Monday, September 4, 2017

stories I've experienced: The Asylum Escape Room

I love puzzles. I love immersion. And I love a team effort. So this labor day weekend, I tried out one of the newest escape rooms by Clockwise Escape Rooms called "The Asylum". The experience takes place in a Nixon era mental ward where you have to solve your escape before the staff comes back from their one hour meeting. The premise was simple but evocative, and it was beautifully executed with smart era consistent set design. We even got to wear patient gowns to complete the immersion.

I look especially crazy on the far left

I went with a good friend and got paired with 2 other groups to make a total of 8 team members. We had a few experienced team members but most people were new to escape rooming. Right when the door shut behind us and the clock started, any feeling of being strangers melted away as the adrenaline kicked in and our shared task became our shared focus.

The puzzles themselves were clever, diverse, and rewarding. Never did I think that a puzzle felt too obscure and never did I feel like the clues were ham-fisted. Every time we solved a clue, it felt like we were in flow. A few of the puzzles and their inventive solutions were so good, you felt like giving a high five to the game master herself.

As much as I'd like to talk about some of the particularly cool solutions, spoilers would have their full effect, and so I'll focus on the high level. Here's my thoughts on what worked, how it could have been better, and how it can inspire VR experiences.

  • The lighting design decisions alone really gave a sense of progression through an amazing story experience. The first part of the experience takes place in a sterile white overly lit ward room and the second half takes place in an underlit dark wood paneled warden's office. And within those two acts, there are event based lighting changes as you progress through the clues. The contrasting acts and the variety in the event based lighting really kept a compelling pace which deepened the suspense and theme.
  • But what I really missed was a soundtrack. Having some brooding background music that would shift in tone and theme as we made progress or would crescendo as we got closer to solving a puzzle would have made for an epic shared story making experience. I wouldn't even need the music to be motivated by a set consistent device. In fact, having music be part of the ambiance would enhance my belief that I've stepped into a story.
  • Sound effects were used quite well across a variety of devices, but what I wanted was a clear sound effect for when a puzzle was solved. Our team was a clever bunch and did a pretty decent job of communicating all of the clues we were finding. But there were times where we were doing such a good job of plowing through the puzzles that we weren't communicating what we'd solved and what clues we'd use. Sure we wasted some time as some folks would pick up and ponder solved clues, but that's not what bugs me. The opportunity that was really missed is giving the group a clear moment to share in a team member's victory.
  • During the experience, I solved a clue here or there, but what I loved was how good I felt when another member of the team solved a puzzle. It especially felt good when everyone was thinking on the same clues and it was through talking it out that somewhat had a spark of insight. Having a shared goal, and then having shared victories on the path towards that goal created an immediate kinship. We were woohooing, fist bumping, and high fiving with folks we had just met 10 minutes ago.
  • I'm a big believer that a shared quest creates strong bonds, and I continue to believe that social adventures is the key to what will make VR exciting. But there's a design constraint we need to consider if we're to make escape room work in VR. Escape rooms are fun because everyone gets to use a full range of tools they're very familiar with in inventive ways - tools like seeking, opening, touching, pushing, talking, and listening. The problem we have with VR is that the tools we use to interact in a virtual environment are under developed. We're much closer to creating interactions that universally improve immersion over game controllers and keyboards, but the fact that we're still figuring out mechanics for simple actions like opening a drawer, flipping a switch, picking up an object, entering in a key combination, and even for interactions as simple as moving around means that the puzzles we'd make in VR need to be designed very differently if we hope to make them fun.
  • After 37 minutes, having used one hint, we solved our way to an escape and earned the #1 spot in the winner's circle! By that time, we were beaming, high fiving, and collecting phone numbers. And then we were then confronted with our last puzzle: "What should our team name be?" The funny thing is that we had become a team before we even had a name. That's how powerful a shared task is, especially under a time constraint.