If you’d spoken to pre-pandemic me (remember that fella? No me neither), one thing I would never have expected was that I would end up spending so much of 2020 playing and thinking about online escape rooms. But when lockdown hit, it suddenly seemed like a fun way to hang out with friends when we weren’t allowed to physically be together. And then having played quite a few, we ended up making our own, which meant we had to play a load more – for research of course.
Diligent researcher that I am, I started to make lists of things I loved and things I’d found missing in most (but not all!) of the games I’d played. I’m going to kick off with the things I loved:
Doing something together with friends, rather than just chatting
Even in pre-pandemic times, I wasn’t brilliant at just chatting with people. I was always much more comfortable socialising when we could do something together. The awkwardness of socialising on zoom really accentuated that, so online escape games proved a great way to hang out - and the socialising we did after playing was much more relaxed.
Using my brain in a different way
I’m lucky that I get to use parts of my brain in both my jobs, but there are other parts of it that remain pretty untouched day-to-day. I found that the sorts of puzzles I encountered in online escape games really did start to turn the rustier cogs up there. This would have been valuable at any time, I guess, but when I’m getting less external stimulation than usual (because of being mainly stuck in my house) this is something I particularly appreciate.
Games with a variety of puzzles
The online escape games that I particularly enjoy have a good variety of puzzles that work in different ways to make me use different parts of my brain. By the end, it feels like a satisfying mental work out.
The sense of (collective) achievement
The moments when you solve a puzzle and the moment when you complete the game can give you a real buzz and sense of achievement. I particularly enjoyed it when a few of us had contributed different elements to solving a puzzle so that this achievement felt like something we had done together. That shared triumph was a feeling we really wanted to give players in our our own online escape room, National Elf Service.
Not being trapped in an actual room
I’ve done a few physical escape rooms (in pre-pandemic times) and they were good but I found the process of being in a fairly dark room until the end of the game made me slightly panicky in a way that wasn’t exactly fun. By contrast, being in the comfort of my own home while playing meant that I had just the right levels of stress and excitement prompted by the game, rather than by my (mild) claustrophobia.
Not having to leave my house
I appreciate that I might be alone on this one, but I really enjoy the fact that, unlike physical escape rooms, I don’t need to travel to get there. They’re easier to fit into my day and the drinks we had at the end were nicer (and cheaper!).
Discovering hidden talents I didn’t know my friends had
This is one of the best things about playing online escape rooms. There are some types of puzzle I am quite good at but others at which I really suck. What was great, however, was realising that in the moments where I was really struggling, one of my friends who is better than me at something (spatial logic for example, or maths, or code-breaking) would be steaming ahead. Knowing they had these previously hidden talents has made me appreciate several of my friends even more than I did before.
...And now for things I’ve loathed
Alright 'loathed' is too strong a word for my feelings about these things, but it sounds good for a title. I haven’t passionately hated any of these things, but I have found them frustrating. I think some of this comes from my own background in theatre and the arts, which values certain things that seem less important to the designers of most (but by no means all) online escape games.
In a lot of online escape games, the story is quite weak and is just a thinly veiled cover for the puzzles. It’s also sometimes pretty cliché. I think for some players, this is fine – it’s not what they’re looking for. For me and my background in theatre, story really matters and I really miss satisfying narratives in these games. In our own attempt we’ve tried to strike a satisfying balance between story and puzzle, which it turns out is admittedly pretty tricky.
Quality production is really important in theatre and other art forms, but I’ve found it to be more patchy in online escape games. Some are slick with strong aesthetics; many are not. Perhaps this isn’t important to some players – after all, the puzzles and the teamwork are the most important thing. I do feel, however, that stronger aesthetics might help online escape games to broaden their appeal.
Lots of online escape games don’t have any acting at all, which is totally fine. Some do, and I find that it isn’t always brilliant. I guess this is something close to my heart because I spent a long time learning about acting and still teach it. This was one of the main things that made me go “why don’t we stop whingeing about this and have a go at making one ourselves?”
OK, some online escape games aren’t going for humour. (Although, in plays, often even the darkest ones have funny moments, especially towards the start, to allow the audience to breathe out and relax, so that the hard-hitting moments affect them even more.) We found that when the game didn’t use humour, we-as-players became more serious too - which sometimes made the atmosphere a bit too dry for a fun activity with friends. That said, some online escape games have had moments that made me chuckle - but never quite laugh out loud.
Maybe it’s just the games that me and my friends have chosen, but in most that I’ve played, women have only appeared as murder victims. I realise this is a problem of crime fiction that reaches beyond online escape rooms but it does seem a shame that there aren’t more puzzle games with strong (living) female characters. I’d love to hear of some though, so if you have any suggestions, let me know!
Again, this might just be the games I’ve happened to play, but they all seemed pretty straight to me, which is disappointing when so many other media are making steps forward in this respect. I’d love to play a super-queer (or even a-bit-queer) escape room, which is why we’re now working on just that…
Writing these has really made me realise how much my attitudes have been formed by theatre, even though it isn’t something that I make very often anymore. This might make my take on online escape rooms quite unusual, but I do believe that other media can learn a lot from theatre, just as theatre practitioners can learn a lot from artists who work in other forms. There are always calls for different disciplines to be less siloed, but right now in this time of pause and flux that has been brought about by the pandemic, these calls seem more relevant than ever.