Delving Into Design

By Thomas Dunagan

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Escape room companies take two approaches when bringing new escape experiences to their location. The first approach is purchasing scripts or complete rooms that they assemble from that guide. The other more common approach is to design their rooms in-house. For myself the latter option is the far more satisfying approach.

Now the one thing I want to try and never do as an escape room designer is to put out a product that’s unoriginal. So while to some it may be a letdown I will never open a prototypical prison break room or another cliche diffuse the bomb room. Almost every other escape room company you encounter you will see a rinse and repeat of the same themes over and over again.

The approach I decided to take with design is probably a bit difficult to pull off but I think in the long run it is worth it. This will keep each escape adventure guest feeling like they have a completely different experience from one room to the next. So what approach to design do I take? Story. I want my rooms to tell a story. More specifically think of it as a 1-hour short story. Deriving the inspirations from Poe’s approach to short story writing:

  1. Know the ending before beginning to write
  2. Keep it short
  3. The choice of impression
  4. Choose the tone of the work
  5. Determine the theme and characterization of the work
  6. Establish the climax
  7. Determine the location

Initially as I was planning out my business there were several obstacles I had to learn, overcome, and get-through that had nothing to do with the escape rooms themselves. This was always such a struggle for me as the thing that mattered most to me was creating stories. Originally I was going to open the business with two rooms ready to go and a third shortly along the way. The Final Piece and Master Key were expected to be the first two. As I continued to progress things I fell in love with developing the Master Key room. It amazed me how much it changed as it progressed. I knew the story and how it ended but the steps along the way constantly evolved. From initially being a concept of 8 doorways leading from an octagonal shaped room in another dimension to having a build out of the Stranger Things “upside down”. The world of the Master Key room evolved. This not only caused more time consumption but even more so realizing the importance of attention to details.

I’m usually a hard person to please or impress as I can be quite critical of my labor of work never concluding that the entirety of the result is perfect. While I still know of areas I will probably improve on each of my room designs as they roll-out, I am truly satisfied at the results of the Master Key room. With ambitious set work design to uniquely fabricated puzzle integration I am very content to how it has unfolded. In some ways I really surprised myself. I can only hope that the next room designs go as smoothly and fluid as this one did. I believe I set the bar very high with this room and it keeps me challenged to know that each room build out after this one has to be just as compelling.

Obviously biased by my own creation but I can honestly look at the design of this room and confidently say I have never seen another room done quite like this one. In reality the worst part about designing an escape room is knowing you’ll never get to enjoy your own creation first-hand. Hopefully seeing guests excitement and joy in playing it will make it that much more fun knowing they will have experienced an unforgettable experience.