can mean sadness, a knife can mean danger, a rosary represents piety, a rose represents love. All of these can be used to help us quickly fill in the gaps of what a story is about or who a character is.
I could go on about the myriad of ways film and video games use visual shorthand (framing, lighting, etc) but we are not here to talk about other mediums. We are here to talk about escape rooms. How can escape rooms best use visual shorthand?
Let’s say you are in the middle of a horror room. It is a house haunted by a ghost, and it’s one of those vengeful ghosts who needs to be put to rest pronto before she gets all murder happy. You need to find out how she died and why she feels the need to haunt. There is a locked door you eventually open. It turns out to be her bedroom. The ghost then appears in a mirror and tells you how her lover poisoned her and stole her money, and how she can’t find peace knowing justice was never served.
This is a big information dump and honestly I have never known ghosts in stories to be all that talkative. Imagine that same scenario, but instead of of finding a monologuing ghost or her oddly post-mortem detailed journal, you find a teacup tipped over with some dried up liquid inside. When murder is involved, a tipped over cup is shorthand for poison (a subtler one, admittedly). Perhaps the mummified corpse (let’s assume this is a secluded house and murder was never suspected by the police) is even nearby with her hand outstretched toward the cup.
Or perhaps you see a picture of the woman and her boyfriend together, smiling broadly, only the picture frame has been thrown on the ground and smashed. A cracked picture frame is shorthand that a relationship is not going so well.
It works for other scenarios as well. Instead of a note explaining someone was sick, walking into a bedroom with a hospital bed is shorthand for “Someone here was really sick”. Instead of explaining the ship you are on is a pirate ship, a skull and crossbones is pretty common for shorthand for “Here be pirates”. A Christmas tree is shorthand for a winter season. A cross on the wall is shorthand for religion. All of these are far more efficient than writing it down into a diary.
There can also be audio shorthand. Walking into a room and hearing 50’s rock music can quickly clue us in to what era and culture the experience takes place in. Hearing a clap of thunder and a rainstorm is shorthand that something bad is about to happen. If we think of the above example, finding the smashed picture and then hearing sounds of the ghost gasping for breath makes it pretty apparent what went on.
There are of course cultural implications to keep in mind. Not every symbol is going to mean the same thing to everyone in the world (ie The number 4 is bad luck in Asian culture whereas in North America it’s the number 13), but for the most part we can assume that players will be able to piece together the story based on these familiar visual and audio clues. There is a reason we keep going to them in our storytelling. These images are powerful and instantly recognizable.
In fact, you are probably using shorthand without even realizing it. The more you are aware of the techniques you are using, the stronger your designs can become later. When you are going through your narrative beta tests, really think about what imagery you can use to tell that story.
What are some of the ways you use shorthand in your own escape rooms? Do your players comprehend it? How do you think it could be used more?