Last weekend I made a mistake.
“I work in an escape room, now,” I said. “I know so much more about how games work and how they’re designed! I’m going to play an online escape game and see how much better I’ve gotten.”
Oh boy, was I wrong.
I found a free online game by virtual escape master Neutral—“Elements.” It took about three years to program, and the whole game is beautiful. Now in a real life escape game, you’re given 60 minutes to escape the room. It took me a whole day and a half to finish this game—and that was with a walk-through cheat sheet.
I played a few online escape games when they first started getting popular, which I remember being in the late 2000s. Truth be told, I was never good at them. I always found it very frustrating that I could click on something—say, the floor—but if I didn’t click in the right spot, nothing would happen. Half an inch to the right—the whole screen changes because I’ve found a secret compartment.
In real life, this isn’t an issue. Sure, sometimes you have to look at things from a certain angle to find a clue, but it’s a lot easier to move your eyes and look than it is to click every pixel on your screen to make sure you’ve inspected everything.
However, there are also a lot of things that you can do in online escape games that aren’t possible in most real escape rooms. Much as we at Escape the Room Long Island would love to open up a haunted castle escape room, there aren’t a lot of castles for sale in Ronkonkoma. In the game I was playing online, you can use a laser to break down a wall that releases a giant boulder, which then rolls down the stairs and smashes through a wall into the next room. It worked for Harrison Ford, but I think the average inspector would consider that a tad hazardous.
So, some of the issues are from space. Some of them are from time and expense. Having a giant boulder as an intricate part of a game means moving that boulder all the way back up the stairs again, and rebuilding that wall every hour to reset for the next group coming through.
But some things are less obvious. For example, in almost every single escape room I’ve played online, at some point you’re given a screwdriver. Then you’d hunt around the room looking for screws to take out. Sometimes it’s taking a picture off the wall or opening a vent with something inside. Now, that’s a great trick to do on the computer. In a virtual escape room, you can decide what screws are visible, and which ones come out. But in the real world, everything is held together with screws, and your eyes can see all of them. In the real world, there’s nothing to stop players from using the screwdriver on the secret vent, and then using it on the lamp bolted to the wall.
Another thing you’ll see a lot is finding clues inside of other things. Everyone who’s ever played a video game knows to loot every chest, slash at every bush or pot, and cast at every statue or suit of armor—just to be sure you’re not missing out on any treasure. Now, this logic becomes pretty problematic in reality. It also becomes pretty expensive logic. If you have to upturn every vase, double check every piggybank, and break open every flowerpot, how many times are you going to have to replace those objects? Even if you’re not supposed to break it, how many times will it get knocked over and break anyway?
There’s similar logic for wall hangings. A pretty common trick in virtual games is having something behind the big, conspicuous painting on the wall. Maybe it’s a safe, or maybe there’s a key taped to the back of it. On the computer, it only takes a click to move the painting safely on the wall, and then safely put it back. But in real life? The painting could drop. It could be pulled back and rip the hook off the wall. Maybe it broke because even though you bolted it to the wall, someone pulled on it because they were just so sure there was a safe there. There’s always a safe!
Until I started working at an escape game, these weren’t things that had ever occurred to me. But they’re serious realities of running a business. We can’t hide keys inside cushions and have players rip them open—we’d go through a lot of pillows. We can’t put invisible ink on parchment that’s only visible when held up to a flame—that’s definitely a fire hazard. And unfortunately, we can’t have a bookcase that sinks into the floor and leads to miles of catacombs under the building.
…Well…we’ll work on the bookcase. But no promises.