All the escape rooms I’ve ever been to have had one very simple thing in common: You stay in the room the entire time. Sure, you may find a hidden passage leading to another room, but I’ve never really had an escape experience where I felt that I was ever forcibly removed from the environment (though an obtrusive game master can really approach that line sometimes).
But this is a good thing though, right? Other than the puzzles themselves, isn’t immersion the most important thing we want from an escape room?
If that’s the case, then I broke sharply with conventional wisdom by creating a puzzle that forced at least one member of the team to leave the safe confines of The Madness to go on a short walk-around adventure in South Lake Union.
I ended up calling this puzzle The Meta Magician, a reference to a character in the story card whose jarring tale snaps the player out of the mystery they are solving with instructions explicitly referring to the game they are playing and the apartment in which they are rummaging around. There’s always something unnerving when an NPC addresses the player directly, rather than the character they are playing, and I’d hoped to inject a little bit of that feeling into the game.
As if some omniscient narrator wasn’t spooky enough, players also discovered a key next to the story card. The key had a laminated tag attached to it with the following text:
This is the key to the front door of the building. Remember that you are leaving apartment 501.
Let me be totally honest here – when I was brainstorming ideas for The Madness, I didn’t intentionally set out to create a puzzle where the players would have to venture outside. But a few weeks prior, I’d discovered a website that I thought was pretty neat.
what3words.com is a website that takes latitude and longitude as inputs, and converts them to a three-word, period-delimited string that represents a static 3×3 meter square somewhere on earth. I don’t have the background to comment on whether this is actually a useful tool in practice, but it certainly has some cool applications where puzzle design is concerned. Others are less enthusiastic about the product and raise some interesting criticisms. I would encourage you to read their thoughts:
I believe that The Meta Magician is a solid testament to the fact that a puzzle doesn’t have to be complicated to be enjoyable. Other than the story card and the key to the front door, the only other required items for the puzzle were the what3words URL, and this answer sheet:
Once players typed the URL into their smartphones, the trios of words on the answer sheet made their task immediately clear: they would have to visit the three locations, and look for a single word or phrase that matched the very minimal pattern given on the sheet. For example, at the first location, the players would be on the lookout for an 8-letter word, whose 2nd letter is N.
Sure enough, formal.senses.march led our adventurers to a location just south of my building’s main entrance:
I really, really love generating “Eureka!” moments for my solvers. I think two important qualities of a good “Eureka!” moment is that it is both immediate and unambiguous. This is why reasons that locks are such a frequently used mechanism in escape rooms. When you enter that combination, and get that satisfying CLICK, it’s that delicious “Eureka! feeling – all contained in a tiny mechanical object.
For this puzzle, I wanted to capture some of that feeling, but in a way where the players didn’t know exactly what they were looking for, other than a word that fits a predetermined pattern, located somewhere near a designated location.
Did I succeed? Well, I should let you decide. After all, I have not yet revealed the solutions to either of the other three word locations. Why not take a jaunt around South Lake Union and see if you can find the other two words? The neighborhood may not be as cool as it used to be – but for you, dear reader, a couple of mundane lankmarks will possess some hidden meaning.