“What’s Going On?”
When done well, this is my favorite type of discovery in escape rooms. This answers the “why” of it all and, in my opinion, it’s powerfully captivating. It’s the reason Sherlock Holmes doesn’t just blame the butler, he goes on to explain that the butler’s twin brother died in an accident caused by the negligence of the man into whose brandy he poured the arsenic! The “why” in classic media provides us with the motivation for the characters and the driving emotions behind their actions, letting us know who they are, what they do, and the reasons for their actions. It solidifies the story and gives it purpose.
A well-crafted story in an escape room can do all of this as well, but it has the added power of providing a motivation for the players too. Nobody cares that these random numbers open that box (aside from wanting the next puzzle, of course). The fact that the departed inventor used his beloved wife’s birthday for the code to his safe, containing the secrets necessary to power his time machine, is much more compelling!
As designers we can draw players in by coyly revealing just a hint of our stories and our worlds. By presenting them with a mystery to solve, we provide for these players a more tangible goal beyond merely solving puzzles. I think that these sorts of goals tend to be more satisfying for players because they’re implicit. In general, players want to uncover mysteries, especially when you tease them with some small piece of the story. Telling a player what their goal is just doesn’t have the same effect as letting them define their own goals. You’re giving them a chore rather than an adventure.
From a designer’s perspective, story discoveries also have the added benefit that they can be presented in measured bursts throughout the experience. This is preferable to the singular goal of escaping because by carefully controlling when and how story beats are revealed, we can help control the pacing of the room. The goal of escaping happens at only one point in the experience (if at all), but story elements can be used throughout to keep the experience fun and exciting the whole way through.
A story can be told in many ways, but for my money, it’s much more compelling to discover it on my own than to be fed it. As they say, show, don’t tell.
This series will be continued in the thrilling conclusion: Discovery is Memorable.