Guest Post: 7 Ways to Make an Immersive DIY Escape Room

Guest post by Andy Murray:

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Recreating the escape room experience at home can be fun not only for the players, but also for you while designing and building it. Obviously, friends and family will not expect you to build out a completely new room inside your house for a fun game. Though you really can create a extremely immersive experience for the players without breaking the bank (or the walls).

What is Immersion?

Immersion in an escape room, or other gaming experience could encompass many things and be defined differently depending on the source. A core idea is that the player feels extremely connected to the experience. The connection should come from many aspects of the game - scene, accuracy of play to the theme, and linking of challenges to the story. Read Immersive Tech’s post on “Immersion in Escape Room Design” for detailed information on how this is handled in professional escape rooms.

Even with the typical constraints of a DIY escape room - limited budget (or none), time, space and design skills there are several areas that, when focused on, can put the at home experience on par or better than a commercial room. One major advantage we have in creating a DIY escape room is that it can be tailored very closely with the players as we know them much better than a typical commercial room knows its customers. It can also include inside jokes or storylines that will draw the players even more into the experience.

Stepping Up Your Game

I have grouped my suggestions into two broad categories - Before the Game and During the Game. Admittedly, most of the ideas could fit in either category. Before the game includes things that you want to consider while designing your story, puzzles and scenes. During the game is more items that the players will interact with while in the game.

Before the Game

  1. Better Scenes or Sets - You can use sheets or tarps and paint them to create the walls, ceiling or floor of your story’s room(s). Also getting props and accent pieces to convey the look. Consider what you already have, asking friends, tag sales, thrift shops and curbsides.
     
  2. Keeping All Players Active - The challenges in the room should allow for all members of the team to participate. This may not be possible throughout the whole game, but keeping this in mind when laying out the game’s flow will make a huge difference. Also consider this when deciding how many player should try the room at a time.
     
  3. Consistent Game Rules - Such as keys and clues only apply to one lock or problem (if not make it clear that they have multiple purposes). If colors or shapes denote one thing (red = north, green = south) do not change that for another clue. If ceilings, outlets and furniture is out of bounds, don’t hide 1 item on any of those items.
     
  4. Incorporate All the Senses - Adding clues, puzzles or effects that are for all the five senses can really put the player into the story. Using a candle or spray that matches the theme; having a tactile puzzle; music and sound effects (more on this later). Also if you know a player has limited use of a sense (color blindness) then you can avoid that so as not to remove them from that experience.

During the Game

  1. Puzzles, and Clues that Match Theme - Having challenges that make sense in the story. Avoid locks or puzzles that would not naturally exist in story or that seem forced. Would a black light fit in that time period? Do mummies like sudoku?
     
  2. Costumes and Actors - Consider having you or someone else in the room to play a character in the story. Could take away from experience if done poorly. Also, ask players to dress for the game, or have some clothes the players can wear during the game.
     
  3. Playing Music and Sound Effects - Adding music as a background element can really assist in setting up the experience and convey subtle messages like time pressure. Sound effects can add to an aha moment. Sounds can also signal progress or errors to the players.

Utilizing Music and Sounds in Escape Room

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Let us look deeper into this last suggestion - music and sound effects. Finding those right songs and sounds for your escape room may be the hardest part. If you are musically challenged, like me, consider getting someone to help. I found it helpful to think of the general music styles that might fit the room. I also found that movie soundtracks are a great starting point. Listening through tracks from movies that match the theme of your room. If you plan to play full songs listen through the whole track. I found some music can have a wide variety through just one song and all of it may not match the feeling you are looking to express.

Consider when selecting the songs the different sections of the game play. I broke my most recent room up into three sections: beginning, main game, and success . I generally selected up tempo songs for the beginning and more steady music for during the main game play. I then had music and sound effects for when the team was close to solving the last challenge. The last section’s tracks were meant to amp up the pressure and sense of urgency. All with a sci-fi feel to match the room’s theme. 

There are many sources for the music and sound effects. I had good results with Youtube, Spotify and Soundcloud. Maybe you have songs already in your collection that will work. Do you have a musician friend? Maybe they want to contribute to the game. Like when looking for scene elements, think outside the box. 

Play Options

You’ll have to decide how to best play the music and effects. There are three options.

  • Automatically Played
  • Manually Played
  • Continuous Playlist

Consider using a mix of the three. Automatically played sounds are ideal, especially if you may not be monitoring the game constantly. It can be very challenging to incorporate into a DIY escape room. As with any tech in the room, there are needed skills to implement and a place for the game to hang up if it fails. 

The manually played tracks give you the most control and would be simpler to implement than the automatic. It does require someone to activate the tracks and needing to know when to play them. One long playlist might seem like the easiest method, but has drawbacks. Since every team will progress differently, having the songs arranged correctly for each game would be a challenge. Since we are adding the sounds to make the experience more immersive, playing tracks at the wrong time would defeat the purpose and hurt the game experience. 

Hardware Options

Now that you have the songs and sounds you need, next is setting up for the playback. Ideally the speakers and other hardware for sound should be well integrated into the room. Depending on your theme, having speakers in the room may fit well. If not, other options include hiding the speakers or playing the music from an adjacent room or through a window.

In Room Speakers

If speakers will fit in the room’s theme, this is the most direct way to playback your music and sound effects. Setup a bluetooth wireless speaker connected to a computer, tablet or smartphone. Then from the device you can play your playlist from outside the room. As an example, if you are using a playlist you created in Spotify, then open that app or website and choose the songs for each moment in the game. If you have the songs from various places - your own files, Youtube and Soundcloud then you could open multiple tabs or apps and shuffle through them as the game progresses. If you found songs, but you do not like parts, you can make a list of the song’s play times that you want to play.

Another option would be to have a computer in the room and play the sounds through this. Again, if the computer fits in the overall game, maybe you can have one of your puzzles computer based as well. When I have done this I installed the Chrome Remote Desktop app. It is an app that installs inside the Chrome browser and allows you to see one computer screen from another. It is available for Windows, Mac. Linux and Chromebooks. Once installed on the machine in the room you can then control that PC from another machine that also has the Chrome browser.

Once this is loaded, you should put the music or link to music sites on the escape room’s computer. The player will see you interacting with the machine on its screen. If you do not need the computer for other parts of the game you could unplug the monitor so they do not see this.

Another similar option would be to use a chromecast device. These are small HDMI enable gadgets that can be connected to a TV or monitor to stream a computer screen to the display. You would need a TV or monitor with attached speakers. I have not done this type of setup yet, but it is commonly used in commercial escape rooms for display of time, clues and sounds.

If you are debating whether the sound equipment fits in the game’s room, I feel that the benefits of the music and sound effects would outweigh any inconsistencies that the music system may cause in the room. 

Outside the Room

In cases where you do not want to have the speakers or other hardware as part of the room, you can play the sounds from outside it. If the room has windows, you could open them and have the speaker on the outside. The wireless speaker method would be good here. You could also hold a tablet or phone by the window. Depending on the window locations, this method has the added bonus of letting you have sounds coming from different locations.

The songs could also be played in an adjacent room. If the game room has a door, it could be closed and music played just outside the door. The sound levels will probably need to be increased to be heard inside the room. 

Especially when playing the sounds from outside the room, check how it all sounds from different areas of the game’s room. I’d recommend playing through all music and sound effects while finalizing the sound system setup. You want it to make the designed impression.

Test, Review, Revise

Play testing your DIY escape room with a few players will provide great feedback on all aspects of the game. For the sound in particular it allows you to test the playback system, any tech involved, as well as how well the music met expectations. Even if the players say that they hardly noticed the music, then its not distracting and probably providing some extra subtle addition to the immersive experience.  


Andy Murray's blog, www.diy-escape-room.com , chronicles his adventures in re-creating the escape room experience at home. He posts about his projects, other DIYers and escape room games.

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.