9 Rules for Room Escape Game Developers

Room escape games are a subgenre of the point-and-click adventure games of old.  They’re typically done in Flash and released for free on the interwebs.  The basic plot of a room escape game is that you are locked in a room for a reason that may not be clear and you must escape.  There are puzzles, keys, codes, and such that you must solve in order to accomplish this.  It’s kind of like a miniature game of Myst that takes place in a single room.

A typical view in a room escape game (from the game "Vision")

A typical scene in a room escape game (image from the game "Vision")

Anyway, so I’ve been playing a few room escape games recently.  I’ve played a few before, but I didn’t realize just how many of these games there are.  As I played through a couple good ones and a couple bad ones, some basic rules occurred to me that I think anyone who makes one of these games should follow.

1. Avoid “hunt-the-pixel – Games are supposed to be fun.  I do not want to infuriated by your game to the point of committing a minor homicide.  If I have to use the built-in Flash “Zoom In” option in order to click on your marble, IT IS TOO SMALL!  This seems extremely obvious to me, but somehow developers still fail to follow it.

2. Make the item interactions logical – If I have a battery in my inventory, it makes sense for me to insert it into radio in order to make the radio function.  If I have a fire poker in my inventory, it DOES NOT make sense for to use it to turn on the television.  No one wants to feel like they have to try every single item on every other object to see if something magically unexpected happens.

3. Don’t make your clues impossible – I don’t mind having to bust out a piece of paper.  In fact, I like it when I have to write down a few things; it makes me feel smart.  However, I don’t like when I have a sheet full of stuff and none of it matches up.  If even after looking at a walkthrough it doesn’t make sense to me, you might want to rethink that particular puzzle.

4. Make everything count – If I can zoom in on it, it better be useful at some point.  This is sort of like the Chekov’s gun of adventure games: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”  No empty drawers, no meaningless potted plants, no extra animations.  God help you if you intentionally add in something to throw players off track.

5. Keep items simple – Don’t have a million items.  In particular, don’t make there be more items than I can carry at once.  This is just an artificial inconvenience that gets in the way of fun.  And when an item is no longer useful, get rid of it!  And once an item is properly used, don’t let me pick it up again.  I don’t want to have to try the scissors on anything that looks cuttable for the rest of the game.

6. No audio puzzles – This applies in any adventure game really.  Has anyone after completing an audio puzzle ever thought: “Wow, that wasn’t the worst experience of my life at all”?

7. Have decent graphics – This might seem a bit shallow, but if I’m going to spend an hour or so looking at what is essentially four images, I would like them to look nice.  I’m not going to bother with something that looks like it was done with the polygon tool in MS Paint.

8. No people – Part of the fun of room escape games is the feeling of isolation and solitariness.  I don’t want to see my own character or anyone else.  If it was good enough for Myst, it’s good enough for you.

9. No outside knowledge necessary (including language) – I shouldn’t need to Google for any scientific data or obscure symbology in order to solve your puzzle.  Additionally, dialogue and written words should be avoided for both atmospheric reasons as well as for cross-language compatibility (letters are ok).  The language thing is especially important since a lot of these type of games seem to be produced by Japanese developers.

Most room escape games violate a few of the above rules.  Some, however, manage to violate almost all of them, such as the inappropriately titled “Escape Pear Room 2009” which violates all but #8.  The best room escape game I’ve played is probably Neutral’s “Vision“, which violates virtually none of the rules.  All of Neutral’s room escape games are actually quite good, so play any of those after you beat “Vision”.

Also, there seems to be a disproportionate number of Christmas-themed room escape games.  Is there something about Christmas that makes people want to escape rooms?

Arbitrary song of the day: Pavement – Stereo


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