Opportunity versus Narrative
I think many Escape Room designs struggle with a choice (even if subconscious) between designing a narrative in their rooms versus having enough for the players to work on. I don’t think this dichotomy has gotten enough attention.
For example, imagine an escape room (I’ll call it the Any room) where there are 10 puzzles. You can solve the puzzles in any order. Once all 10 puzzles are complete, the experience is over.
Now contrast that with a room where there are the same 10 puzzles, but you must solve them in a sequence (1st puzzle then the 2nd puzzle etc.) I’ll call this the Sequence room.
Which of these experiences is better for a group to have enough to do? The Any room has the advantage of providing things for the whole group to work on, because of the "non-linear" fashion the puzzles are provided in. Until the game is near the finish line, players will be able to work on a wide variety of different puzzles, and in a good execution, the players would always feel engaged.
So it’s the better way to design a room, right?
This isn’t necessarily the case. Notice how, in the Any room, the puzzles cannot in and of themselves change the state of the room in a meaningful way. Sure, if you solve a puzzle, a bell can go off or whatever, but notice how you can’t even get the players to go to another room. All 10 puzzles are solvable at any time, remember, so all 10 puzzles have to be accessible by the players at all times. This seemingly trivial rule, that all the puzzles are solvable all the time, has already given us a burden that we may not want, that of not being able to hold some content away from the players until a condition has been met (extra rooms is probably the most common in current Escape Rooms).
Now to the Sequence room. Notice how it’s very easy for the players to affect the room. A puzzle can yield a key to another room or give the players the things they will need to solve the next puzzle in the chain. Solving a puzzle can also change the state of the game in a more robust way.
So maybe the Sequence room is better! Well, maybe not. The Sequence room has the problem of potentially not having enough puzzles for a group to do. It would depend on the exact type of puzzles that are in the sequence, but it’s more likely that the group will get stuck and not be able to work on something new.
This can happen when the elements of the puzzle cannot be observed all at the same time - think a paper that contains a crucial clue. Additionally, certain puzzles might be less attractive to solve for members of the group, and they could feel left out while other members tackle them. The crucial point here being that they have no other option to work on something else.
This isn't to say that Escape Rooms are typically one or the other. Both Any and Sequence rooms are rare, and most rooms will fall somewhere in the middle.
What gains are made in opportunity for players are often made at the expense of narrative (triggers from puzzle solution.) Knowing what type of room and what type of players you expect will help you decide which type of room (Any or Sequence) that your room will tend toward.
Brian Hacker prefers narrative to opportunity, and has been in the games industry for over 20 years, first as a professional Magic player. He went on to become a professional poker player and game designer. In an effort to understand obscure technologies and lose what remaining free time he had, he opened Enigma HQ!