Escape Game – DIY – Pre-Production


Stage 1 – Idea of what your story / theme is…

I am sure that you have something connected with your museum that you could use.  Storytelling is what museums do best.  You’ll have characters, stories or mysteries that you can tap into.

Alternatively, you can try something completely unconnected with the museum but we need a reason that the clues have been left here.  For example, a spy is sending you secret messages but in order that no one else can listen in he’s doing this by coding them using the museum exhibits.  This is a bit cliché but it works well and spy stories are generally popular.  I always love the ‘romantic vision of a spy’ that people have and players can get into the experience quickly.

So for this example we will use a variation of a spy story.  Our protagonist, Dr Hugh, who happens to be a psychologist becomes aware that they are being followed.  They are not sure why or what information they might have but the tracking is becoming more apparent and by it makes them feel uneasy.  They basic idea is that Dr Hue ends up on the run to different cities.  The player catches up with him at each of these locations.

The bigger idea is a fabricated story about Russia trying to incite the USA to attack North Korea.  The player is drip-feed bits of the story as they are solving the puzzles.

If a spy story doesn’t work for your museum then some kind of murder-mystery is another easily understood trope that we could start from.

Stage 2 – Figure out what are the gates

An Escape Game needs a collection of locked areas.  Not all of the content is available at the beginning – the player ‘earns’ it by solving puzzles.  In a traditional Escape Room these can be as large as wardrobes or other rooms – in our version they are a series of locked boxes.  We used a briefcase, a tool box and a mini-safe.

I would recommend using a different combination lock type for each one.  So the briefcase as with most briefcases had two locks of 3 digits, the mini-safe used a 4 digit numeric lock and the toolbox uses a 5 letter word lock.  If the locks are different types then it makes it easier for the player to understand what solution they are locking for.  We know to open the toolbox that we need a 5 letter word – so any puzzle that produces numbers will not be relevant.

In the early days of Escape Rooms – some were comprised solely of 4 digit padlocks.  The problem the player has then is that every time you generate a numeric solution to a puzzle – they must try this value in every single lock.  This is particularly difficult when the player is not sure if they are on the right track and producing guess solutions.  It is frustrating for the player to have to test their guess against every padlock.  Much less painful if you have only a few to test with.  You can use more than one identical lock – but generally don’t repeat yourself too much in one area.

So now our game is divided up into gated subsections.  We now need to think about what goes into each section.

Stage 3 – How do players open these gates?

Firstly, we need to decide what order our players will operate the locks.  It turns out that the safe was small enough to fit inside the toolbox.  It’s quite a nice experience for the player to be surprised by what they find inside the locked boxed.  The word padlock fitted more comfortably on the toolbox.  Saving the briefcase till last made sense as it is essentially two solutions to two separate puzzles.  The objects really dictated the order themselves.

So I think at this point it’s good to think about what are the solutions to the locks.  Hint: if you change the lock combinations then please write these down somewhere safe.  It’s all too easy to forget and end up with an unusable lock L

It’s a minor idea but I like to tie the lock solutions into the stories.  So I might choose a word for the word lock that is related to story.  Or for the briefcase you could use an important date represented in 6 digits.  Although in all likelihood you’ll get players to use two separate 3 digit codes.

So at this stage we have a number of gated areas with locks and codes.  These will no doubt change but it’s good to have a starting point.

Stage 4 – What is revealed to the player when they open each gate?

How is the player rewarded when they solve a puzzle?  Ideally there should be a combination of story elements and puzzles elements including tangible things to hold.

Story elements can come through passages of text or perhaps audio clips.  These passages of text wouldn’t be just standard story extracts but instead would be environmental storytelling.  And generally you wouldn’t tell the story through a standard passage of exposition but instead use items that fit into the environmental storytelling category – so letters, newspaper articles, diary pages, certificates, notes etc.

If you’ve looked around my site you’ll be very aware on my love of using audio.  This game delivers story and puzzles through audio content by the player receiving phone calls from Dr Hue.  These could be triggered by NFC cards (see Babbling Beasts tutorial).  Or you could just as easily leave tiny budget mp3 players in each location.

So at this point it’s useful to define the big plots points of the story.  In our example Dr Hue will call you from a number of locations.  So at the very least we can decide on the locations and perhaps jot down a few notes of what is happening.

In terms of other game items revealed to the player – more tangible things to handle and investigate is always good.  These could be almost anything: spy photos, a code wheel, or a physical piece of evidence or a tool (such as a UV torch).

Even though a UV torch is seen as a bit of a cliché in traditional Escape Rooms it is still a fantastic tool and players love them.  It allows information to be hidden in plain slight – and existing objects can be given a new lease of life.  This UV torch has a battery chamber which is easily removed – so they can be set-up as two different game items which the players assemble themselves.

Stage 5 – Create puzzles & expand on the stories

So now you need to develop some puzzles for your players to solve.  We could spend a few days just talking about this section.   The good news is that almost anything can become a puzzle.  Think of your favourite puzzles that you see in newspapers, online, on TV gameshows, even in television dramas – and think about how they could be converted for use in our Escape Game.

The number one rule of puzzle creation for Escape Games is that players should need no outside knowledge to solve the puzzle.  For example if it’s a puzzle about using roman numerals then don’t assume that someone in the group knows these there should be a table of them included.  If the puzzle involves planets then be sure that there is a diagram of the solar system.  This is where you can begin to think about what you can use from the walls of your museum.  You might need to signpost players to them a bit as you’ll probably have an overwhelming amount of content in your museum.

So broadly there are two types of puzzles in Escape Rooms ‘Eureka or Aha’ puzzles & mapping / sequence puzzles that we care about.  It’s also common to find very physical puzzles – but we’ll ignore these for our Escape Game.

With ‘Eureka’ puzzles players need to make a jump in their understanding.  They can create a wonderful moment when players figure them out but if you don’t make that jump then they can be very frustrating.  These types of puzzles (riddles) are usually better if you’ve got plenty of time.  If that’s not the case you need a good game host.  They can provide just enough hints to guide players to the answer so they feel they’ve solved it mostly themselves.  These puzzles are fantastic when they work – but they require more puzzle design experience.  So I would suggest sticking to the other type: mapping puzzles.  These include logic / combination / symbol puzzles.

In mapping puzzles – the player is typically mapping / decoding / looking up / sequencing one set of information and transferring it to another.  For example, the player’s goal is to open a 4 digit combination lock.  Players might find that a receipt or read a text message with our characters favourite foods.  Initially it is dismissed as they don’t have any way to convert it to a 4 digit code.  Later on they find a Chinese takeaway menu and one of the players remembers the receipt.  By looking up the food items on the menu we can generate a number that unlocks the code.  If we wish to make the puzzle more difficult we can leave it slightly vague as to how to combine the individual numbers.

As you can see often it is a case of providing players with puzzle items – but then the problem is actually what is the puzzle and how do the items fit together.  It’s often a case of remembering what they’ve seen earlier.

Just a slight mention of Physical puzzles.  These are a broad subject in themselves which can involve complex custom builds.  A simple version we can be that the players find a collection of acetates and it’s only by positioning them on top of each other in a certain way is the solution revealed.  Similarly, a mask puzzle is a cut out that when positioned over a piece of text reveals a message.

So, here’s a collection of Escape Game puzzles that I think work well in a Museum setting.

Here’s a couple of links to 201 puzzle ideas – some of which you can adapt for your game.

As you’re creating your puzzles you’ll want to create placeholder game content.  For example I might decide that I want to use a mask puzzle.  When the mask is placed over the newspaper article correctly it reveals the message.  At this stage I don’t want to spend time writing the full newspaper and cutting out the mask – but I will add a placeholder game content which indicates to me what it is.  This means I can begin to see what game objects I need to create and where they will be located.

Next Steps

Now you’ve got a complete prototype it’s time to refine things and enter full-production.