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The Four Unforgivable Themes™

Ok – so it’s not actually trademarked, and anyone is welcome to use it if they find it applicable. Today we open up a candid conversation about what I refer to as “The Four Unforgivable Themes.” First, allow me to briefly explain:

As an important preface, this is *not* a conversation about the quality of gameplay or puzzle flow. When thinking about your position on the matter, please do *not* let that impact your comments. A game can *absolutely* be among The Four Unforgivable Themes and still be a fantastic, fun, clever, unique game. This conversation is strictly about story and theme.

Story is a vital part of any attraction. It sets the tone. It creates the mood. It enhances the drama. It makes the experience memorable. Without a good story, you’d be hard-pressed to have a good attraction experience. You’ve no doubt noticed that you’d be equally as hard-pressed to locate an escape room that does *NOT* have at least one of the following as a theme for their rooms:


  • defuse the bomb / stop the missile launch
  • mad scientist’s laboratory / zombie virus
  • rob the bank / steal from the museum
  • prison break


As more time passes, I’m starting to notice that honorable mention goes to “Egyptian tomb,” “Spaceship” and “Pirate” as well, but I don’t think they’re *quite* overdone enough to become a complete cliché. Yet. They are certainly getting closer.

I personally look at this conversation from two different points of view:

As a fan who does travel to seek out new escape rooms, it gets tiresome to keep coming across the same four themes over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. To me, it starts to feel lazy – as if many venues are not willing to put forth the creativity to come up with a unique, compelling story to set their game within. I can tell you with certainty that if I come across a venue that has one of The Four Unforgivables and one of any other theme not on that list, I’m near 100% likely to chose *whatever* the other theme is.

As a designer, it feels like a crutch. Either a quick “in” to the industry that requires little thought or the unoriginal approach of “that’s what I’ve seen so that’s what I’ll do.” Worse is the logic of “well those themes work.” Here’s the thing – virtually *any* theme will work if it’s well-written and solidly thought through. (Ok, let’s put the caveat of “any non-offensive / not insensitive theme will work” just to be safe for the sake of discussion.) I really just don’t agree with it from any point of view. The honest truth is I’ve had several clients pitch to me “What about ____ theme” – and it’s always one of The Four Unforgivables. I just don’t get why a person would be so willing to limit themselves.

I recognize that this notion of Unforgivable Themes is bound to ruffle some feathers for those of you who elect to utilize them. Again understand that this is a discussion purely on theme, and not on the quality of gameplay. (For example, Fox in a Box – one of my favorite companies thus far – limits themselves nearly *entirely* to The Four Unforgivables, but the games are without a doubt some of the best you’ll find in the US.) In your comments, I simply ask that you keep all conversation professional, and understand that this is an open discussion drawing attention to a very real creative limitation that currently is running rampant in our industry. This should not become simply a conversation of “Well, I have one of The Four Unforigable Themes and it’s very popular!” as that does nothing to speak on how common / overused the theme’s concept is.

I look forward to your opinions!

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