“Once upon a time” our story began.
But in our world of interactive attractions, those four words carry much more weight than their collective thirteen letters may at first glance imply. This is the story about… well, story. More importantly, this is the story about how the concept of a storyworld can instantly transport an average game into a extraordinary one of a kind experience.
We talk about story often here. It’s no secret that we insist story matters to a game-based experience – but just what is story, and how does it connect to an escape attraction?
Well, for starters – story can be anything. Obviously, the strive should be to stay as original as possible, though even a story set within the realm of one of our Four Unforgivable Themes™ can still become a compelling experience. The only limit to the possibility of a storyworld is the limit of one’s own imagination. As such, one should always strive to be unique; to stand out from a crowd. To be that diamond in the rough of endless escape the prisons and defuse the bomb scenarios. Creativity is key.
But creativity itself is just the first puzzle. Crafting a solid, compelling storyworld for an attraction carries certain criteria which transform it from just a few words called a story and into a fantastical world unlike any other. The true key to story is the ability for those immersed within it to suspend their disbelief, and truly accept the impossible to actually be possible.
It’s an escape from reality. And I’ve said it before – but *that* should be the true definition of the word when describing an Escape Room.
So what makes a good story?
Honestly – it’s as easy as one, two, three. Three simple beats that, when hit in succession will transform an escape room – or any immersive-based attraction – from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Why does this place exist?
The room you find yourself in at the start of your adventure, as well as any subsequent rooms you may journey into along the way must be there for a reason. More specifically, they have existed far longer than the time you’ve spent exploring them. So what is that reason? What is that space? Why does that space exist?
Think of it as you would a character backstory that an actor would have in a movie, except in this case, the room itself IS the character. In a film, it would be impossible to have any sort of an emotional connection to the main character if you knew nothing about them as an individual. Why should you care about them? Why should you root for them? Why should you laugh with them, or cry with them?
Without a solid backstory, you never would – and that philosophy holds just as true when penning the narrative for an attraction. You have to make us care. Make us believe.
Why are we in this place?
We as players hold a uniquely active role on an escape room’s story, making us in fact also characters crucial to the plot. Just as the place itself needs an clear and recognizable identity, so do we.
Here’s the one thing we’re not in this case – players in an escape room. We can be anything else in the wildest reaches of imagination – but this place is real, and we are a real part of it.
So why are we here? Are we the heroes of legendary tale, set out to achieve greatness? Perhaps it’s up to us to rescue *our* hero from certain doom. Maybe we’re paranormal investigators, surveying a haunted house for signs of life after death, or a band of ruthless pirates searching the seven seas for a fortune in gold. There’s literally no end to the possibilities – but one fact is key – to be immersed into a story world, we must hold a clearly defined, active role within it.
Once our backstory is established, it’s easy to accept this world we’ve entered for just an hour really could be real.
Why is there urgency?
A necessary evil of any escape room will always be its time limit. Obviously a game needs to start when it starts, and end when it ends – else create a snowball effect of delays that will negatively impact the enter remainder of an operating day. But here’s the thing – that necessity can easily be spun to your advantage to only further enforce this immersive story world we’ve created.
Unquestionably one of the most exciting moments of any game is the rush of adrenaline that results from seeing the last few seconds on the clock tick away. So take that adrenaline and give it a story purpose. The place is real. We are a real part of it. So why do we have real urgency?
Saying “you have just 60 minutes” is a total cop-out. It’s the lazy way to justification. If my role is an investigator tasked with solving a legendary murder mystery – what difference would it make if I solved that cold case in 60 minutes or 65 minutes? I’d still be a hero – so that model is broken.
A solid story is aware of its own limitations, and answers the “but, why?” questions before we, the audience, can even consider to ask them. Perhaps I’m on a sinking submarine, with only a predetermined amount of oxygen remaining. Perhaps an asteroid is hurtling toward earth, and we need to destroy it before it guarantees the human race goes the way of the dinosaurs. Again, we find ourselves in a moment where truly the possibilities are endless, limited solely by one’s own imagination.
Given the proper thought to design, it’s easy to create a solid immersive story.
And that, in itself, is sometimes the most frustrating truth. So often we find a game which – at its core as a game is a fun experience – yet puts so little effort into creating its own storyworld that it’s highest achievements can only be described as “good-not-great.” There’s no shame in being a 3 Key game. After all, a 3 Key game IS a GOOD game.
The difference between a 3 Key game and a 4 Key game and a 5 Key game can often be many varying factors all converging together – but in those instances – and we have seen them – where the only thing missing is a solid story to immerse us into this world in a way that allows us to suspend disbelief and truly LIVE in that moment — well, there just is no justification to not have that story!
It’s no secret that Escape Authority puts a lot of stock into story and scenic – sometimes nearly as much as we put into the puzzles themselves – but here’s the thing – having Hollywood-quality scenic unquestionably means also needing to have a Hollywood-quality budget – but – having a Hollywood-quality story costs no extra than having none at all.
The beautiful thing about imagination is that imagination is free.
And I know what some may be thinking – “not everyone has a creative mindset.” Here’s the thing – if your intention is to open an attraction, which at its core will always be story-based, you either need to have a creative mindset, or hire an outside talent to your team that does. No one would ever say “I don’t know how to cook, so I’m going to open my own restaurant.”
Story matters, and imagination is key. Use it to unlock the door to a truly 5 Key attraction which will elevate our industry to higher and higher levels.
And then, together, we all live happily ever after.