FREQ #13: How to Make an Escape Room

Laura E. Hall wants you to get out; she really does. As an escape room designer, she’s created numerous live-action mysteries where teams of intrepid players sealed in a real-life room must rifle through clues and solve puzzles in hopes of getting out before time runs out. Although she’s created escape rooms for franchises like Resident Evil and Adidas, she’s also the co-founder of 60 Minutes to Escape, a company that runs an award-winning escape room in Portland, Oregon where you uncover the truth about a missing spy. Her work isn’t limited to spaces with four walls, either; she also designs games for computers, tabletops and even streets. She talked to FREQ about the unique challenges of building puzzles that people inhabit, what happens to the people who enter them, and where they intersect with the world of virtual reality.

FREQ: Who do you imagine as your audience when you’re designing escape rooms, and how does that influence the way you make them?

Laura Hall: It’s actually very diverse. We’ve had families coming through, corporate team-building, teenagers’ birthday puzzles. We get really hardcore puzzle-solving people and people who have no puzzle-solving experience whatsoever. It really is difficult to balance it for everybody, which is why we have hints. You can challenge people, but ultimately the goal is fun and if they aren’t having fun, then what’s the point? There’s an art to hinting people, and what we teach our staff to do is direct people’s attention towards something, but never to tell them the answer, because it’s so much more satisfying if they get it themselves. I also try not to put a proctor or helper in the room because that changes how people behave — they look to the person for permission before they touch or move things, and if there’s no one there, they forget they’re being observed so they’re much braver. Sometimes that means they break things, but that’s a given.

FREQ: Both video games and escape rooms can be interactive puzzle-solving experiences — escape rooms were even inspired by video games. So what makes the real-life version different, both for players and for designers like you?

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Hall: With a video game you can stop it and leave it and come back at any time. It’s an experience that you have while seated in front of a flat screen, and it’s not very physically taxing. When people are actually in a real physical space, it’s very different. It’s very important to have people cross a threshold so they’re entering a different world. You dim the lights; you direct people’s attention. It affects you physiologically as well. Your heart starts racing, your adrenaline kicks in, and you enter that flow state where information falls away. A lot of people say that they don’t notice that the time has passed. Your brain is processing everything as pure information, the same way you forget when you’re reading subtitles — you’re just doing the thing. It’s actually very difficult to keep people’s attention on what that they need to pay attention to. In one of our rooms we have a hint system with an alarm that blares when a hint is sent through, and people do not hear it sometimes. You can play the alarm over and over and over, but they tune it out completely.

FREQ: How do you move people through a space the way you want them to go, or draw their attention to certain places?

Hall: I think of it in terms of video game design. You need to make sure that anything that’s in the room is there on purpose. I don’t enjoy red herrings, because my design philosophy is that I’m not going to waste someone’s time. In puzzle design in general, there’s no words, ideally. You need the design to inherently tell people what something is, how to use it, and how to solve it without being instructed. There’s a lot of overlap in the design techniques with any space or entertainment piece that you need to be moved through, where you’re drawing someone through with a story: immersive theater like Sleep No More, theme park designs, and museums as well. There are best practices established in those fields, and escape rooms draw on those. The additional thing is the time constraint, which changes how people behave in that space.

FREQ: How do you decide how difficult to make the puzzles, or the whole experience? I know some escape rooms have very high failure rates.

Hall: That’s a design choice, just like having red herrings. There are escape rooms that are very, very successful, but they only have a 2% escape rate. It’s designed to keep you out, so it’s a real achievement if you can make it out in that amount of time. That’s different from what I want to do. In the rooms I design, I would love it if everybody got out. What we’re aiming for is immersion — the idea that you can forget yourself for an hour and be in that world. I think that’s really valuable. It needs to challenge you, but it’s you and your team versus yourselves, not you versus the room.

FREQ: I’m really curious about the group dynamics of these experiences. Do players tend to break down into specific roles when they get inside the room?

Hall: Yes, you do see people start to form into roles, and it’s interesting to see the dynamics that come out, in personalities and in groups. You get some people who want to touch everything, some people who just step back and just observe everything — and that role is equally important, because you need someone who knows what’s happening on both sides of the room at once. Sometimes people will look around and find something, and then quietly use it without telling anybody. One thing we see all the time is that someone will figure something out and start to speak up, but someone else will say, “Eh, it’s not that.” And it almost always is that, but the person isn’t bold enough to push it. There’s no penalty for trying everything, but they won’t. So you really have to practice as a team to acknowledge when someone makes a suggestion, and try it before you move on. But people often just move on without trying it.

FREQ: Out of curiosity, what sort of gender breakdown do you see with that sort of dynamic, with people talking over other people or dismissing them?

Hall: Generally, yes, it is men. [laughs] They are generally more aggressive in asserting their opinion. We see this dynamic in corporate team-building a lot, if someone on the team is in a position of power, like a boss, or there’s a company culture that really values everyone being the smartest person in the room. As opposed to athletic teams, which are always very supportive of each other and oriented towards teamwork, because there’s no coach in that situation. They’re all players.

FREQ: So how does one become an escape room designer? How did you get into it?

Hall: I’ve always been interested in mystery stories and detective work since I was a kid. I thought I would be a detective when I was that age, or a writer. In a way, what I do now is both. In college, I discovered ARGs [alternate reality games]. The first one was for the movie AI, and after that the major one was I Love Bees, which was connected to the release of Halo 2. People unlocked all these coordinates and dates and times, and it turned out there was a pay phone at each one, and on that date and time it would ring, so people were coordinating all over to get to them. It was so different from how I’d experienced the internet until that time; Facebook was just coming out, and the idea that social networks could be facilitated by the internet was really exciting at that point. I got involved in community moderation [for ARGs] and was really interested in onboarding new players, archiving, making sure everything on the wiki had footnotes. I eventually realized that I could get paid for that, which lead me to the advertising agency I worked for [Wieden + Kennedy].

Then I met all these other people in Portland that I knew from ARGs, and we’d heard about escape rooms, so we took a road trip up to Seattle where one had just opened up. We were all theater people and video game designers and puzzle makers, and on the way back we realized we could actually do what we had just experienced, and we could do it our way. We wanted something that had a lot of story and character interactions and immersion, which wasn’t a thing yet in that generation of puzzle rooms. So we went for it. We had no idea what we were doing, but somehow it happened and it worked really well.

FREQ: You recently gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference about the similarities between designing for escape rooms and virtual reality. What interests you about VR, particularly in relation to escape rooms?

Hall: The types of puzzles that work in an escape room are very limited, because of the physical limitations, and also just for safety reasons. In video games you can do anything. A padlock with a 15-digit passcode? Sure. Something falls from the ceiling and doesn’t injure anyone? Perfect. In virtual reality, the immersion and the fact that you’re no longer constrained by physical limitations means you can do magic. There isn’t even a lot of language yet to describe the feelings you can only feel in VR. The truly interesting stuff lies in room-scale experiences — that’s where the stories that are only possible in VR will happen. But nobody has room for that in their house. It’s asking quite a lot to ask people to devote that much floor space to it. Maybe we’ll start to see arcades again because of that, because you have to have a dedicated space.

FREQ: What do you think about the VR games and experiences that have been released so far?

Hall: You see a lot of VR that’s horror-based, that speaks in brain languages: claustrophobia and vertigo and jump scares, rollercoasters and zombies. So many of the things you see about VR are people being afraid of it, ripping off their helmets, running into furniture. You really are giving yourself over and your brain cannot tell the difference; that’s the point. And it’s cool to be able to evoke that, but it can be a lot more than that. I always hear people ask [about VR], “Is it scary?” And I’m afraid that will exclude people, or that people are going to exclude themselves because they think it’s only scary stuff, or that [developers] will only make scary stuff. But it can be much more complicated than that, and I hope we start seeing that. There’s a lot of storytelling potential in VR because we’re at a point technologically where our imagination and technology are almost neck and neck. We’ve caught up to what we’ve been dreaming about. What I think will be really cool is when people grow up with VR, who have internalized all the language of communication built into it — I want to see what they’re going to make.

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