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Endings Matter

Today’s development post takes a break from the tech-heavy stuff like last Monday’s post.  Instead, we join you, the hero, with your story already in progress…

The space station is falling apart around you.  No wonder all its inhabitants fled back to the safety of Earth long ago.  And you would love to flee, too, but for two things.  Firstly, your team of specialists was hired specifically to come up here and disable the station’s power reactor before it explodes and shatters the moon into seven pieces, setting off a chain of events that will eventually kill every human on Earth.  Secondly, and more practically, right after you docked, a meteorite destroyed the ship you flew up on.

But no matter.  You came up here to do a job, and for the sake of everyone on Earth, you’re going to make sure it gets done.  You can worry about finding a way off the station later.

A grueling 40 minutes later, it’s done.  Your team has managed to hack, disable, or bypass all the security measures protecting the reactor.  You’ve pulled the core out of the reactor, ensuring that it can never go critical.  You’ve saved the day, and with only 5 minutes to spare!  Now you can finally worry about the problem of getting off the station.  You take a deep breath, look around you…

…and then a guy in a T-shirt walks in through the airlock and says, “You beat the room!  Now, the lobby is this way.  I have to clean up and reset the room.”

Stories, Starring YOU

Wait, what just happened?  How did T-shirt dude get onto the station, and why isn’t he wearing a space suit?  Did you and your team survive, or were you stranded on the space station forever?  What kind of an ending is that?

Books don’t end with the author writing themselves into the exciting final scene, thanking you for reading.  (Not the good ones, at least.)  Movies don’t end with the director walking onto the screen, pushing the actors aside, and saying, “I hope you enjoyed the movie!  Now please get out, so the theatre staff can clean up.”  (Though doing that might have actually improved the Star Wars prequels.)  Why, then, is it okay for an escape room experience to end like that?

Well, at SideQuests, we believe that it’s not okay!  One of the core design goals at SideQuests is that our rooms should tell a story, with you and your friends playing as the story’s heroes.  To achieve that, we’re designing our rooms to follow a classic story arc.


The Story Arc

As we touched on briefly in the interview post last week, one version of a story arc calls for 5 parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.  Today’s post will focus on how we apply climax, falling action, and denouement to escape rooms.  (To the fans of exposition and rising action out there, not to worry!  They’re subjects of future posts.)


In the traditional sense, the climax of a story represents the turning point, where the hero’s fate is changed.  In the modern sense, the climax is often also also the high point of the tension or action.  Applied to an escape room, the climax would be the solution of the puzzle that defines the whole room, or the revelation of a secret that changes how you view the entire room — in either case, it should be the high point of the room, or the point with the most WOW! factor.  If the room’s about finding pirate treasure, the climax would be uncovering and opening the chest.  Following the space station example above, the climax would be when you, the hero, reach into the reactor, remove the power core, and save the day.

Falling Action

But a good story doesn’t just end there!  The falling action unravels or resolves remaining conflicts in a story, and drives characters and events to their final outcome.  In an escape room, the falling action would tie up remaining loose ends or resolve any remaining questions.  After recovering the pirate treasure, you would still need to escape with your bag full of gold (or hard drive full of downloaded movies, if it’s about the other kind of pirate).  In the space station example, after disabling the reactor core, you would still need to find a way off the station.

And that’s where, in the space station example, the ending of the room falls a little flat.  The creators of that room set up the scenario that your ship was destroyed and you were trapped on the station.  This raises the stakes and increases the tension, but ultimately falls flat because this story element is never resolved.  In addition to cutting the story off right after the climax, the sample room also violates an important rule of storytelling, which basically says that any story element that is introduced must be used or resolved before the story ends.

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If you write that there’s a rifle hanging on the wall in the first act, you had better fire it by the second or third act. And also ask yourself why you hung a rifle in a space station.

An improvement on the space station room to allow for falling action would be to allow you, as a player and hero of the story, to resolve the “I’m trapped on a failing space station” problem you were presented with.  One way to do this might be to add an additional puzzle at the end after disabling the reactor core, where you have to find a launch code and punch it into an escape pod’s control panel.  Problem resolved!


In the 5-part story structure, the denouement is the closing of the story where all the conflicts are resolved, and characters get to return to some semblance of “normal”.  In an escape room, the denouement would bring closure to the story of you as the hero of the room.  If you escaped with the pirate treasure, maybe you get to pose in front of a camera with your pile of gold (or hard drives).  In the case of the space station, if you managed to activate the escape pod, maybe a screen would play a video of the pod leaving the station, re-entering the atmosphere, and landing safely on Earth.

At SideQuests, we believe that the denouement shouldn’t be just for winning the room, either.  Imagine yourself back in the space station example.  Except this time, you and your team didn’t quite manage to reach the reactor core in time.  As the final seconds tick down, the reactor glows brighter and brighter.  Even though you know it won’t do you any good, you instinctively raise your hands and look away, to shield your eyes from the impending explosion…

…and then T-shirt dude walks in the airlock, and says, “Sorry, looks like you ran out of time!  Hope you had fun anyway.  Now shoo, I need to reset the room.”

No.  That doesn’t quite work, and doesn’t bring closure to the story.  Instead, we believe that something cool should happen to end the story no matter what.  One way we might do this in the space station example is that, as time runs out, we could play an explosion sound effect and plunge the room into darkness, except for a single screen that shows a video of the space station and the moon exploding.

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Space Explosion
Hey, I said cool ending, not happy ending.

Endings Matter

That’s the SideQuests philosophy on escape rooms: that endings matter.  After all, the ending of the room is the last part of the player experience, and so it has a really good chance of sticking in a player’s memory, either as good or bad.  And so we want to make sure our endings are memorable!  In the end, we want to make sure that players leave our rooms having had a good time and a memorable experience, no matter whether they solved all the puzzles or not.

What do you think?  Does the 5-part story structure even make sense when applied to escape rooms?  Should story be a central part of an escape room?  Let us know in the comments, on Facebook, or on Twitter![/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]


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