Escape Room Narrative: The Teaser

As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold…. When Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.” Howard Carter

As a kid, I was a pretty big King Tut nerd. Perhaps to an unhealthy degree, but I couldn’t help it. Like millions of others over the decades, I was fascinated by the discovery of the boy king’s tomb and the stories, both mysterious and controversial, that came out of it.

Fake curses and British colonization issues included…

One of those stories was the moment Howard Carter, an archaeologist desperate to find a rumoured tomb of an almost forgotten king but on the brink of running out of funding, literally stumbled upon a set of steps that, when cleared, would lead down to the now famed tomb. He called his funder, Lord Carnarvon, immediately to come down.

And when they reached the sealed door of the tomb, Carter cleared away just enough of a gap to be able to stick a candle through. And when he did…he got a glimpse of the “wonderful things” mentioned in the quote above.

BR6AK1 Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, near Luxor in Egypt in November 1922. Image shot 1922. Exact date unknown.

The next few days he and his team would be hard at work to fully open the tomb in all its glory. Of course they would have done so regardless if Carter had glimpsed the treasures beyond. But that glimpse, that small teaser for the excitement that awaited him, most certainly must have fueled his excitement and imagination.

In narratives, reveals are tricky to figure out. How much of a major plot point or grand setpiece do you reveal to an audience? How much do you hold back? How much do you tease? Too little and your audience might forget or lose interest in the story. Too much and you’ve given away the best parts of your story or world far earlier than you should, and the audience loses interest in the rest.

Escape Rooms like to play it safe. A lot of money and energy and time and blood and sweat is put into set pieces. Why would you spoil the fun by showing these big reveals earlier on? And so players are often kept in the dark until the great big “Wow!” moment when all is revealed in a grandiose transition.

But what if it went the opposite way? What if you teased the big reveal earlier, gave the players a bit of a taste of what’s come? Does it ruin the surprise? Or…will players, much like Howard Carter putting a candle into a tomb, be fueled by the brief glimpse of the treasures that await them?

Video games do this more often than you think. Showing an area that looks enticing but is otherwise inaccessible does two things to the player:

  1. It gets them excited for what’s to come
  2. It gives them a clear goal: this awesome place is where you want to be. Figure it out.
Games like the Uncharted series does this very well

I recently did a room in Montreal that incorporated this idea wonderfully. Alas, I cannot spoil which one or what that reveal was, but I can say that shortly into the game we came into an area with a gate in front of us. Normally it would not be a gate. It would flat out be a door, solid and sturdy, blocking our view of what lay beyond. But we could clearly see through the gate in this place.

The designers helped keep the bulk of the mystery intact with some clever use of lighting. We could see there was a big, exciting room beyond, but much of it was shrouded in shadows.

This was at least a good 5-10 minutes before we actually got through. I did not feel deflated. I did not feel like some surprise had been ruined. Instead I thought “wow, this looks insane! I really want to get I to that room and see what else there is.”

Sure, we were obviously keen to finish the room regardless of what was shown to us, that small teaser helped further fuel our resolve and excitement.

So the next time you are concerned about your players seeing too much too soon, consider the value of teasing a big setpiece. That’s not to say holding everything back until the right moment does not have any effect. Some of my favourite rooms had a sudden transformation.

But sometimes even just a small tease can help convince your players that it’s very much worth going through these puzzles to get to the really great stuff. And it will make the eventual true reveal that much more thrilling. Give them a glimpse of the gold. Then let them excavate the rest of the tomb.

Posted on October 5, 2021, in escape rooms, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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