How to Stage a Great Escape
By William Bebout ’06, MA ’14
March 2, 2020
Buried pirate treasure, a lost will, a zombie outbreak — all might be storylines that spark escape-room adventures. After playing more than 70 escape rooms around the country — and designing our own for two years, as owners of an escape-room business — my wife, Emily, and I have learned a few lessons not only for solving great escapes, but for staging them.
Unlock players’ imaginations. We never actually locked players in our rooms. The door they entered always remained open; a second, locked door allowed them the visceral satisfaction of unlocking a door after they unlocked the puzzle. Our focus instead was on creating fun, immersive experiences.
Thicken the plot. Each escape room should have a quest. Visitors to our Hunter’s Cabin, for example, were monster hunters in training, on the search for vampires, werewolves, and other horror-movie tropes.
Conjure the magic. The best escape rooms are ones that integrate sets and puzzles to make you feel immersed in an adventure. For our Magician’s Vanishing Act, we chose a magic shop as the setting. Not only were the props and decor appropriate, but the challenges were too, from a mirror-maze puzzle suspended from the ceiling to a deck of playing cards whose missing four revealed a code.
Keep the play in motion. Puzzles should be confounding, but not so complex they stall the game. Players should spend just enough time on each one to achieve an aha moment. For each hour-long adventure, we would offer about 15 puzzles.
Come to your senses. Sound can enhance atmosphere. Our submarine adventure had ocean sounds, including whale songs, while our Hunter’s Cabin had rustling trees and a wolf howling in the distance. We would also offer scent-based puzzles in which players would need to identify various smells to crack a code.
Tune into all discovery channels. Each room should have puzzles that appeal to a range of cognitive styles. Puzzles can be cerebral, involving codes, ciphers, or riddles, or they may require physical movements to uncover solutions. Players may even need to manipulate black lights or mirrors to reveal clues; it’s all fair game.
William Bebout (English and Communication ’06; MA in English ’14) is a graduate coordinator in the Virginia Tech College of Science and a former owner of Escape Key. This feature is part of the Hokie How-To roundup in Illumination 2019–2020.