x
Escape room

Escape Room Puzzle Design - No Ambiguities

Part of a series in which we take a deeper dive into the design and implementation of puzzles for the escape room game market...
2021.03.29.

Part of a series in which we take a deeper dive into the design and implementation of puzzles for the escape room game market. Today, we're going to take a look at the importance of clues and how it's essential to "clue" everything. Whatever you do, the last thing you want is for players to have to make guesses. 

Creating puzzles isn't easy, but there are some basic rules that will supersede all other rules. And one of those is with regard to leaving no space for ambiguity. many times a room or puzzle designer will leave out some details because there's a general assumption that everyone already knows that, that something is glaringly obvious or the designer wants to up the ante and make life more difficult for the players. Don't do this. It's wrong-headed, yet a common misconception that the whole point of a puzzle is that someone needs to deduce the missing information for themselves. This is because there are unknowns within the puzzle. This is wrong in that no one can solve a puzzle if the information is missing. That's why, as a designer, you should aim to eradicate all unknowns by leaving proper clues in their place.

But, you might all cry, "What's the point of the puzzle, because if you fill in all the missing information, then you might as well tell them how to solve it?"  But a detective doesn't solve a case by making assumptions, he does it by looking at the evidence in front of him. So when a designer leaves any information out of his puzzles, he actually creating ambiguities. This is always preceded by the cry of, "how on earth was I supposed to know that!." 

As an example let's take a look at the commonly used date format. In many games, there's a point whereby the date needs to be inserted into a numerical lock on a safe. Let's say that the date given was 26th January 2018. So the question arises, how are we supposed to format this date? Is it MM/DD/YY or DD/MM/YY. if you're in Canada, then the year comes first, making it YY/MM/DD. So which is it? So we already have our first unknown quantity, the sequence of day, month, and year.

But there's commonly a second unknown, which is how many digits are needed for the lock? Do they include zeros? Also, do we write the whole year or just the last two numbers? Can you see where this is going? Many safes will lock you out completely after five mistaken combinations. many times, the players will need at least two goes to enter the correct numbers, as there's often a basic mistake on the first run. This is what we mean when we speak about missing information. A game designer might assume that by giving the date, he's done his job. But the problem is that he's left too much ambiguity, which makes the clue almost pointless. This example is with a date, but there's plenty of room for ambiguity in all clues and puzzles, whether it's following directions, puzzle paths, or even in deciding which clues go together with what puzzles. 

Then we have the added problem, that one ambiguity will lead to a "stacking" of them, making the gameplay all but impossible. If you're designing a puzzle that's ambiguous, with a couple of different choices, then we're sure that you're thinking, "Well, if they don't get the first one and it doesn't work, then they'll try the second." This is nothing more than a champion waste of the customer's time, and all because the designer was too lazy to make things clear. The game should be designed in such a way, that there are no time wasters present at all. No players are going to leave good feedback if they felt tricked into wasting time, whether it was intentional on the owner's part or not. 

So right now, you're probably thinking, "So we should just give the players all the answers and make it easy on them?" Nothing could be further from the truth, and a question like that shows a basic misunderstanding of how puzzles should be correctly designed. A clue shouldn't be a simple-to-follow direction. That would be overly simplistic. A clue can be part of the decoration, or it can be perceived in the patterns of the books placed on the bookshelf. Making clues that function well is an art-form as you're trying to guide the players through the unknown.

When designing a clue, constantly stop and ask yourself, "Why?" In other words, "Why would a player think this is a clue" or "Why would they solve it in the way I want them to?" At some point, you're going to be beta-testing the room with your friends or relatives. Listen carefully to the questions they will ask. Don't assume that because the answer is clear to you, that it's also obvious to other players. Here are some typical questions, along with common issues of ambiguity.

"Where/What's the puzzle?" If it's not intrinsically clear, then you need better "sign-posting." Otherwise, players will wander off having missed the important clues.
"Where do I put the answer?" When the player has a 4 digit answer but a 5 digit combination. Not good.
"Does it work this way or that way?" if there needs to be clarification between 2 ambiguous answers, then the design is wrong.
"Is this a clue or a puzzle?" Just because the designer knows what it is, don't assume others will.
"Do I have everything for this puzzle to work?" A puzzle might seem solvable, but it's actually missing a vital ingredient.
"The save-till-later clues." How does the player know it's a clue for later on. If this knowledge isn't communicated clearly, the player will spend time looking for answers in the wrong place.
"Red Herrings." Never leave any Red Herrings about your escape room. They are a waste of time and will enrage the players as they suck up valuable time without purpose. The message behind a Red Herring is that the customer cannot have trust in our clues. And that's not a path for a business that wants to grow!
 

How to Build a Successful Work Team
2021.09.23.
How to Build a Successful Work Team
Building a successful work team is not rocket science. But you will need to have the right approach, as well as access to the right tools. Finally, you'll need a willingness to employ an open mind and take on board all possible options.
How To Choose A Virtual Escape Room For Team Building
2021.09.23.
How To Choose A Virtual Escape Room For Team Building
So, you've been tasked with hosting a virtual escape room for the purposes of team building. But how do you know what the best type of escape room is for your particular group? There are a huge number of questions you’ll need to ask in order to match your goals with the objectives of the game.
Digital Escape Room Design And Planning
2021.08.16.
Digital Escape Room Design And Planning
In spite of the health crisis due to Covid-19, life must go on. And that includes the working life. For many people, social distancing will mean having to spend long hours at home. Yet all the regular work activities, be they meetings, training, recruitment and communication, will still be going on as they were before lock-down. And then there's the social context in that employees can't meet and
How Companies Are Doing Virtual Team Building
2021.08.16.
How Companies Are Doing Virtual Team Building
A few years ago, if you’d asked virtually anyone working in an office environment if they’d like to work from home, then the answer would have been a resounding “yes.” but fast forward to today, after many have been home bound for almost a year and you’d get a very different answer. The problem is that it’s easy to think of “work” in some generic sense, and miss out on all the important bits which
MORE ARTICLES