Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends – this week we’re looking at the importance of how you start your story. We’re super fans of well-formed stories here at SideQuests!
Two Mondays ago, we started talking about how story structure can contribute to making an escape room feel right. But that post focused on the end of the story. What about the beginning? Well, with no further ado, please allow me to present you with…
Story Structure: Origins
As mentioned in the last story structure post, one of the core tenets of SideQuests rooms is that they should tell a story, with you and your friends as the heroes. One common way to analyze stories is with the 5-part story structure, or 5-part story arc, which says that most stories will have 5 key parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. This week, we’ll have a look at how we at SideQuests think exposition and rising action should be part of an escape room.
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The exposition of a story introduces important background information that a reader or viewer will need to know. In the case of escape rooms, the exposition will tell you what the room is all about: the theme or setting, who you are, why you’re in this room, and possibly what your major goals are. Basically, everything that makes the room more than just a collection of disjointed puzzles sitting in a room. The exposition is usually delivered to escape room participants just before they begin, in the form of a briefing by the escape room host, or sometimes in the form of a video. This room’s website description can also supplement the exposition, but we can’t count on all players having seen the website — for example, if a friend made the booking and invited you along, you might not have read the description on the web. This means that any important expository information that’s on the website must be repeated during the pre-play briefing / video. Most escape rooms do this pretty well.
Last post, we imagined a hypothetical escape room scenario where you were part of a team of specialists sent to disable the power reactor of an abandoned space station before it exploded, blew up the moon, and caused all sorts of bad things to happen. There! Right there, that’s the information that you, as a player, would need to get from the exposition. There are many different ways we could give you this information. The easiest way would be for the room host to tell you this information before sending you in. That’s perfectly serviceable, and gets the job done.
However, I think we can do better. There’s a literary technique that says “show, don’t tell” — this basically means that it’s better to let you experience part of the story than to simply tell you about it. In this case, we might embed the exposition into the room experience. If the floor plan allows, we might build a little foyer that you, the player, would enter initially. This foyer would be styled as the shuttle taking you up to the abandoned space station. During the “ride up”, we could play a video call from the head of the space administration, explaining the situation (power reactor’s about to explode), what you’re doing there (you were hired as specialists), and the stakes (this will blow up the moon and cause all sorts of bad things). Once the video completes, the foyer’s inner door would open, revealing the space station interior, and your game would begin.
In a story, the rising action is all of the events that build tension, interest, and drama in the story and advances the story toward its climax. In a sense, the meat of the story. In an escape room, this would be the series of puzzles that brings you closer to the room’s ultimate goal, whether it be escaping, recovering some treasure, or, in the case of our example, disabling a space station’s reactor.
The design challenge here is in ensuring that there’s a sense of progression, discovery, or heightened tension with each solved puzzle. This might mean revealing something new, whether it’s a clue to another puzzle, a hidden room or panel, or more of the story. This might mean some visible way of showing that you’re getting closer to your goal. Or better yet, some combination of the above.
In our space station example, let’s say we decided to forego hidden rooms (maybe we ran out of floor space after building the shuttle in the foyer). Revealing hidden rooms are one classic way to have progression and discovery, and since we don’t have those, we need to think of something else. One way might be to have the reactor core visible from the very start, but have access to it blocked by a series of bars. Each puzzle you solve might retract one bar, slowly getting you closer and closer to accessing the core.
Solving puzzles might also reveal additional story information. For instance, as you progress along the puzzles, you might discover clues that indicate that the reactor is in danger not because of age or any natural causes, but because of deliberate sabotage. This may not have any direct impact on the puzzle and gameplay, but for players who enjoy piecing together clues and story fragments, this could almost be a bonus puzzle! And who’s to say this won’t have some impact on puzzles? By introducing a saboteur into the story, we open up additional design possibilities: for example, there could be a puzzle where you have to disable a trap left behind by the saboteur.
I also mentioned last post that you were supposedly trapped on the station because a rogue meteorite destroyed your shuttle not long after you arrived. Sure, the room host could simply tell you during your briefing that your ship was destroyed and so you’re trapped. That certainly gets the point across, and explains in a very functional way why you’re trapped. But imagine this instead: you ride up in your shuttle and get your video call briefing along the way. After you dock and set foot on the station, things are pretty dire, but at least you know your ride home is right there on the other side of the airlock, and you can always use the shuttle to escape if things get too hairy (I mean, so long as you’re okay with abandoning your job and being responsible for the destruction of the moon). And so you set to work. As you solve the first of many puzzles, you hear a loud BOOM, the airlock seals, and a nearby screen shows the remains of your shuttle, along with the rock that hit it. Now you know you’re trapped, because you saw it yourself, rather than because someone told you. Show, don’t tell.
I touched more on climax in the last post, but the point to keep in mind here is that a large part of the room should be building toward the climax, where you finally achieve the room’s goal (and hopefully get to do or experience something really cool). In the space station example, it just wouldn’t do for the second puzzle to be you disabling the reactor core, and the rest of the puzzles are random puttering around the space station dealing with air leaks and equipment failures, and looking for the escape pod. I mean, finding the escape pod is definitely a good goal, but if that’s what most of the room is about, then it really needed to be themed as “escape a doomed space station”, rather than “disable a space station reactor before it blows up the moon”.
The climax really needs to be the high point, and be about the main goal of the room.
The End of the Beginning
And this brings us to the end of this two-post series about how we want to apply storytelling principles to our escape rooms! And you know what I realized after writing all of this? I really, really, really want to play this space station room now.
What do you think? If you look back on your favourite rooms, do they follow these principles? Let us know in comments!
And speaking of your favourite rooms, be sure to tell us about what you liked on our survey. There’s also a chance to win burgers if you respond!