Our last day in Houston found us back with Strangebird Immersive‘s Haley and Cameron. We spent the almost the entire day eating, geeking out about escapes, venting about escapes, and playing a couple of escapes. It was a great, relaxed way to end our trip. Despite not getting to play Man From Beyond, it was so wonderful to meet these fine folks and hang out.
Canadian Bumpkin Status: 50%
Now I know from several sources that giant cockroaches are just a thing in Houston. I still do not approve of them and squeal like crazy, but I somewhat accept they are here.
I tried some southern US Mexican food! It was yummy!
We want to have southern accents. We probably sound horribly offensive.
It was great to have Haley and Cameron to tour us around today. Not just because they know the area, but because they know more about the escape community in and around Houston.
We started at Escape Again in Sugar Land (no, it’s not a town made my Willy Wonka) and played their Hike room. It was a fun mid-tier room. It followed the trends of other rooms we have seen here: okay set, standard puzzles that did not always make complete sense but were still enjoyable, and plenty of locks to open. Overall there was a good flow though. There was one really neat environmental element I have not yet seen in any escape room. That’s always exciting!
We got to chat with the owners after and it was evident they are aiming to make each room bigger and better than the last. It’s always great to see owners passionate about learning lessons and applying those lessons to future projects. When we saw the new rooms they were building it was evident they were trying to make things as immersive as they could.
It was also nice to see owners getting along. Haley and Cameron greeted the owners like old friends and we all sat around and talked shop for half an hour before a birthday party came through. It’s encouraging to see this kind of collaboration going on in the industry. Owners gain everything by helping each other. I look forward to hearing of Escape Again’s progress.
The second room of the day was Houston Escape Room. We played a room called Grandma’s Code Breaker. This almost felt like a throwback to some of the earlier games we played years ago. It was pretty low tech. There were a lot of combo locks. Weirdest of all, our GM was in the room! We have not experienced that in years. He was really good at fading into the background though. I practically forgot he was there.
It was a cute room but nothing incredibly special. It did make me realize though that most of the games we played in the southern US have a LOT of puzzles, way more than we are used to. I wonder if that is a local trend or if it’s a product of the public system and bigger group sizes.
I could investigate further, but…I have to get up for a plan in….ugh…four hours…it’s time for sleep. Thank you so much for joining us on our adventures. I have had so much fun but look forward to my own bed and some salad. Stay tuned for my final thoughts on this whirlwind trip. I can’t guarantee I’ll be awake enough to write it in the next day.
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!