Every room wants to stand out from the crowd and the additional, often eye-popping, extra touches that are added specifically to make a room memorable are what we refer to as Awe. Yet despite a proprietor’s intention, their attempts to inspire Awe in their audience are among the least-discussed aspects of their venue. And with good reason! Describing a moment of Awe with someone who has yet to experience it themselves spoils the surprise and thus robs the entire experience of the impact altogether.
Spoiling Awe is a cardinal sin among escape room enthusiasts on par with revealing the twist of an M. Night Shyamalan film or the murderer in an Agatha Christie mystery. Even if they can’t put words as to why, players’ voices instinctively lower to a whisper when they try to determine if others know the specifics of the surprise they’re about to discuss without inadvertently giving it away. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, even if someone can’t fully describe it, they will always ‘know Awe when they see it.’
But therein lies the problem; if we can’t talk about what adds Awe to an escape room for fear of spoiling it and the majority of the public can’t exactly define it, how can we appreciate it? How can designers effectively incorporate Awe moments into their designs without knowing that someone else hasn’t already beaten them to it? How can proprietors provide customers with unique surprises without resorting to tired gimmicks or worse, continually wasting resources on tricks that yield perennially diminishing returns, only to end up being memorable for all the wrong reasons?
As escape room experts, designers, players, and future owners, the Partly Wicked team has a profound respect for the sensitivity required when discussing a room’s Awe factor. Some rooms we’ve seen employ structural elements such as hidden doors, secret tunnels, false exits and sliding bookcases; though these touches can hit their target like a laser-guided missile, they’re often expensive to build & maintain. Once structural elements fall into disrepair (or are executed poorly/cheaply) they will often advertise surprises to come rather than hiding them which ends up ruining the effect altogether [Editor: such situations are also reflected as part of Partly Wicked’s Care scores].
Other rooms employ technological elements such as cleverly hidden switches, remote-controlled apparatus, air blowers, or computerized display pads, with various degrees of success. Used wisely, technological elements can be a resounding success but come with their own hazards; because they are easy to implement, many similar devices can be found in an ever-increasing number of rooms, making each implementation less unique. Oversaturation within the same room, such as utilizing dozens of mounted iPads in a sci-fi themed room, becomes quickly transparent and feels lazy. These devices also run the risk of becoming outdated very quickly as newer/better technology becomes commonplace.
Particularly savvy rooms employ theatrical elements to provide a value greater than their monetary investment such as by utilizing live actors, ovens that ‘bake’ ingredients, using disguised non-toxic chemicals to create unexpected effects (in the vein of combining baking soda and vinegar), incorporating player’s names into the environment, and painstakingly researching the details of their theme. One notable example is a ‘defuse the bomb’ room who’s designer figured out a clever way to set the bomb’s timer to match the game timer so that once the players found it, the bomb’s countdown time was accurate, adding lots of extra tension for mere pennies. While among the most cost-effective solutions, theatrical elements can be not only the most divisive among players but are also the easiest to get wrong. A bad actor is a drag to interact with, as is a great actor for players who dislike feeling conspicuous.
Awe is surprising, satisfying, and, most importantly, marks the moment when all the players know they have just seen exactly what they never expected, but will never forget. As designers, we must begin to talk about Awe in practical terms or risk being unable to satisfy more sophisticated audiences. As proprietors, we must always be innovating, seeking new solutions to problems of Awe that don’t yet exist. As players, we must learn to recognize and appreciate the deliberate effort and craft of artfully adding it to our experiences, lest we never find it again.