The majority of us players isn’t like Sheldon and & co (video) from the big bang theory, who easily rush through an escape or exit room and leave it disappointed by the lack of challenge.
Usually escape rooms are tough and especially if players failed, they tend to leave the room with the impression that they should have performed better and a slight embarrassment over their mistakes. It is very rare that players manage to succeed without getting stuck at least once. Sometimes it is poor game design or illogical puzzles but more often it is just the case that in the rush of the game it is easy to miss clues or get stuck on false assumptions (‘this object is not important for the puzzle’).
Of course escape rooms have to be difficult but there are first of all intended to be fun. It is usually not the intention of the designer that people get frustrated or bored as they don’t know how to continue. Therefore it is common practice to provide people with some additional help when necessary.
It is important that we are aware of the pros and cons of various different methods to provide hints and what our intentions are in choosing one over the other. Here a list of the methods known to me (please let me know if I missed some) and some considerations.
Players can ask for unlimited hints: To hand the player a walkie-talkie, having a phone in the room or a bell to ring, are just some examples of how to allow players to actively ask for help.
- Players can wait for the right moments when they are in need of a hint and spend time on a puzzle without for as long as they want to.
- Players can feel embarrassed or stupid that they have to ask for help. While it should be avoided to evoke such negative feelings in the player it can still lead to a situation in which players are stuck way too long on a certain puzzle without asking for help. Additionally it can happen that players actually did solve a puzzle but a malfunction in the room can hinder them from proceeding (a pad lock that doesn’t open, a magnet lock that didn’t work). It is very detrimental for the experiment when players realize that they got frustrated and were stuck, even though it was not her fault.
- While there might be escape room scenarios in which outside help fits the theme (e.g. as commando police that can communicate with HQ) communication with the operator usually feels alien to the gameplay. In an ideal escape room experience players are able to immerse in the experience and forget the world outside of the room. To ask for help or to talk to someone from outside the room can break this experience and take away some of the tension and atmosphere.
- In this scenario it is tempting for an operator to pay less attention as the operator does not have to analyze which is the right time to help. It is very unprofessional if the operator is not aware of the situation in the room and provides false help or first needs to be instructed by the players about the progress.
- It is difficult for competitive players to compare their results. Some might even consider it unfair, if that they failed because they tried to solve puzzles themselves, while others succeeded through plenty of help. Experienced players prefer to take some more time to solve puzzles themselves, however usually also they don’t know how many puzzles are still ahead, thus how much time they will still need later.
Player can ask for limited hints or hints come with a cost: Similar to the previous method, but with the difference that hints either come with a cost (usually time, when hints cost money it seems a bit like a hidden cost rip off to me) or players only have a clearly limited amount of hints that they can ask for.
- The hints are clearly part of the game and therefore players don’t have to feel stupid when they request them.
- It helps more competitive players to compare their results.
- You can offer various difficulty levels, like an easy version that allows 8 hints, a medium version with 5 hints and a hard version with only 2 hints. This helps to balance the game for beginners and experts.
- The team has to discuss when to ask for help. While with free hints some people might just want to ask for help while others don’t want to. There isn’t much to discuss but the personal preference of how to have more fun in the game. In a scenario where hints are limited or come with a cost, the team has to strategically decide together if it is worth to ask for help. This keeps the game tense and provides an opportunity for interesting team dynamics as the discussion is more goal focused (how can we win the game?) than focused on the personal preference (what is most fun for the me?)
- When players lose time when they ask for help, they can feel tricked as their experience will last less long (probably each session ends earlier than the max playing time). I don’t even want to discuss the money version – this isn’t an option for me, as it provides a financial incentive for poor game design (too difficult, illogical puzzles).
- it can happen that players actually did solve a puzzle but a malfunction in the room can hinder them from proceeding (a pad lock that doesn’t open, a magnet lock that didn’t work). In this case the operator would have to tell them or the players might not even realize that they already have or cannot solve a puzzle.
- It is tempting for the operator not to pay close attention (same as in the unlimited hints version)
- Players can get completely stuck. If players run out of hints they can end up being completely stuck. Even if it might be there fault for using too many hints or choosing a too high difficulty level, this can be extremely frustrating and they won’t enjoy the experience that much.
Operator decides when to give hints: In this scenario the operator has to pay close attention and decide herself when the group is stuck for too long and provide a hint.
- An attentive operator can make sure that the players stay in a state of flow without frustration or boredom.
- The operator can easily help in case of malfunction in the room and if he is creative he can even hide the fact that it was a malfunction.
- as operator knows the game very well she can try to give hints in a way that the game isn’t going to be too easy or too hard (ideally each group needs almost all the time they have).
- Players can be irritated if they receive a hint while they think they could have also solved it themselves. This is especially the case if the operator is impatient and gives hints too quickly. It is part of the game to think about puzzles and wonder what to do. Nobody wants to feel like receiving instructions.
- If players don’t know that hints are common, they might feel stupid that someone has to help them.
How to give hints? Immersive experience and the psychology of puzzle solving
How to give hints is an equally important consideration. We often see a telephone in the room, a monitor or the operator’s voice over the mic. Then there are is the version (in Europe not that common) in which the game master is present in the room itself. While these are just some examples, the possibilities are countless and only limited by the designers creativity. For the immersive experience it is the most important aspect that the system to provide hints is thematically integrated in the room. If you have a historical chamber don’t use a modern screen, if you use the operator’s voice you might want to distort it to make it sound differently etc. There is of course also the option to provide hints through different methods and therefore provide a little surprise to the players each time they receive help. As optimal solution I see a system that is entirely integrated and organically feels like part of the game. Often the players only need a little bit of guidance or just a slight hint towards the right direction. A classic experiment demonstrated that subtle clues can trigger an insight moments. In this study participant had to die two cords together that hung from the ceiling but were too far apart to be reached together.
The puzzle was rarely solved, but when the researcher passed one of the strings and accidently made it swing a bit the required insight moment occured and many participants could afterwards to solve it. Even though this was the crucial hint that enbaled most participants to solve the puzzle they were unable to point out what led them to the solution. There have been many variations of this, a recent study found that seemingly unrelated arm movements that participants performed during a break increased their chance of solving the puzzle (link to research paper). These studies have in common, that very subtle and sometimes even unconscious clues can turn out to be surprisingly effective. A subtle hint system that uses sound or a light to emphasize a certain objects or part of the room can lead a player to success without them being aware of the outside help, hence the experience which eventually is the most rewarding.
If the hints have to be more explicit they should still be mysterious and the least obvious as possible. Ideally they seem like a riddle itself but provide just enough information that the players can still be proud of solving the puzzle. If people have to look under a carpet you have can tell them for instance ‘even if you are standing on the solution, there is no time to rest’. Also here, instead of taking away a challenge from the player you only decrease the difficulty or providing just a little bit of help so that the player feel the autonomy and satisfaction to solve the puzzle herself.
Which hint system and how to provide hints is eventually up to each individual designer and I am sure that different systems work better for different games. The main challenge in giving hints is to provide players with a rewarding experience. I think we can all agree that it should be avoided to make them feel stupid and that we should not break the immersive experience of the game.
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