I grew up in a family that loved adventure computer games. Myst, The 7th Guest, Shivers, Gabriel Knight, we played them all and had fun solving the puzzles within. Being a kid at the time, I would get pretty frustrated with a lot of the puzzles and ultimately turn to the walkthrough for a good portion of the gameplay.
“You should stop doing that,” my mother would always chide me. “It’s no fun if you’re just reading the whole game.”
It was advice that I ignored for a long time until I matured enough to find fun in the frustrations of trying to master and solve puzzles, and I even had fun going back to the old games I played as a kid and trying to solve them without the help of a walkthrough. When I first started getting into escape games, the amount of hints available concerned me. How many were there? Would I really need them? What would my team, or the gamemaster, or anyone else think of me relying on hints?
While we’ve only done a handful of rooms, we’ve experienced different takes on hint delivery. We’ve had varied feelings on each—some systems worked well and others we felt gave us hints too quickly or were poor in execution. There’s a fine balance to create a good hint system—what works for the players, what works for the gamemaster, and what fits within the room.
Live Gamemaster (non-actor)
This is the hint system that we’ve experienced at Escape Haus. Our gamemaster sat in the room with us and offered hints, but was not part of the game itself.
This has had varying degrees of success. Our first gamemaster asked us if we wanted unprompted hinting or not (all of us being gamers immediately agreed on the hardcore mode, no unprompted hints), and stayed out of our puzzling and debate until absolutely necessary. This first experience was probably the best we’ve had—we were offered a choice in how we wanted hints delivered and he stuck to our agreement.
The other two gamemasters that we experienced did not offer this option, but also generally stayed out of our way unless directly asked for help. Where we ran into trouble with this system was in the Library of Secrets—our gamemaster seemed to be very unfamiliar with the room, and as this was a live experience, did not appear to have any sort of notes or walkthrough to consult if absolutely needed. This kind of hint system relies heavily on a gamemaster who is intimately familiar with the room and is not a good choice for inexperienced gamemasters.
Our screen-only experience was in Silicon Valley at Outer Rim Escape (now Escape San Marcos). As this was a technology-based escape in an office, the hint delivery system fit the room appropriately (push a button to signal the gamemaster, who would then deliver the hint on a computer screen). Using screen-based communication has been the clearest way that we’ve gotten hints, as they can be displayed for as long as needed
However, this type of hint delivery isn’t ideal for all rooms when it comes to immersion. While it fit well in a tech-driven office, it would feel out of place in a killer’s basement or a prehistoric tomb. Pharoah’s Tomb subverted this by having the screen in the ‘camp’ area of the room and leaving the tomb area without visible modern technology.
Another thing to consider is how well the gamemaster can communicate over text (this includes not only word choice, but also spelling and grammar choices.) If the hints displayed on the screen aren’t clear and concise, the players will spend more time deciphering the hint rather than the puzzle itself.
We had a walkie-talkie only experience with Cabin Fever, which fit somewhat thematically with the room (as we were stranded in a cabin in the middle of nowhere.) We had a gamemaster who was quite familiar with the room and was able to give us clear hints when needed to finish the puzzle. It provides for natural communication between parties and allows for the players to quickly ask for further clarification.
The major drawback of walkie-talkies is the problem with reception. We have had walkie-talkie problems in the past (discussed below). This may also prove a distraction for the gamemaster who may be running multiple rooms at a time—if there are multiple walkie-talkies, they may end up giving a hint to the wrong team or throwing them off-track by accident. A walkie-talkie alone provides ambiance, but is probably better used in conjunction with another method.
We’ve been in two rooms so far that have used a walkie-talkie and screen combination, which was very effective. The one that we’re highlighting is the use of the walkie-talkie and screen in The Cursed Ship. On the day that we played the game, it started raining heavily while we were inside. The building has a metal roof, which made the rain echo—it was great for immersion in the room, but it made it incredibly hard to hear over the walkie (especially over the thunderstorm audio and actual thunderstorm outside.) Our gamemaster provided hints to us over the screen after we relayed a request for one, which worked out well. This was also the case in Pharaoh’s Tomb—as we were in the basement, the walkies didn’t always work out very well and the screen was utilized in conjunction with it.
While we’ve only done a handful of escape rooms so far, we’ve been throwing around ideas for hint systems that would be both easily used for communication without breaking the immersion. We’ve thought of things like telephones (which could work for escape rooms set in different eras, from the hand-crank phones of the Victorian era to the clear plastic phone I had in my room as a girl growing up in the 90s.) An intercom system would probably be a better way of delivering hints instead of walkie-talkies, and could fit into a school or hospital-themed room well, but the expense of installing a system may be too much for a smaller company. Passing notes for hints could be a fun element in a detention-themed room, or video conferencing for an office or hacker theme (especially with a good improvisational actor delivering the clues).
What all of these systems have in common is having an attentive and alert gamemaster. Ideally a gamemaster should have their attention on only one game at a time, be intimately familiar with all of the room’s puzzles (or have a detailed walkthrough handy), and be able to speak and write well in the area’s native language(s). Without a strong gamemaster to deliver the hints, the room can fall apart and cause a negative experience for the players who may then be turned off of escape rooms permanently.
Aside from delivery, the breadth of information and timing of hint delivery is critical to the group’s success. My group is reluctant to ask for hints unless we are well and truly stuck, and a couple of unprompted nudges in rooms were timed right as we were hitting the sticking points and helped us decode the puzzles without giving away too much information. This is also an art in itself—make the hint too obtuse and your players will be frustrated, spell out the entire puzzle and your players will feel discouraged that they couldn’t figure out the mechanics. We have experienced rooms that we have enjoyed, but the gamemaster was a little too free with hints and told us where to look and what to look for just as we started to work on the puzzle. This detracted from our group’s experience of being able to solve the room ourselves (and probably contributed to our fantastic escape time). We also had a fantastic gamemaster who paid attention to our comments on a puzzle and let us fail several times before giving us a nudge to the solution. If possible, the gamemaster should speak with the group beforehand to get a feel for their experience level and favored play style and then give hints accordingly.
While a lot of people (me included) now loathe asking for hints, sometimes ‘hardcore mode’ isn’t quite the way to go, especially if you want to experience the room in all its glory. Definitely don’t sit and wait for the gamemaster to show you the answer to a puzzle. Sometimes the puzzles really are that tricky and you shouldn’t be afraid to lean heavily on a hint on a particularly challenging clue. The right nudge can even help players appreciate the room even more!
What are the best and worst examples of hints or hint systems you’ve experienced in an escape room? What is your personal preference in receiving hints during a game? Let us know in the comments.