Escape Room Narrative: My Favourite Character-Driven Escapes (That I have Played…Mostly)
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at RECON Global about characters. In it, I did a high level 101 talk about how characters can be presented in escape rooms. At the end of the presentation I made a vague reference to the interesting things I have seen some escape rooms do with their characters. And because I didn’t have an additional two hours to ramble, I left it at that.
So, I decided I would use my very unlimited word limit here to talk about them in more detail! Enjoy the spoiler free list of the escape rooms that are pushing the boundaries of characters!
Okay, so if you have played The Storykeeper you will know that they don’t just have great characters. They are probably the most balanced of any escape room I have played. The puzzles, the set, the hint system, the game flow, the characters…there is not one weak point.
Of the games I have played with actors, The Storykeeper is my absolute favourite. They know a little goes a long way with live performance, having the characters appear at strategic moments in the story and not forcing the players to interact too much with them. They are whimsical, mysterious, and add to the immersion immensely.
This is where I break my own rules and list a game that I have yet to play. It’s reputation is far too great though not to mention it. The game centered around Madame Daphne and her seance to contact Harry Houdini has cemented itself as one of the escape rooms that is pushing the boundary of what the medium can offer.
It’s no surprise. Strangebird Immersive makes no secret of its theatrical roots, and thought provoking, compelling characters is at the centre of any good theatre show. Strangebird is consistently working to bridge the gap between escape room and complex art. It is a good example of how escape rooms can borrow from other mediums and give it their own unique twist.
And they have a new remote experience coming out next week! So I will be able to report back then!
Below Zero accomplishes not one, but two awesome character moments. The first is that it actually succeeds in making an entertaining character using an animatronic. I…am not normally a fan of animatronics. There is a time and a place for them, and more often than not I see escape rooms try to imitate a human using animatronics. The result is…well…creepy.
Below Zero gets around this by making their central non-player character a wise cracking robot. Of course I will not spoil anything, but suffice to say it was a very satisfying experience.
The other thing it accomplishes is in having the backstories of all side characters available to read at your leisure. Not only that, it fits the environment and the story. While my friends were busy solving puzzles, I made it my mission to learn every single detail. It was a delight to see that level of extraneous detail in a room and have it not hinder our game overall.
I have talked about this one a few times now. For player character experiences, Catacombs is at the top of my list for putting me into a role and immersing me into the terrifying world of paranormal investigation. From the moment we walked up to the gate of an old church to be greeted by a nervous priest to being lead deep into the catacombs to frantically trying to think of how to survive the experience, we as players were completely immersed from minute one.
The important note though is that we were not just helping other characters complete their arc. We had an arc/journey of our own to embark on, complete with exposition, rising tension, climax (and what a climax) and denouement. The player’s story was carefully crafted from start to finish, which is a rare thing for me to see in escapes.
There is no way to point out one particular room from Escape My Room that demonstrates great characters, because the entire facility is deeply entrenched in a complex family history that weaves its way through of each room. Many enthusiasts have heard about the amazing lobby Escape My Room has to offer which hints at the family history, but for me where Escape My Room is unique is in its pre-booking experience.
Every email you receive from Escape My Room is from a character. For instance, when they were advertising for their outdoor game, the email blast they sent out was a news article about the death of a beloved family member and a date and a time for their memorial. It is this attention to detail that sets their character work apart from others in the industry.
Sadly this is no longer available, but it DOES mean I can describe the plot in more detail! Ha!
In the summer of 2019, Toronto based immersive theatre company Outside the March designed and presented a series of three pop-up escape rooms set in an old video rental store. They all experimented in unique ways with new ways to show narrative. One played more like an art installation with some trivia puzzles thrown in. Another tried its hand at having thirty-two different possible endings.
Grown-Up’s Guide to Flying, though, was the one that stuck with me and the one in my opinion that was pushing the boundaries of what escape rooms could be. Why? Because they got me to care about their characters and to feel an emotion in an escape room apart from excitement or fear.
I will not go into great detail here…I’ll try. The story is centered around two siblings who live above the video store. Every year the brother, the older of the two, celebrates his sister’s birthday by planning a treasure hunt for her in the store. The prize? She gets to watch her favourite scene in Peter Pan.
The game takes place over three years, with each year being broken up by a different set of puzzles. As you progress through, eventually you start to realize that not all is well within the sibling’s world: the sister is slowly going blind, and her brother is doing everything he can to make her feel better.
The game does some of the best environmental storytelling I have seen yet in an escape room: in the videos the brother pre-recorded singing happy birthday, in the puzzles which we only realized afterward were slowly depending less and less on sight, and in the video store itself which provided the nostalgic feel of the 90’s. Although we never see the siblings in person, their relationship was endearing and I could not help but fret at their fate.
In the end, the sister takes over her brother’s treasure hunt, thanking him for his years of support but letting him know that she is okay. She is happy and she can see the world in a way he cannot. I won’t go much further than that, but yeah, I was tearing up at the end. It’s the first and so far only time I have done so in an escape. And it was because of the beautiful characters that were created.
Blanket statement time: COVID has provided an interesting narrative opportunity for escape rooms. As many rooms were forced to pivot online, they could no longer rely on detailed sets or tactile thrills to enhance the player experience. They needed to find something else to make the player experience the most it could be.
That special something was adding characters to the room. Specifically, the remote GM/avatar who now had to be controlled by the players. The results are fantastic. The following are a few of my favourite so far.
This is an 18+ room, so do take care when thinking of booking, but if you are comfortable with many…many sexual jokes and the macabre tone this is very much worth the money. The main plot in the game involves a police officer who is going undercover on a date with the titular Miss Jezebel, who is suspected of killing her lovers.
The game has two actors in it: the titular Miss Jezebel, who was in the original game, and the grizzled, put upon detective who you as the players must help out. Miss Jezebel of course is wonderful, but it was the frazzled and stressed detective that really made our game truly memorable. The banter we shared, his hesitation and stress over our crazy decisions, and his willingness to go with whatever solutions we suggested turned what could have been an awkward experience into a fun one. More importantly: I did not want him to die. I actually cared about his fate. That is rare in an escape room.
Humour can be a very powerful tool in storytelling. It’s more difficult in escape rooms because of the precise timing that is involved. But with a remote avatar taking some of the control away from players, there is more opportunity to get some well crafted jokes in there.
This is truly where Agent November shines. Think of him like a British Inspector Gadget. The character is not complex. He does not have a personal journey they must go on. But he is one of the funniest characters I have ever encountered in a room. I thoroughly enjoyed spending an hour with him bumbling our way to victory.
Taking on one character is challenging enough. Taking on several characters while also controlling the puzzles to a game sounds like insanity. But the game masters of Agent Venture, an audio driven escape in which you must pull off a thrilling spy heist…thing. Again, humour plays a big part in what makes this successful. The company does not bother hiding the fact that it’s one person playing every role. Rather, they embrace it and the result makes for one of my favourite heist games so far.