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Untold Play

Escape Rooms as Learning Experiences Part 2 – Theme, Narrative and Structure for Learning Escape Rooms

Escape Rooms as Learning Experiences Part 2 – Theme, Narrative and Structure for Learning Escape Rooms

by Terry Pearce

2 months ago


This is Part 2 in an article series. You can find Part 1 here.

Escape rooms are immersive experiences and – whether for learning or just for fun – are at their best when they lean into that. A series of linked exercises that could just as easily have been tasks set one after another isn’t really an Escape Room. 

Many commercial, for-fun Escape Rooms are themed around genres like detective mysteries, sci-fi adventures or espionage missions. The theme ties in with a narrative, which helps to draw players in. We are creatures of story – we want to find out what happened next. And this gives structure to the experiences as the narrative progresses.

Applying these ideas to Escape Rooms for learning can bring coherence to what might otherwise be a disparate set of tasks and puzzles. The theme can offer ways forward for puzzle design, and the narrative can inspire ideas for the structure of the puzzles to be solved.

Start with theme and setting and see what grows from it

There are many themes or genres that could provide the environment for an Escape Room – just take a look around Netflix or your movie collection. Crime. Espionage. Heists. Detective. Mystery. Supernatural. Superhero. Sci-fi. Historical. Cartoon. Horror. Steampunk. Medical. Technological.

Each of these themes – or others – could give rise to a specific setting. A crime has occurred: who did it? A shady government department holds blueprints for dangerous technology: can they be stopped? A seance will investigate a ghost’s past: why is she not at peace?

The selection of a theme or setting can be a great place to start to come up with ideas about how to cover learning points. For my escape room Escape the Grey, the topic was games-based learning and how it can make learning more engaging and effective. I decided on a sci-fi theme, with an alien who comes from a world where learning is different. In helping him investigate games-based learning as something that could help his planet, the players accompany him on his journey, puzzling it all out.

Your theme and setting may arise naturally from the learning topic. If your learning topic is a period of history, it makes sense to set the Escape Room there, perhaps around a key event. Or if it’s part of an induction, it makes sense to set it at the workplace in question, although there’s no reason why you couldn’t spice it up with elements of mystery, crime or sci-fi. If a crime was committed at your offices, figuring out the what, who and why could be a great reason to explore the place.  

Mine the theme and setting for clues towards structure and narrative

In Escape the Grey, I wanted to base the learning around my six levers of games-based learning. So it made sense for the players’ alien friend to investigate examples of each of the six levers in turn. Scott Nicholson tells about a time when he designed an Escape Room to raise awareness of the issues of astronauts on the moon. As he looked into the learning he wanted to communicate, the structure emerged: ‘seven ways the Moon can kill you’, with players having to in turn solve issues around water, keeping warm, etc.

One way to think about this is to look at the affordances of the setting. If a crime has been committed in a factory, what’s in the factory? Think about the machines, the equipment, the materials. Who works there? What’s the atmosphere like?

Thinking about these things can give ideas for who the characters are, who any antagonists are, and what the players are supposed to be doing. If it’s a historical piece, maybe the players are time travellers, sent back to try to change what happened. Or in our seance example, maybe the players have to find out about the ghost’s life in order to assemble the right items for the seance to begin.

All of this work will help later with more specific things like puzzle design. Instead of creating a generic number or word puzzle, you can use the theme and setting to inspire direction and make puzzles fit the environment. And this thinking can also help you align your visual design with where the Escape Room is set.

Narrative starts with roles and goals

Once you’ve looked at a theme and setting, the next step is to work out where your players sit within it. The narrative carries players through the setting, and narrative is people doing things. T put it another way, after starting with the When and Where, progress to the Who, What and Why.

Your players’ roles could be Roles with a capital ‘R’: drawn-out, named characters with backgrounds. Or they could just be what players are here to do: find the murderer, free the prisoner, carry off the daring heist. It’s easier for most players for them to just be themselves rather than a role they have to act out, but they should probably be themselves as investigators, or as spies (or whatever fits your theme), for maximum immersion. 

Done well, this gives the who, what and why for the players: who they are, what they need to do, and why they want to. But story, as we all know, begins with conflict, so it’s often wise to think about the roles of the other people in the story: who is trying to stop them, and why? Is anyone trying to help them?

The roles of antagonist and ally can be very useful. The antagonist gives shape to the story: who has set the obstacles, locked the room or hidden the truth, and why? And an ally gives a great in-story way to provide background and hints to the players.

Structure is usually linear in Escape Rooms for learning

In for-fun Escape Rooms, players navigate the puzzles in a variety of structures. The puzzles may be linear – the solution to one may unlock the next. Or they may be open – all are available and any puzzle may be attempted, with perhaps a final ‘metapuzzle’ that’s unlocked once the rest are solved. They may be some combination of these, with some puzzles being available at any given time.

Parallel solving by different people in non-linear structures can give everybody something to do, and leads to interesting combinations and interactions. But in an Escape Room for learning, the process of solving the puzzles should help the players achieve the learning objectives. If a given player doesn’t take part in solving a given puzzle, they can easily miss out on learning, unless the puzzle was a frivolous inclusion from a learning viewpoint.

So a broadly linear structure is probably best for learning Escape Rooms. But you can add some variety with a few structural tricks. You can construct alternate endings or paths, where player choices change outcomes but puzzles are still solved by all. Or you can use variations on ‘Jigsaw’ groupings, where individual players each focus on a separate puzzle, but then have to report back their findings to the group, in order for the group to succeed at a collective puzzle that follows.

Think in story beats to align narrative with learning goals

The best way to think of the structure for this kind of story is a succession of story ‘beats’ – key points in the narrative. The players find the murder weapon. The players discover the motive. The players discover that the butler gave them false information because they were covering up for the real murderer. I’m using the detective trope here because it’s a familiar one, but these story beats could be any significant development in any story.

Better Escape Rooms avoid too much exposition in navigating story beats. We all hate the worst kind of exposition we see in TV and movies – “as you know, Doctor… [summarises something both know in a way that just dumps the story on the audience]”. This is a particular danger in the introduction.

The best structures tend to make most story beats happen via the players doing things. So the players find the murder weapon or motive by solving a puzzle, not by reading about it. If you have to give the players info, it’s best to do in a way that involves them: a role-played conversation is better than them reading it in a brief. And for learning, each story beat should be tied to a learning objective.

So the narrative is a series of immersive experiences and actions, each of which advance the story and tie in to a learning objective.

Thinking in three acts can give a strong sense of flow

The three-act structure can offer a slightly higher-level structure for the overall arc of the story. In act one, the players find out about the setting and the key conflict. In act two, they meet a succession of obstacles, overcoming each only to find a tougher one, building towards a peak.

In a traditional three-act structure, the final success comes in act three, but for Escape Rooms for learning, it can be a good idea to have the final ‘victory’ happen at the end of act two. This then leaves act three as a chance to review and share what they’ve learned. You can do this in a post-game debrief, but if you build a final step in-game where the players do this inside the narrative, it can add immersion.

So players might have to report back to the person who sent them on the mission, or prepare a press release explaining why the lab blew up, or some such collective, reflective task.

Next up: creating puzzles

I hope this article has built on Part 1, and developed your appetite for Escape Rooms for learning. There’s plenty more in the rest of the series. 

Part 1 – An introduction to Escape Rooms for learning

Part 3 – Creating puzzles for learning escape rooms

Part 4 – Making learning escape rooms smooth experiences

The series is intended to help you if you want to design your own learning escape room, or just learn more about how they work. If you’d like to talk about having a bespoke Escape Room created for your learning experience, please get in touch