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Dark Room, Bright Future?

Dark Room, Bright Future?

Jeremy Kowkabany |

Imagine, you enter an ancient Egyptian tomb. You proceed through the dark passageways and navigate a variety of ancient puzzles while avoiding treacherous booby traps. You finally get to the entrance of the treasure chamber where you must… read some hieroglyphics and translate them into an English word?

Sounds simple enough but the hieroglyphs are written in a dull black ink high on the dimly lit ceiling of the tomb. You can kind of make out a couple symbols, an eye, an Ankh, but your older companion can’t see a thing. As you squint and desperately try to describe the symbols to your companion you begin to wonder, why would these ancient Egyptians expect you to solve a puzzle like this in such a dimly lit room? Why don’t you have a flashlight, or a better flashlight, or a flashlight that hadn’t died two chambers ago. You begin to get frustrated because, while you are an excellent explorer and Egyptologist, your efforts have all been forestalled by the low light chambers of these sadistic Egyptian architects!

I understand your pain. While I have not explored an ancient tomb, I have played several escape rooms which act as a facsimile of one. These rooms, and many others like them, are intentionally dimly lit, often to enhance the ambiance of the room. It is undoubtedly true that a well-lit Egyptian tomb, or pirate ship, or mysterious cave would be rather jarring. It is a good idea for escape room companies to preserve some sense of authenticity by limiting the light in these rooms. However, this design choice often (intentionally or otherwise) interferes with gameplay. Plenty of puzzles can be completed in a low light environment, but those which require an ability to read or decipher distant or small symbols are immensely frustrating. In general, there is a fine line between frustrating and challenging when it comes to escape room puzzles. A challenging puzzle requires the player to think critically in order to develop a strategy for finding a solution. Once this strategy is devised the puzzle can be easily solved by implementing it. Frustrating puzzles are often easy for players to analyze and the strategies for solving them are obvious, but the implementation of these strategies is hindered by something beyond the players’ control. Puzzles in low light rooms can often become frustrating if the lack of visibility results in the player struggling to solve an otherwise obvious puzzle.

Puzzles in low light rooms can go from frustrating to impossible for older players. I am twenty-four and have better than 20/20 vision with my contacts in. I do not require reading glasses, but my sixty-year-old mother does. Despite loving escape rooms, she has sworn off any that do not have adequate lighting due to several bad experiences being unable to adequately see puzzles. This problem can be solved by the addition of flashlights, but this can create additional frustrations if the flashlight is dim or its batteries dies. Ultimately, low lighting should be question of set design and should not act as an obstacle to the player. This can be achieved by providing the players with an adequate light source, or designing puzzles such that they can be seen easily, or don’t require sight at all.

The latter notion is one that has been most effectively implemented in so-called “dark rooms”. Unlike low-light rooms, these do not allow any light inside them. You can’t see symbols on the wall but only because you also can’t see your hand in front of your face. These rooms represent an interesting innovation in the escape room industry. They aren’t particularly common, as I have only played a couple (out of over 220 rooms played), but I did have the privilege of playing one at The Escape Ventures in Orlando, Florida. Their room “Outage: No Vacancy” is seen by many as embodying what a dark room can be. While the first portion of the room might be described as “low light” the remaining 60% is played in complete and total darkness. This creates a necessity for players to use their other senses (often touch and hearing) to solve puzzles. This is something that can be implemented in normal escape rooms but is often less plausible or less memorable in a visually dazzling room. I played “Outage: No Vacancy” a couple of years ago with my girlfriend. We knew going in that it was a dark room, so we expected to have to use our other senses in the manner listed above. What we did not expect was the level of teamwork that would be required to complete the room. We had to stay in constant communication just to avoid running into each other. We also couldn’t see what the other was doing so we had to describe our experiences to each other. Ultimately, we managed to escape what felt like an immense puzzle filled cavern. Upon escaping, we asked if we could see the room we were in with the lights on. The game master complied, and we were amazed to see how small the area was! We were told that the space had previously been used as a storage closet before being transformed into an escape room. I dare say that such conversions may have been done before, but seldom as effectively. To this day, “Outage: No Vacancy” is the best room per square foot that I have played, and that’s almost entirely due to its effectiveness as a dark room.

Dark rooms are not always so enjoyable. I played one (to remain unnamed) that felt more like a scavenger hunt in the dark, full of tables to run into and objects to step on. This room was had less tactile and auditory puzzles and instead centered around finding a key to a box which had a key to another box which had a key to another box and so on. Thus, while dark rooms do provide an opportunity for game designers to be creative, they have just as much room for lazy puzzle design as traditional rooms.

It is certainly worth noting that dark rooms function as perhaps the most creative solution to the low light problem. I mentioned one to my mom recently and she was ecstatic, finally a room where she could see as well as anyone. Of course, this opportunity extends beyond those with imperfect vision to those who cannot see at all. A chat with one of the owners of Escape Ventures Orlando, C.j. Ratliff confirmed that which I already suspected. He stated that they had hosted many blind players in “Outage: No Vacancy” and indicated that it was wonderful to see them be able to participate equally in the experience. I love escape rooms and I want everyone to be able to love them as much as I do, if dark rooms can help contribute to that, I am all for it!

Ultimately, while an escape room market flooded with endless dark rooms would be maddening, I don’t think we are anywhere near that level of saturation. I would encourage any company with some extra space and creative non-visual puzzle ideas to try opening a dark room. At the very least I would like to see a future where escape rooms lean away from frustrating low light experiences and towards challenging no light experiences.

Jeremy Kowkabany

Jeremy Kowkabany

Writer, escape room expert

I am a lover of puzzles, riddles, and puns or anything mentally challenging! Along with my day job as a condensed matter physics PhD student, I am seeking a new challenge writing about my extensive experience with escape rooms in Florida and beyond! My writing experience encapsulates a great range of topics, from highly technical physics papers to wacky romantic comedies! When I am not calculating, researching, or escaping I am probably playing Quadball or playing trivia at a local bar.

  • Lindsey

    Nice one Jeremy, very cool

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