Escape Room Narrative: The Remote Avatar
It’s been three months since my city locked down. I’ve had to adapt to working from my dining room chair and lining up with anxious citizens outside a grocery store.
Likewise, Escape Rooms have had to pivot to try to survive the next few months. How successful they are is still up for debate, but it has resulted in some interesting new trends that are becoming the new norm.
Now is a time of uncertainty. But it is also a time of opportunity. Innovation is often born out of limitations. There are creative mines to be delved here. I wanted to dedicate my next few entries to some of these trends and narrative possibilities: what’s working, what’s not working, and what we could be doing with the time we have now.
The first thing to talk about is one of the first things escape rooms decided to employ: the remote avatar.
These games involve having a live person/actor essentially strap a camera/phone to their chest/head/hand and have a group of players guide them through the room. It’s basically like playing a video game, only imagine that four players have control of the avatar.
I have played this style of room a few times now. More often than not it is a room in a brick and mortar escape room being adapted quickly to accommodate a remote game. Occasionally it’s a game that is specifically designed from the ground up to be played online.
Whichever type it is, adapted or original, this style of game can no longer rely on detailed sets, impressive tech, or tactile puzzles to provide the majority of the entertainment value in the experience. Now, that burden falls heavily on the shoulders of the avatar themselves.
It is…so very easy to overlook this and screw it up. With so much of the game control now being in their hands, a bad GM can instantly sink a remote experience.
So how do you ensure you design an effective and compelling avatar? Through narrative, of course! And some common sense.
First up, some practicalities.
For the Love of All That is Holy, Give Your Players Additional Access to Game Materials
Part of the steep learning curve of an online experience is learning to coordinate your team’s communication so that it’s not 4-6 people all shouting directions in a Zoom call at once. No matter how coordinated your players are though, they are four different people with four different brains and four different ideas on how to solve puzzles.
Trying to funnel four opinions into one avatar gets pretty frustrating very quickly. So please, for the love of all that is holy, give your players additional access to your game materials. Allowing players to have the option to solve in tandem makes for a far smoother flow and mitigates the frustration level.
This could be as simple as photos of different props. It could be as complex as a 360 degree interface with interactive hotspots. It does not matter what you choose. Yes, part of the challenge of online games is coordinating communication, but why make it as difficult as possible?
Your Avatar is Still Human. They Should Know How to Act Like One.
I have played two games with a bumbling avatar, someone who takes all instructions literally and sometimes forgets what basic motor functions means.
There was a moment, for instance, in both rooms in which we instructed the avatar to flip over a piece of paper. In both cases, rather than flip it to the other side the GM simply turned it upside down.
One avatar had me constantly laughing. The other had me wanting to murder them by the end.
What’s the difference? Narrative justification and frequency.
In the game where it did not work, there was no good reason for a human being to not know how to act like a human being. We would have to be so painfully specific in all of our instructions to our avatar. It was incredibly frustrating to know the answer to a puzzle or a problem, and to be held back by an intentionally jerkish avatar.
What made it worse was the frequency with which it happened, which was every. Single. Minute. Of. The. Game. When 70% of your game is just trying to figure out how to instruct the avatar…it leads to murder thoughts. For an example of the madness I felt, see the below video. Time code 4:15 and on is generally my reaction.
The other experience was from a game called Agent November. He too was a bumbling avatar, but this time, there was a narrative reason for it. His backstory indicated that he was naturally just not very good at functioning and he was still groggy from the knock out drugs he had taken.
This bumbling avatar was more playful. He bantered with us as he screwed up basic instructions. More importantly, he knew a little went a long way. When it mattered, he would drop the bumbling act to put a code in or manipulate an object with little instruction from us. These were small differences but they completely changed the experiences for us.
Give Your Players a Reason to Be There
It’s amazing how much immersion can be increased just by giving your players a narrative reason to be remotely connecting to an avatar. Naturally, heist themes, spy themes, and prison escape themes are incredibly easy to adapt for a remote avatar game. You are an expert team supporting a field agent or thief of some sort.
There can be other creative ways of justifying a group’s presence. The one experience that comes immediately to mind is Puzzled Punk’s Saving King’s Landing, where the king’s fool is talking to his imaginary friends to help achieve his goals. Escape World’s Cabin in the Woods has the avatar playing a vlogger who is livestreaming to their audience, the players.
These examples are few right now, but there could be more. Perhaps the avatar somehow hacked into a video chat of hapless innocents who now feel compelled to help them. Or perhaps there is a ghost haunting a video chat, such as in the movie Unfriended. Maybe you are part of an authoritarian government who has to do surveillance on possible insurgents (see the video game Orwell for some good examples of this).
It’s a small detail, but it can help enhance the immersion quite a bit.
Give Your Avatar a Character
If you are designing an online experience that is just meant to be a bunch of puzzles, ignore this. But if you want a narrative? You better be putting some work into character building.
When there is an actual character with motivations and feelings to talk to and interact with as opposed to a tired GM who is leading the 20th group of the day, it makes the game ever so slightly more engaging.
It also gives more opportunities for players to play and banter when they are not solving puzzles. With 60Out’s Miss Jezebel your avatar is a stressed out, grizzled detective who will constantly give their opinion on just what they think of your decisions. Puzzled Punk’s Secret Treasure of Dubrovnik has an eager historian who spouts factoids about medieval Dubrovnik every spare moment they get.
Build a character. Give them a backstory. Give them a personality. Are they scared about their mission? Do they agree with the goal? Are they bumbling? Most importantly, give them a motivation and a drive. Why are they there? What do they want to achieve? How will it change them when the achieve their goals?
One thing I have rarely seen an escape room try is to have a character change by the end. Characters have wants and needs. Often, the main goal of a character starts with a want, but by the end of the story they have figured out what they actually need. An easy example of this is Aladdin: He wants to to be rich and live the easy life, but he needs to realize that being true to himself is more important.
So far I have only played one escape room that attempted this (which was unfortunately a limited run). After that success, I know it’s possible to do it more. The remote avatar is one of the better ways to achieve this.
The more detailed and thought out your character is, the more fun it is for players can have with interacting and immersing themselves into the game world. The live avatar game provides something video games cannot: direct dialogue and connection with the player. Take advantage of that.
Take Advantage of the Interaction: Make It a Puzzle
This could be the case with all escape rooms, but it is especially true of the remote avatar escape rooms: puzzles and problems are not just relegated to physical objects and paper/digital puzzles. You have a live interface in which your actors can directly interact with characters: use that to your advantage.
We call these social puzzles, meaning the answer to a puzzle lies in talking to a character. In heist themed rooms it sometimes involves calling different characters and manipulating them to give you access to information (ie calling IT and pretending to be someone who lost your key card). Sometimes it may invovle distracting another character while your fellow teammates rush to finish a puzzle.
Sometimes it may even involve convincing your avatar to do what you need them to achieve their goal. If an avatar is suddenly scared, you may need to think of reasons to get them to move forward, either by comforting them or by using examples from their backstory you may know about.
Your Avatar Controls the Narrative Now: Let Them
One of the biggest questions surrounding narrative in escape rooms is how to get the players to actually pay attention to the narrative. Well, with the remote avatar the answer is actually pretty obvious: Let the avatar control the flow of the story.
Players have no choice now. They can’t always run off and look at other ojbects in the room while a voice over tells them what to do. Depending on the game, they are somewhat at the mercy of where the avatar happens to move their camera.
Use that to your full advantage. Build in a proper arc. Have some exposition, incite the incident, and build up to that climax. Most of them will have to pay attention now. And if they aren’t, (or even if they are), make it a collaborative effort. Involve them in these pivotal moments. Maybe your avatar is too petrified to speak and needs instruction. Maybe the big baddie who has suddenly appeared knows a player’s name.
Play around with it. You don’t have complete control, but you certainly have more than a brick and mortar escape. Use it.
Charisma Is Key
Look. It was true before, but it’s especially true now. The bored teenage GM who got this job because they need a way to pay for their Pokemons or whatever is popular these days is not going to cut it anymore. Whoever is being your GM/avatar, they need to be likeable and good at talking to people.
If you live in a city with a big improv acting scene, you are sitting on a gold mine. Improv actors know when to go with the flow and when to reign an interaction in to move things along. They can sense comfort levels of players, which is key when there are players like…well, like me, who are a lot more nervous about talking to strangers or saying something wrong.
It is not just a raw talent. It is a skill that must be practiced and honed. We all sit there thinking we could easily be on Whose Line Is It Anyway, but we know we would be a puddle of embarrassment if we were to actually try.
If you do not have access to actors, improv or otherwise, an enthusiastic individual will do just fine. If you find one that happens to be good at dealing with wifi emergencies on the spot, even better.
It might be fine for an in person escape room, but 90% of the remote avatar experience depends on your GM/avatar. Spend the extra money. This is someone your players are about to spend an hour with. They need to be engaging and likeable.
The future of the remote avatar experience is somewhat uncertain. But I love the narrative possibilities it has opened up for escape rooms. I can’t wait to see what else is created. Please do let me know of your favourite experiences so far! Until next time!