Immersion in Escape Room Design

Immersion is like air—constantly surrounding us and affecting our every move. We don’t notice when it’s there and when it's not we just resign to just dealing with it or breathing a little harder to compensate. With escape rooms as an industry being so young, this is by far one of the biggest and most commonly neglected area in escape rooms everywhere.

Five combination locks on a chest. Number ciphers in an abandoned laboratory. Oddly clever riddles left by the serial killer who plans on returning to kill you in 60 minutes, but for some reason left you a number of clues in addition to the keys for all his locks. These are all actually quite common in many escape rooms still, and are holding back what could be potentially far more engaging experiences and turning them into a series of puzzles in a former retail space with your friends. 

Immerse yourself in this blog post and continue reading.

Realizing the Problem Exists

Unfortunately for escape room players, because what would be considered good immersion is unique for every theme, it’s harder for most escape room designers and owners to address this important element when compared against theming and puzzles. It’s understandable—change usually requires acknowledging the problem and if you can’t see it you might as well assume there’s no problem. 

And when you can’t see something, it’s easy to think it’s not necessary. You might say, my players are completing the game (or not, actually) and having a blast! But if we look deeper: are players completing the game because they believed the world they stepped into and made decisions that made sense, or because their only options were to do nothing or the puzzle in front of them? Did they have fun because of gameplay or because they were with their friends or colleagues? It's easy to attribute success to the wrong actions.

Understanding Immersion

Immersion is happening before your players even enter the room. Our home, the roads, the street outside your escape room—nobody questions those environments because they make sense. The traffic lights turn yellow before they turn red. Sidewalks are made of concrete. The door to your escape room isn’t locked because it’s within business hours.  It all makes sense.

When they approach your escape room, the challenge is then if you want to maintain that immersion as best as you can, or to throw it out the window.

Psychology of Games defines immersion as: 

The idea is just that a game (or any other media from books to movies) creates spatial presence when the user starts to feel like he or she is “there” in the world that the game creates. People who experience immersion tend to only consider choices that make sense in the context of the imaginary world.

In a way, immersion is like a constant line that runs through the experience, dividing what makes 100% sense and what doesn’t. It’s unlikely you’ll ever completely avoid crossing the “Immersion” Line, but you should always try to at least keep the visits short. Part of this is because players will still know they’re inside an escape room, but the goal is to make it so that thought becomes secondary to the adventure they’re having and not the other way around.

What Does Breaking Immersion Look Like?

Too Many Locks

The easiest one to point out is an over-abundance of locks. Combinations, letter locks, directional locks and regular locks that are placed on objects that typically aren’t locked. It’s a constant glaring reminder to the player that they’re not in the world the theme and narrative suggest, but a room that’s made to look like it. Locks should only go on things that should be locked.

Looks realistic, Doesn't act like it

 
 

Using props or technology that is meant to imitate reality doesn’t work when it’s easy to tell it’s fake, either by touching it or watching it do something that isn’t natural. A human body part you can play with will very quickly lose any immersion once you realize it’s not actual flesh and bone. A moving skeleton will be very clearly fake when it doesn’t react to your presence and worse—stops moving until you trigger it again. 

Haunted houses get away with this typically because you're usually moving quickly through the experience—for the few seconds you do see it before moving on it will feel very real and you don't get enough time to see it become the inanimate machine it actually is.

People who don't act like people

Actors can be fantastic for immersion if they can speak freely and act like their characters would if they were real. However—humans are social, and when another human is there to be interacted with but they can’t, or can only do it in a very specific way, the illusion disappears quickly to reveal an actor stuck on a very specific script. If the players are giggling away while an escaped prisoner is cowering on the floor, immersion is very quickly purged from existence.


Do You Need to Care About This?

For some escape rooms you probably don’t need to care too much. You might have little to no competition, so the fact that you exist is good enough for them. As the industry matures however and bigger players enter the market, making smart decisions earlier on in the design phase can impact you immersion in a big way for a better game experience.  

So next time you’re working on your escape room, unless it’s about escaping your grandmother’s house before lunch time, ditch the sudoku.  

Jeff Jang

Jeff Jang is the CEO and founder of the design studio Immersive Tech, which specializes in escape room design and real world interactive experiences.

A graphic designer by education, he has spent the better part of the last decade designing and creating experiences for television series like Continuum, Heartland, movies like Spy Kids 4 and iconic franchises like Pac-Man.

If you’re looking for a high quality game design backed by industry experience and methodologies, visit his website ImmersiveTech.co for a custom quote today.