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Tell Me A Story: 6 Escape Room Story Design Dos & Don’ts

(Last Updated On: January 19, 2019)

Hello. My name is Bizzaro, and I am an escape room addict. Wait… wrong meeting?

My friends and I discovered escape rooms around the same time many others in the USA did. We loved the concept. It’s like video games, comic books, and other nerdy stuff all brought to life, and WE got to take part.

The fact that we are magicians in Las Vegas didn’t hurt either because, let’s face it, escape rooms are magical.

Soon after the three of us decided to create rooms, puzzles, and props for ERs under the name Test Subjects. We like to think we bring a unique perspective to our designs because of performing background. For us, it’s about starting with the visual/effect we want to convey to people and work out the methods later.

Enough about us tho’! Today I am here to talk to you about one of the many aspects that makes an escape room great: Storytelling.


3 Escape Room Story Telling Dos

Most modern ERs have a story.

While some are better than others, we feel it’s how you implement those stories that help make or break a room.

The story should drive the puzzles and vice versa. I have seen too many times rooms where it seems someone decided to build a puzzle around a prop or lock that did not mesh with the environment or the narrative.

You might be asking the question, “How do you tell a good story in an ER?”. Clearly, there is no formula, but there are pitfalls for sure. Here are some tips we feel can help you craft a good story:

1) Have a Hook

One thing that really helps is to have something people are familiar with.

When I say this, I don’t mean you need to emulate a property like Harry Potter or the like. It just needs to be a concept or story people are familiar with.

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2) Be Original

It’s very easy to just look at what everyone else is doing and make an Egyptian temple or Sherlock room.

Instead, look at a common theme and see how you can turn it on its head. There is an ER in Calgary Canada called “Confined” that has a Steampunk Frankenstein room. Talk about two great tastes that taste great together!

3) Twist it Up

You don’t have to go as complicated as an M. Night Shyamalan movie but have something that takes players by surprise in some way or another.


3 Escape Room Story Telling Don’ts

On the other side of things, there are trappings escape room owners and puzzle makers can fall into as well.

1) Intense Story

You don’t want to force the story down your player’s throats. Let it be driving but in the background. You don’t want something so complicated that it bogs down the fun or the puzzles.

2) Anachronisms (inconsistencies)

You also want to watch out for how your puzzles interact within the story too.

If something doesn’t make sense, it can pull people right out of the immersive-ness of what you are trying to create. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a prop, puzzle or concept that is out of line with the theme and it ruins the experience for me.

3) Lackluster Props

Ok, this one might not be directly story related, but it can affect how a story is perceived. If you are supposed to be in Pompei, but you can still see drop ceiling tiles that have not been masked off or painted, the story really doesn’t matter anymore.

If you can’t match the scene to what you are trying to convey, you might need to try a different theme.

Escape Room Story vs. Escape Room Theme

Now don’t get story confused with theme.

A theme is just that. It’s a concept that sets a rooms’ tone, look and feel. A story is what occurs as you play and unfolds slowly and in subtle ways.

Not every room NEEDS a story, but it should always have a theme. We played a room recently that was loosely based off of Hunger Games. No narrative, just a theme. It was driven by the concept laid out in the movie but didn’t have any plot.

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I have heard from various people that the rooms that are tied to a known concept do better.

This, of course, goes back to our “have a hook” theory because people are simple and know what they know and are drawn to what they like. This is why you see so many rooms that are a few millimeters shy of copyright infringement. While these rooms can be lots of fun, it does tie you down to someone else’s creations.

If you are the kind of person who can make awesome puzzles but have trouble crafting an engaging plot, don’t try to force it. Reach out to people who do that sort of thing.

Not everyone can do everything in-house, and the frustration that comes from drawing a blank can be eliminated by bringing someone into the fold who has the skillset you require.

Hopefully, this article has shed some light on this subject for some of you. There are more ramblings to come from myself and the Test Subjects. If you have anything you want to specifically hear us write about, head over to our website, www.youcantescapeus.com, and let us know.


Related Resources

  • STORY Gatherings – a community of storytellers whose flagship event is an immersive, two-day conference-style gathering designed to inspire, challenge and equip artists, creators, and storytellers who work in a variety of industries.
  • Writing advice from South Park creators, Matt Stone & Trey Parker. Video below.


About the Author

escape room storyBizzaro has been seen on TV shows and creates props and magic for other performers.

He is the resident mad scientist at “Test Subjects” and creates many of the props and puzzles in his secret laboratory in Las Vegas. Want to see Bizzaro perform live in Vegas? Check out his performance schedule at www.bizzaro.ninja.


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