Published March 21st, 2017 @ 7:06 am EDT by Paul

Signature Color Series: Orange is for Questioning

Disastrous to get wrong, rooms that leave players asking questions require more than just having the right answers.  This curious feeling is a perfect match for the color Orange exactly because of its unique ‘you-either-know-it-or-you-don’t’ nature.  In fact, the fruit from which the color gets its name (and not the other way around) is the most famous example of an English word without a rhyme.  See what we did there?  That’s trivia, a key element in Orange Rooms, along with her brothers riddle, and deception.

Ancient riddles sharpened the senses so that people could notice things. Heroes needed the abilities of riddles — gods didn’t — and great riddles are literally the stuff of legends.  Whole rooms based on riddles are rare but riddles give players a deeply rewarding feeling of being not only smart but wise.

But riddles and trivia lead us to a major issue, the use of outside knowledge in an escape room.  Relying on the player’s outside knowledge is considered impractical because players come from may different backgrounds, have different interests, and know different things.  Not to mention that fact that a fundamental part of escape rooms is that their self-contained nature guarantees players will be given all the information they need in order to get out.  That’s the trick to a successful Orange Room; the solutions must be reachable by several avenues.  Knowledge, intuitition, reasoning, or looking for some kind of thematic appropriateness will all make the player look and feel clever (even if another player using outside knowledge can complete the puzzle a little faster.)  Question-based challenges need to hang together and fit into the theme of the room, otherwise, the result will feel more like a game of Trivial Pursuit then an escape room.

As with other colors, a fantastic example can be found in the world of cinema.  Look at the last half hour of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  [Editor: Harry Potter’s race through the forbidden thrid-floor corridor works just as well.]  Our hero, Indy, solves three puzzles before he can reach the Holy Grail, his only clues coming from vague entries in his father’s journal.  For the first challenge, The Breath of God, Indy only knows that ‘only the penitent man will pass.’   Knowing what ‘penitent’ means or how such a man would act would be like the outside knowledge of this challenge.  However, Indy also gets to see a nameless henchmen try (and fail) to pass the challenge, watching has the poor man’s head goes rolling into the anti-chamber.  And there we see the key for a successful riddle in an escape room, the provided solution.  Whether or not Indy cracked the clue from the journal, seeing that head is a pretty clear suggestion that maybe the right thing to do is kneel to proceede.  Infact, double-checking that proposition against the riddle, leaves absolutely no doubt about the solution.  The pattern appears again in the final challenge: choose the right Grail.  Indy uses his knowledge of history to choose the right chalice, but only after watching the Nazi bad guy choose a garish, jeweled goblet (because it looked grand enough for the king of the Jews.)  The Nazi drank from his choice and dies horribly.  Then Indiana reminded us all that Jesus was a carpenter (a ‘secret’ shared by billions and billions of people.)  Putting those two pieces of information together, he picks up a humble wooden cup.  The suspense is over—we all agree. That’s the one.

Using outside knowledge scares players and room designers, but in the wrong way.  It’s not first-rate Hitchcock scary, it’s scary like you forgot your homework and you’re praying the teacher doesn’t ask you for it.  The questioning Orange Room is the one color that can be and should be slightly intimidating in this way.  Like an escape room, riddles could only be “played” once.  There’s just no challenge a second time.  Some riddle books of the early medieval period did not even include answers—paper was extremely expensive and scarce, and the power of the riddle was that, once answered, it was obvious and unforgettable. No answer key is necessary.

The trick to a designing a successful Orange Room is to help players shine but in an area they didn’t expect.  They should feel themselves achieving things they didn’t know they could do, or that were considered uncharacteristic of them.  You know that knowledge is good and useful but beware of knowledge for its own sake. There should be more than one purpose behind a question—if you have more than one purpose for including it, the player can find its answer more than one way.  That’s the best way to use outside knowledge in an escape room and you’ll know you’ve done it right when the player shouts “how the hell did I know that?!?”

Finally, these rooms are mainly not about teamwork. That’s what makes them unique; they provide a scenario where the team profits by letting, in fact encouraging, every individual to shine—and by rewarding, rather than punishing, bold leaps taken by individuals.  This is a very rare commodity, and worth the effort of seeking these rooms out.

PROS: Often make people feel smarter than other room types could.

CONS: Might make players feel stupider than they otherwise would have.

APPEALS TO: Bar Trivia fans who need a little story and an extra edge

BIGGEST CHALLENGE FOR DESIGNERS OF ORANGE ROOMS: Puzzles have to relate to the room; strongest puzzles involve macabre, deliberate misuse of appliances: toilets aren’t where we keep our valuables!

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