Our original reason for going to Houston was to finally see Strangebird Immersive’s Man From Beyond. Unfortunately, their new location is currently going through red tape hell and they were not ready for our arrival. They felt super bad but this is a common theme when it comes to building escape rooms. As sad as we were, it was understandable.
We did end up going to meet the owners/designers, Haley and Cameron, for dinner where we could vent and nerd out to our heart’s delight about escapes. Despite the setback, I am really glad I got to meet them in person.
And besides, one hiccup not about to stop us from trying out escapes anyway! Read the rest of this entry
This was it. Wednesday. May 15th. 13th Gate. It was one of the main reasons we booked our trip to NOLA in the first place. And yes, it lives up to the hype.
Canadian Bumpkin Status: 60%
There is not much here today because we have been driving for most of the day. Even in the car though I am still very much a bumpkin. Read the rest of this entry
Toady was not as jampacked, but was still full of fun stuff!
Canadian Bumpkin Status: 65%
I think I’m getting into the laid back New Orleans atmosphere. I am only somewhat paranoid now instead of completely.
My second summation of New Orleans history: if you moved to New Orleans in the 19th century, you died of yellow fever. The end.
My skin has turned from lobster red to a slight tan. I am officially out of Canadian winter mode.
People in New Orleans seem to go out of their way to not pronounce any French names correctly. At the same time, the new pronunciations sound weirdly natural…most if the time.
We found a Trader Joe’s. There is something called Cookie Butter there. We didn’t buy it but…it worries and intrigues me.
I learned the real history of the voodoo doll! I wish someone would do a historical escape room about that.
Today was Clue Carre in Metairie. It was a Game Museum theme which was probably the better executed of the same type of theme I have seen at other locations. Nothing crazy immersion wise, and a few puzzle ambiguities but otherwise fun! I especially appreciated it as a game enthusiast. They cover all eras of gaming, not just 80’s onwards.
They have some new games in development but unfortunately the betas weren’t quite ready yet so we didn’t get to try them. I’m looking forward to see how the Clue Carre games have evolved once they come out.
Oh! And we also found out from the owner, Megan, that their name actually is a play on Vieux Carre (prounounced VooCarrey), the old name for the French Quarter. Yay local knowledge!
As luck would have it though, Escape My Room has a new room coming out in the Audubon Aquarium, and was ready to beta test! We got a chance to do so ourselves. So far we were the second group through.
It is more of a Five Wits style of game in which you play a room for a few minutes before you are pushed over into the next one. I have not played Five Wits but I have been told that this is the case by more than one person :D.
There were a couple of tech hiccups, but otherwise it was probably one of the more polished beta tests I have participated in. The set is absolutely gorgeous with some really unique pieces. Once some of the puzzles are smoothed out this is going to be a great room for kids and enthusiasts alike.
Aftwerward we got to chat a bit with Andrew Preble of Escape My Room. It’s always fun to nerd out about escape rooms and was a great way to end out day!..Okay, the Happy Hour cocktails may have also contributed to that.
One thing I have noticed about New Orleans games (at least the ones we’ve played) is that they tend toward the more non-linear style of game play. For most if not all our games we have had many puzzles to work on from the outset of the room. It’s an interesting contrast to the linear tendencies of other parts of Canada.
I am not sure whether this is a result of the public ticketing system or if it’s a local style. Of course, this is based on two companies played so far. We shall see how 13th Gate feels.
There seems to be a lot of stuff brewing in NOLA, which makes me sad to leave this week. I can’t wait to see how all the new rooms and experiences fare!
Gabriel Knight Locations Found
Today was my last in New Orleans and so my last day to find locations! I was super excited to see what must have been the exact location used from St. Louis Cemetery #1!
We technically also saw Bourbon Street, but I don’t want to post a picture of that. Trust me, no one wants to see Bourbon Street.
Tomorrow is 13th Gate. We shall see if the hype is worth it!
Since Day 2 of our trip was all tourist stuff and no escapes, I decided to combine Day 2 and 3 into one post!
New Orleans is indeed still a very cool city. We took tours of the Garden District, Lafayette Cemetery, and the French Quarter. The history here is so interesting and rich I am pretty sure I could spend a year here and not have learned half of it.
At the same time, seeing the severe dividing line with the more poverty stricken neighborhoods is striking and a little unsettling. I thoroughly enjoyed hanging around the more tourist friendly areas but am glad I get to see more of the city. Read the rest of this entry
It’s been one year since my very first Escape Room Enthusiast adventure to the Netherlands. I loved it so much I immediately began to crave more escape experiences around the world.
So when my friends and fellow podcast co-hosts Mike and Ruby told me they were thinking of going to New Orleans and Baton Rouge, home to some of the most immersive escape rooms in North America, I immediately decided to follow them! So we booked our flights, our AirBNBs, our escapes and have finally arrived!
Of course I want to document our adventures, escape or otherwise. So here we go! Read the rest of this entry
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. Read the rest of this entry
Beta Testing is so important for games. What might make sense to you as a designer could utterly fall apart once it’s in the hands of your gamers. The puzzles are either too vague or overly complex. The super expensive tech you centered your room on is too finicky or breaks entirely. The eight players you thought would be totally a perfect number end up having nothing to do.
What I have yet to see as part of the beta testing process of escape rooms is to test out the actual narrative. Does it make sense? Are players following it or ignoring it? Are they feeling emotions you intended for them to feel?
My experience lies in theatre. Any script that is written is usually workshopped by other writers and actors and combed over so extensively that the poor writer is left in a daze with mountains of feedback to sift through. However, it’s that feedback that allows them to make their story the best that it can be…maybe…if they are good.
So how do we apply narrative workshopping to escape rooms? To be honest, I am just theorizing at this point but hopefully the lessons I have taken from script workshopping can apply to escape rooms. Here we go! Read the rest of this entry
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. Read the rest of this entry
Welp, that’s that. I went on my first European trip and did not die in a plane crash/got lost down an alley/got run down by a bike.
I’m STILL letting the whole experience sink in, but here is my best attempt at summing up the whole trip.
European Escape Rooms
If this trip taught me anything it’s that I need to experience more escape rooms around the world. It’s really interesting to see the trends and habits of the most successful escape rooms worldwide.
From what I have seen of European escapes, the focus is far more on making an immersive experience. The innovation I saw happening with the pre-game experience with games like The Vault and The Catacombs is the kind of thing I would love to see more of in the escape games of Canada.
Even when we were stuck on a potential tech problem, the GM/actor did everything in their power not to come in and interrupt our experience. They wanted us to have as smooth a process as possible and I appreciated the effort.
The sound and light design were some of the best I have seen. It was not just there to provide atmosphere. It also provided subtle signposting to guide us along the way. There was usually a narrative reason for a sound to appear, and the player would be rewarded later if they were paying attention.
I also liked seeing how endings were treated. In the better games we played, every player got an ending, regardless of win or loss. Both endings were satisfying even if they were not happy. I really wish I saw more of that in future escape rooms.
On the flip side, I did notice the puzzles tended to be on the simpler side since they had to fit more naturally into the environment. This is not a bad thing. They still made sense and were all logical and enjoyable. It’s just something I observed. It’s a topic I know is beginning to be discussed in the enthusiast group. I’ll be curious to see if challenging puzzles in an immersive game are possible.
I realize the majority of the escape rooms I played in the Netherlands were cherry picked from the best. I am aware there are bad escape experiences in the country as well. I am also aware of the amazing experimentation that is beginning to happen in the US and Canada (Strange Bird Immersive, Escape My Room and Secret City Adventures are three that immediately spring to mind).
But the one thing my continent does not seem to have is that atmosphere of creative focus. When I spoke with owners in Europe, I rarely heard talk of business practices. I only heard ideas and recommendations for similar escape rooms nearby. There is not nearly the competitive streak that I see in North America. It was very refreshing.
There are theories flying around about why European games are so elaborate. Personally, I think they are getting past the point of being marketed mostly toward the newcomer who “will have fun no matter what”. The initial phase of a fun new form of entertainment is ending and designers are beginning to see how they can make satisfying experiences as well as a successful business. North America is getting there, but it might be another couple of years.
Lessons as a Narrative Designer
I have now designed the narrative for three large scale theatrical escape events. Prison Escape was the first time I got to experience such an event from the player perspective. I am so glad I did.
I have put this here because of the advice I read in every book about video game narrative: if you want to write games, play games. Understand what makes them work, take note of where you are frustrated, take note of where you feel joy.
Prison Escape attempted something I have been far too afraid to undertake: multiple storylines. I do not envy anyone who has to design that and I really admire them. Some storylines were constant, hair raising adventures. Others felt somewhat tacked on and resulted in a disappointed player.
It made me realize how difficult it is to provide a consistent experience to every single player of a large scale event. It makes me wonder if it is possible. I did have fun in the end, but I knew other players who did not. It made me wonder about my own events and what I could do to improve them. So I am happy to have walked away with so much to think about.
Up The Game
This was my first time attending Up The Game. It is the second official escape room conference I have been to (third if you count the Unconference). It is by far my favourite so far.
Speaking with others, I feel like there are three different experiences:
The first are for those who attended last year and were returning. In general, they seemed to have enjoyed last year’s content more but did enjoy the talks and to reconnect with friends old and new.
The second was for people like myself who were attending for the first time. Most of the talks were about theories we already knew of but it was refreshing to be in a room of like minded individuals and satisfying to see practical examples to back up the theories. Occasionally we would attend a talk which introduced ideas we had not thought much about yet but for the most part it was reaffirming what we already believed.
The third and final group were newcomers who were also new owners. These were the attendees that benefited most from this year’s conference in my opinion. When I spoke with them, they were wide eyed and brimming with inspiration and ideas. Most of the talks were on topics they had rarely considered in their designs. These were the most fun people to talk to at the conference.
Yes, there were organisation problems. We often did not know where to go to register. Our lunch vouchers only covered one drink and it was very warm. The activities booked up too quickly before most could take advantage of them.
But these are nitpicks in what was largely an incredibly positive experience for me. Up The Game is the most important escape conference I have been to. The talks going on here are the ones necessary to further this industry beyond just another fad. If you get a chance next year, I would highly recommend trying it out.
If I were to do anything different, I think I would put a couple of more talks focusing on puzzle design and tech. Much as I love immersion, escape rooms are like theatre. There are a lot of wheels and cogs required to make them work so it’s good to have a balance.
If I were to talk about story again, I would also want to focus on something more specific. We have had the generic “story is important” talk many times now. Up The Game seems like the perfect place to start to focus on specific topics like the pre-game experience, player roles, non-player roles, flow, climaxes, hint systems, and so much more.
With that said, thanks so much to everyone who read! It was fun to chronicle my journey! Thanks to all the friends, new and old, who let me join them on escape and for all the awesome conversations during and after the conference!
Most importantly, thanks to the folks at Up The Game for organizing this! It is not easy to run such an event and it was well done! It also prompted me to finally get up off my butt and actually travel outside my country. I hope you are all getting sleep!
I know I am. I am a big jet lag wimp. Until next time!
After Thursday I could barely find time to sit down and actually write the blog. And if there was time, I opted for sleep instead. So I decided to finish off my trip in one fell swoop when I got back!
Here we go!
Canadian Bumpkin Status- Skyrocketed To 200%
I experienced my first real travel anxiety attack. We were running a bit late and suddenly all the possibilities of all the appointments and travel deadlines I would miss and the unfamiliarity with the country I was in came in at me in one overwhelming swoop. I became a silent, worried mess. Thankfully it’s good to have friends around who will shove you in a cab so you can get to your AirBNB and tell you things will be fine. Things were fine.
Also, friends who do all the planning are awesome. Thanks Lisa of REA!
I learned in the Netherlands that cars will stop for people but cyclists will not. The cyclists are mad with power.
There is no such thing as a cheap meal in Europe. However there is no tipping so I think it sort of works out in the end.
Amsterdam is lovely. I want to live on a houseboat but it is 1.2 million euros to live in one.
Canals are so cool!
The European transit system is amazing. The buses seem to come every five minutes and you can pay your fare with your credit card instead of standing awkardly with not quite enough change. And they have paper tickets you can tap on an electronic reader! I gawked at it like the bumpkin I am for a full five minutes.
Every person I came across in Breda warned me of pickpockets in Amsterdam. I tried my best to put on my “I don’t care about your life” Toronto face and walk confidently down the street while at the same time discreetly glancing at the precious blue line on my map which would tell me where to go. I was not pickpocketed but I don’t think it was due to my attempted ruse.
I realize that before GPS we used these things called maps. I am glad I did not have to read a map myself but am secretly glad there was no way I could get lost.
Speaking of which, I missed the straightforward gridlike structure of Toronto streets. These medieval streets were pretty but lacking in all logic or sense.
We went to the strangest, hippest Thai restaurant/clup called Chin’s Club (or something like that). It had a wall of waving cats, Nintendo decorations, rude waiters and expensive hip food.
I discovered kroketten. They are meat mixed with gravy/flour deep-fried in batter and wrapped in bread. They were the best Dutch food I had.
I got propositioned. Twice.
On to the important stuff! Which Escapes did we do?!
Friday I was travelling with David and Lisa of REA and Juliana of Escape Room in a Box! The first stop was a beachside town called Zandvoort to visit Escape Room Zandvoort (note: we would have easily stayed in that town just to hang on the beach for a week).
We did two rooms there: The Boat Trip and The Goldmine. Since Lisa and David were doing these rooms and we all gave our thoughts afterward I will let their reviews speak for most of my thoughts.
They were fun, but they did remind me of a lot of other Canadian rooms puzzle and set design wise. These were not the fabled Netherland experiences I had heard so much about. However they were still mostly solid and did have some fun tech elements I have not seen in Canadian rooms all that often.
After that we rushed to Amsterdam and did Boom Chicago. The room was movie themed and did some neat things with the space Again, since David and Lisa also did it with me I would read their review since we all had the same thoughts on it.
Then there was Sherlocked’s The Vault.
Oh man. The Vault.
I was not originally going to do this room. The main reason was my lack of an available team (the secondary reason is heist rooms make me nervous ). My friends seemed to have already done or were doing it at times I was not available.
Then lo and behold who should message me but a complete stranger who was looking to do it that very evening! It turned out it was a newlywed couple on their honeymoon who had booked the room only to later learn they needed a minimum of four. They joined the enthusiast group with the express purpose of finding someone and were shocked at the number of potential players currently in the Netherlands (they had no clue there was a conference going on)
Because I was in the midst of my travel freakout I waffled on actually going, but David said that I of all people needed to play this room. I am so glad I did.
The Vault is by far in my top 5 escapes of all time. THIS was the experience I had heard all about. From the moment you book the room, the focus is all on immersing the player into the world of the game. You do not even walk into an escape room upon arrival. You are texted a location to go and meet your contact.
From that moment it felt like I was in a movie. That feeling remained throughout the escape. The combination of actors, narrative, lighting, set, sound and puzzles all made for a fantastic experience.
There was one element toward the end though that almost took me out of the experience. I hesitate to call it a tech failure but that’s probably the closest term to what occurred. The most I can say was that physical brute force was absolutely necessary. I had been warned about this aspect ahead of time and I’m glad I was. Most of the players I have talked to who completed it also had complaints about this part of the game. If they tweaked just this element, it would be a near perfect experience.
Still! Go play Sherlocked’s The Vault if you get the chance! It is an unforgettable experience.
Most of Day 6 was Introvert Tourist Day! Again, I was a bad enthusiast but having never traveled I think I made the right call by booking alone time throughout my trip just to take in the sites.
Canadian Bumpkin Status- Tacky Tourist
I wen to the Anne Frank House. I hate to say something like “I enjoyed it” about such an experience, but it was an important museum I wanted to see and although it was sad I am glad I got to see it. I am even more glad the museum gift shop consisted only of copies of the diary. I seriously dreaded what kind of stuff might be there.
I ate a Dutch pancake. It was apple bacon. It was amazing. The syrup however was not. It was thick and tasted odd to me. I missed maple syrup.
The Dutch seem obsessed with being American. There were always American options on the menus or American roadhouse style restaurants all around.
I went on a canal cruise! It was a beautiful day and a lot of locals were on the water. Their boats had really comfy seating and space to put their food and drinks. The people of Amsterdam know how to live.
I stopped by a tack tourist booth and bought tacky tourist magnets. In Toronto I laughed at tourists who bought Canadian souvenirs. Now here I was…one of them.
I ate Indonesian food which I was told was really good in the Netherlands. My friends were right.
I spent my last few coins taking tacky tourist pictures like this one. Gotta support local artists?
I went full Canadian bumpkin when our Dutch friend suggested we sit somewhere illegal to have some drinks (or at least just somewhere the public aren’t supposed to go). I was practically stamping my foot in panic. They relented to my cowardly/law abiding ways and we sat by the canals. I assured them that were it an escape room, I would be one of the first over the fence. Maybe.
I was also weirded out by drinking alcohol so freely out in the open on the streets. I quickly got over that.
There was only one escape for Day 6: Logic Logiclocks’ The Catacombs.
This. Was. Terrifying. And awesome. Awesomely terrifying.
This game appealed to me even moreso than the vault because of my love of ghost stories and horror. And boy did it deliver. Much like the Vault, the pre-game experience seemed to be just as integral to the game as the escape room itself. Also like the Vault, which was housed in a real bank vault, the Catacombs was located in a real church catacombs.
I played this game with my new British enthusiast friends Sera and Sharon. The game designers dialed back the jump scares a bit due to the fact that Sera has a heart condition. It was pretty easy to see where they would have appeared though and I appreciated that even with the jump scares they would have used them sparingly.
What the room did really well was slowly ratchet up the tension and creepiness with small, well placed scary moments. They do what horror does best: let the players fill in the gaps with their own imagination and let the fears fly!
And fly they did. Sharan was the brave superstar of our group, and we readily sent her into the most terrifying situations of the room. This backfired a couple of times when the two scared people of the group suddenly found ourselves alone in the room with no brave player to protect us. It all worked out though.
Again, it felt like a movie. I felt like a paranormal investigator in over their head. The actor was probably one of my favourite actors of all the escape rooms I played that week. The energy he brought just completed the experience.
It all came to a huge climatic ending that of course I won’t spoil. I mention it though (and Sherlocked’s the Vault) because these rooms have something a lot of escape rooms here lack: a satisfying ending for a lose state. Not every team will win, but every team will get an ending that at least feels just as complete as if they had won.
The Catacombs also had something that I do not see enough of (to be fair, I have not played as much as some enthusiasts): they managed to use subtle environmental storytelling and weave it into the puzzles.
Subtle sounds we had heard throughout the experience at first seemed like just great ways to scare us. But they also held important clues for later puzzles. At the same time, the sounds were not beating us over the head with meaning. When the puzzles eventually appeared later, the aha came to us organically. It was really nice, little touches like this that launched this game into my top 5 as well.
I did not realize while playing, but the Catacombs is a scored game. Some of the scoring depends on how closely you have been paying attention to the narrative. I had not seen that done anywhere in scored escape rooms before. It usually just depends how many puzzles you complete and how fast you solve.
Best of all: this game had credits at the end! Credits! That named everyone involved! I really wish more escapes did this!
It was such a great way to end my time in The Netherlands. Afterward my friends and I bought a bottle of wine and drank along the canals nerding out about escape rooms. It was the perfect conclusion to the whole trip.
Stay tuned for my final summary and thoughts on European escape rooms!