Photo of a vintage camera and photographs

The Four Types of Discovery in Escape Rooms, Part V: Discovery is Memorable

This is part 5 and the conclusion of our ongoing series on discovery in escape rooms. If you haven’t yet, you can catch up in Part 4.

Remember when we twisted the top of the box and it lit up and you realized that the pattern matched the tattoo on that lady which was only revealed when we dunked her picture in water? That was UH-MAAAZING!

-Engaged Puzzle Solver

So here’s the thing, ignoring all the little details involved in designing an escape room, writing puzzles, and the various concerns of creating an immersive experience, the bottom line is that discovery is fun. Every time something in your brain clicks into place you get that little spark of exhilaration. This is why the unexpected is used to such great effect in so many media, from films and television to music and even stand-up comedy. That feeling of discovery and sudden insight is powerful. It can motivate, excite, and leave a lasting impression on a person.

An old camera, a suitcase, and some black and white photos.

Studies in psychology and neurosciences have even shown that the act of discovery has a positive effect on memory1 and emotions2. That moment when you’re finally able to put all of the pieces together, to solve the mystery, to finally understand a puzzle (known as an Aha! or Eureka Moment), is more likely to be remembered than if you had just been given the answer. The Socratic method of learning is based on this phenomenon, posing questions to students and actively engaging their minds by allowing them to discover answers for themselves.

Four stone busts of philosophers.

Of course, not every room will use all four types of discovery I’ve described earlier in this series, nor am I suggesting that they need to. Some rooms will downplay story discovery to focus purely on puzzles. Others may choose puzzles with clear mechanics and forego discovery of the obscured. But, I would bet my proverbial hat that every single room uses at least one or two of these forms of discovery to surprise and delight their audiences. As I said before, discovery is integral to the escape room experience.

The next time you do an escape room (or design one!), keep an eye out for moments of discovery and think a little bit about how they’re being used and how they affect you. I think you’ll find that each one is accompanied by a little burst of exhilaration and that, together, they build a richer, more memorable experience.

  1. Auble, P., Franks, J., Soraci, S. (1979) “Effort toward comprehension: Elaboration or aha!?” Memory & Cognition 7, 426–434.
  2. Shen, W., Yuan, Y., Liu, C. and Luo, J. (2015), “In search of the ‘Aha!’ experience: Elucidating the emotionality of insight problem-solving.” British Journal of Psychology. doi: 10.1111/bjop.12142
Photo of a notebook and glasses on a map

The Four Types of Discovery in Escape Rooms, Part IV: Unraveling the Mystery

This is part 4 of our ongoing series on discovery types in escape rooms. If you haven’t yet, you can catch up in Part 3.

“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.

An old desktop with a blank journal on it.

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.

A woman hanging laundry on her porch.

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.

Photo of two figurines working on a block puzzle

The Four Types of Discovery in Escape Rooms, Part III: Realizing a Solution

This is part 3 of our ongoing series on discovery types in escape rooms.  If you haven’t yet, you can catch up in Part 2.

“What Is The Answer?”

Two artist's mannequins attempting to put together a wooden cube packing puzzle.

The third form of discovery is what is generally thought of as “solving a puzzle” once you’ve figured out how the puzzle works.  For many classic puzzles such as Sudoku, crossword puzzles, etc., you already understand the mechanics.  You don’t need to learn how they work, you just need to find the unique answer. This is by far the most common type of puzzle seen in escape rooms today because it gives room designers ultimate control of the outcome, allowing a puzzle to convey necessary information like, for example, a padlock combination.  They’re easier to design and are less prone to unintended consequences than open-ended puzzles.

Open-ended puzzles are ones in which a player must invent their own solution.  In this type of puzzle the players are presented with some problem or task that can be solved in many ways.  For example, we once created a puzzle where a series of electrical contacts on opposite sides of a room needed to be connected.  This could be done by using some or all of several objects in the room or even with a chain of players holding hands. We didn’t have a particular solution in mind, but instead wanted our players to feel clever by inventing their own.  Happily, each team at the event ended up solving the puzzle in a unique way; no two solutions were the same! As usual, players get to feel clever for solving the puzzle, but they also have some pride in ownership, as the solution was one that came from them rather than from us.

Two artist's mannequins high-five after correctly putting together a wooden cube packing puzzle.

For either of these types of puzzles, the important thing to remember is that what’s fun is discovering the solution on your own. The manner in which we write and deliver hints becomes very important in light of this fact. Hints should facilitate the player’s ability to discover the answer on their own and not just feed them the answer outright. Doing so robs them of this very enjoyable form of discovery.  Of course, how to provide hints that neither give away too much or too little is a fine line to walk and a subject that will have to wait for another time.

This series is continued in Part 4: Unraveling the Mystery.

Photo of small brass gears

The Four Types of Discovery in Escape Rooms, Part II: Uncovering the Obscured

This is part 2 of our ongoing series on discovery types in escape rooms. If you haven’t yet, be sure to check out Part 1.

“What Is The Puzzle?”

While at first blush “uncovering the obscured” sounds very much like finding hidden objects in the room, I actually mean trying to understand the objects you have already found. Here you have objects laid out before you all together: a seashell here, a note from the constable there, and, of course, the missing jeweled necklace! But what do they mean? How do they go together? HOW THE #&$*@ DOES THIS PUZZLE WORK!?

A handful of golden gears

From a puzzle designer’s perspective, this can be a very tricky form of discovery to get just right. It’s very easy to make a puzzle so obscure or obtuse that few players, if any, are able to actually solve it. The other end of the spectrum is something too obvious to be a fun challenge, leaving you with what could barely be called a puzzle. The success of this form of discovery hinges very heavily on how the puzzle is designed, but that’s a topic so deep that we’ll only be able to scratch the surface of it for now.

So to begin, here are some brief thoughts on the concept.

First, a word of caution.  Having all of the pieces to a puzzle and not knowing what to do with them can be very frustrating for players who have not encountered this sort of challenge before. Many puzzles outside of escape rooms make their mechanics very clear. You know how a jigsaw puzzle works, even if you don’t know exactly where each piece goes yet. But when presented with a collection of mysterious items and no direction, newer players can feel lost pretty quickly. This is why signposting is so important.  Signposting, in a nutshell, is the act of subtly guiding players toward the correct method.  For example, a journal found in the room that mentions the author’s predilection for candy could help players realize that they need to use a box of jelly beans to solve a color code puzzle. This subtle direction helps to cognitively prime players so that, at least on a subconscious level, they know that the discovery of a box of candy in the room is an important one.

A signpost in a grassy field

Second, uncovering a puzzle’s mechanics is meant to be fun, so as designers we need to try our best to make it clear to a player when they’ve actually done it. Puzzles should provide some form of feedback to players when they’ve done the right thing. Whether this is an audio cue, a physical change, or simply a clear answer (say, unscrambling text into a recognizable word rather than a random code), this feedback illustrates to the player that yes, you’ve discovered something and you’re on the correct path!

This form of discovery can be very rewarding for a player, but it requires two design aspects to remain a fun challenge and to steer clear of frustration: signposting to help players who haven’t started and feedback to help players finish once they have.

This series is continued in Part 3: Realizing a Solution.

For the sake of readers who have yet to enjoy The Vanishing Act or any of our other experiences, we ask that you kindly refrain from spoilers in your comments.

Photo of a telescope

The Four Types of Discovery in Escape Rooms, Part I: Finding the Hidden

A telescope inside a wooden boxCentral to the experience of an escape room is the act of discovery. At the very least, every escape room involves the discovery of what lies inside. Think back to your first, second, or hundredth escape room and the one thing they likely all have in common is the time spent in quiet anticipation, waiting to discover what lies beyond the door.

Discovery in escape rooms can be categorized into four major types: finding what’s hidden, uncovering what’s obscured, realizing a solution, and unraveling the mystery.  In this series, we’ll explore each of these discovery types in turn and discuss how we at Locurio use them when designing our experiences.

Designing an escape room that utilizes each of these types of discovery can be challenging, but by understanding them and the effects they have on our players we can build experiences that are more exciting, more memorable, and that much better. So, let’s talk about them!

Finding the Hidden – “Where Is The Puzzle?”

This form of discovery is the classic “toss the room” opening used in many escape rooms. Players search high and low, over and under, inside and out in order to find all of the puzzles, pieces, and data needed to escape. Sometimes these items are hidden in simple places, such as in a desk drawer or even in plain sight. Other times they are fiendishly concealed, perhaps in a secret cache under a floorboard, under a rug, under a 10-ton safe.

A needle in a haystackWhen designing our first escape room, The Vanishing Act, we initially chose to forego this type of discovery. We were concerned that hiding objects felt a bit arbitrary from a story perspective (would someone really keep the combination to their safe tucked away inside the couch?) and, if not done with great care, could be frustrating for players or even feel unfair. We also thought that if there was no incentive for tearing the room apart then we would limit the risk of overly enthusiastic players damaging the room in their fervor.

In the end, after a lengthy discussion, we decided to include this element in our room. We spent a lot of time thinking about the different ways in which players might enjoy our room. Some would be there to solve challenging puzzles, others would come to be immersed in a compelling story and, we realized, some would come because they really enjoy the hunt for clues. After all, it’s not every day that you get to tear apart a room, scouring it for hidden puzzles!

The trick was to do it in a way that mitigated our concerns while still allowing for the satisfying experience of discovering hidden clues. While players must still search our room, we chose not to put anything under furniture, up high, or inside anything that needed to be dismantled. Players still need to be thorough enough to find everything and clever enough to realize what is and is not a puzzle, but they will never feel (hopefully) that we have unreasonable expectations on the lengths they must go to find the puzzles.

This series is continued in Part 2: Uncovering the Obscured.

And so ends the first Locurio blog post. Join us here each week as we discuss escape rooms, puzzles, and various other topics related to the design of immersive experiences. Who knows, you might just discover something new!

Disagree with what we’ve said? Think we forgot something? Just want to lavishly praise us and tell us how good-looking we are? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

For the sake of readers who have yet to enjoy The Vanishing Act or any of our other experiences, we ask that you kindly refrain from spoilers in your comments.