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Actors in Search of Direction

Immersive experiences with a focus on high levels of interactivity are the future of entertainment. Moving forward, Escape Rooms are looking to the resurgent interest in immersive theater—and the interactive theming some theme parks have had for decades in story-based attractions—as a way to further enhance their experiences. One of the first ideas is to add in an actor or two into the room to provide story beats and an extra element of interaction. When executed properly, magic moments can happen that become the key memories players take away from the game. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true. A bad actor, or a poorly designed interaction, will become the sore thumb and can ruin an otherwise incredible game.

The problems with actors in rooms fall into two main categories:

1. Actor as game master in costume

This is the most offensive version of an actor in an escape room. A usually costumed member of the operations staff gives a spiel about the story of the room before walking with the group into the space. The “actor” will then walk to a corner of the room and watch as players proceed to explore the room. Occasionally they’ll mill about the room checking on player’s progress,  but in the way a teacher peers over a student’s shoulder during a test. There’s not an intention by the actor to work with the guest like their character would dictate. Instead, they act as rule enforcer saying not to touch certain items or ensuring tasks are completed in a prescribed way. Sometimes their purpose is little more than living security camera and speaker to give an occasional clue. More times than not when a game advertises it has an actor this is the type of experience currently offered.

Frustration also sets in when trying to interact with the actors as if they were characters. Often questions are met with blank stares, or simple “I don’t know” answers. In one detective themed room we played guests are joined by The Detective’s secretary who is there to help solve the mystery before time is up and men come to kill the group. One would expect her to at least seem concerned and interested in helping under the dire circumstances. Instead, she mostly stands in the corner, filing her nails, looking over the group. Ask her where the detective would have placed something, or how his mind might have worked, or any information about anything at all, and there’s not a response. A shrug. A dismissive phrase. Not a real interaction.

2. Actor as drama school reject

In rare cases, the interaction design is actually good for the performers, but the venue either hasn’t gone through a rigorous enough process for auditioning actors or just isn’t able to direct a good performance out of them. This leads to an uncomfortable experience with players forced to watch a one-man show, in close proximity, to a person who shouldn’t be performing in front of an audience of any size.

A conversation I often have when speaking about immersive theater experiences is that because of the intimate nature of these setups, a performer directly addressing a group sometimes only inches away, there’s nowhere for an audience to hide when things get bad. In traditional theater you can slump down in your seat, look away, ignore what’s going on until the bad performer leaves. In immersive, and by extension escape rooms, guests can’t do that. They’re stuck cringing through a 60-minute performance.

This forced interaction with an unpleasant person becomes the key element players will fixate on in the game even if everything else is amazing. We experienced this problem at what ultimately became one of our favorite venues with some of the best games in the nation. Unfortunately, the first room we played with them had a terrible actor who came straight off working the check-in counter. The game itself was beautiful looking with enjoyable gameplay and some cool effects, but at every moment the actor took the time to ensure we knew the game was really about him.

The right way to incorporate actors

When an actor is correctly used in an escape room players become even more immersed in the story world. Actors add another level of storytelling and an entirely different set of gameplay possibilities.

1. A logical role

If characters travel with a group they should have a reason for going along on the adventure or be someone that is encountered along the way and hold information to be gained. The shrugging wallflower is not a character for an escape room. If there’s a mystery to be solved or a mission to be accomplished, one expects everyone to be a part of the process. When a character introduces the scenario for a room, conveys a sense of urgency, and then proceeds to just silently watch as everyone works, it hurts the idea that the character cares about the mission. This isn’t to say the actor should be solving puzzles, rather they should have the appearance of being engaged in the experience. It’s called acting for a reason.

In 5 Wits Espionage, players are joined by an intelligence officer who spends the game communicating with an off-site tech expert and working on other non-existent tasks. Working on a puzzle in part of the room? He’s off using a device to “unlock” something else, or going over some piece of intelligence. Even though players might realize these tasks aren’t real, it still gives the feeling that he’s a part of the team and holds some sort of special knowledge you’re benefiting from.

2. A piece of the puzzle

If the actor is just meant to be a casual observer, they’re a waste of space. This doesn’t mean they need to be involved in every puzzle, or even have a hand in most things. At minimum, their presence needs to add something to the experience.

A good example of this is at The Basement in Los Angeles, California. In their first game, also called The Basement, guests are caged by a crazed serial killer and must play out his games in order to escape. About a quarter of the way through the game, guests unlock one specific room and find another captured victim chained up and raving mad. Throughout the rest of the experience, this mentally traumatized character follows guests around, rants about the things he’s been brainwashed about, occasionally drops an incredibly obtuse hint, but ultimately increases the tension level by a massive factor just by existing and acting as one would expect that character to behave.

In the follow-up to The Basement, The Study, they took actor integration to the next level and added in some significant character interactions to complete specific puzzles. These moments are the standouts in my memory whenever I think back to the game and they all existed to enhance the room’s story.

3. Talent

An obvious statement, but one that needs to be mentioned as a counterpoint. Hired actors need to have at least some talent and go through a training process. At the venue I mentioned that had such a terrible actor, we played a second game immediately afterward with a different actor. In a complete 180 from the other experience, he was fantastic. Fully inhabiting an admittedly cheesy character and taking the game to another level of interactivity. Improv skill is the most vital of traits for these experiences. Players will—and should—ask questions, challenge knowledge, and generally play with actors. The actor must be able to engage with guests as that character would and not just revert to whatever minimal scripting might exist.

Improv skill is the most vital trait for these experiences. Players will—and should—ask questions, challenge knowledge, and generally play with actors. The actor must be able to engage with guests as that character would and not just revert to whatever minimal scripting might exist.

Immersion is the Key

All these points can be distilled into one thought. Guests should feel they are fully in another world without anything to break that illusion.

An actor can pull guests even deeper into the story world and provides many opportunities for interactions beyond what a lock and key could ever do. But with an added element comes new challenges, and not every game utilizes actors in the best way. Games with immersive sets, thematic lighting, and crafted audio can break down simply with the addition of an actor without direction. Whether it’s no clearly defined purpose in the game or just a lack of a director to shape a performance, this weakest link takes center stage.

The right character and the right performer will bring up the quality of any game. Players always remember the physical interactions and real human touch is a powerful element.

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