Formats Unpacked - The Escape Room

A format that helps you discover how others cope with stress

Hi All,

In our Storythings newsletter, we frequently feature events and happenings our readers are launching or taking part in. It’s not something I’ve encouraged here but really should. Are you launching a new format that you’d like our audience to know about. Or do you have an existing one that needs more eyeballs? Tell me about it and if I think it’s right for our audience I’ll give it a mention.

It’s always a delight when we have a Formats Unpacked first. Today we have our first role-playing game in the shape of the Escape Room.

Doing the unpacking is second-time contributor Robyn Collinge who previously wrote about the magic of CBeebies Bedtime Stories. I often find myself referring to it in format development workshops we run for clients. It’s a classic with a really smart insight!

Robyn is a brilliant copywriter and creative thinker for WeTransfer. She also has a great newsletter about forgotten ideas, which is a really smart format in itself.

Over to Robyn…

What’s it called?

The Escape Room.

What’s the format?

Have you ever been locked inside a room with a bunch of strangers, given a wildly unrealistic timeline to solve a murder case or uncover an ancient stolen relic, all the while trying to crack a series of codes which will ultimately lead to your escape?

Yes? Chances are you’ve been in an escape room. (Either that or you should seriously consider writing an autobiography.)

Using a combination of puzzles, riddles, and clues, escape rooms are an immersive gaming experience where a group of people are “trapped” inside a room (often under the guise of team building) and given one clear instruction. Escape. 

Format-wise, they’re a natural evolution from things like geocaching, LARPing (live action role play), and immersive video games. And their introduction, and subsequent instant success, in the 2010s seemed to reflect a cultural shift for valuing experiences over the material.

But paying to be locked up in a dark, dingy room isn’t just about the experience itself. It’s also an opportunity to escape the real world—a moment to connect and interact with people, and to be fully present in a space without smartphones or social media. It’s the goldilocks amount of excitement, adrenaline, and pressure combined with the underlying reassurance that it’s all just a game. That even in the worst-case scenario, everything will (probably) be okay. 

What’s the magic that makes it special?

As with many formats, the magic that makes escape rooms so special is the storytelling that goes into them. 

Each escape room usually has its own narrative world and players are fully immersed from the initial briefing—often done by some form of eccentric gamesmaster—up until they (hopefully) leave the room and return to the real world. Whether it’s untying knots, deciphering codes, or clambering into small spaces, each task the players are faced with tends to contribute to the overall canon, with themes varying from trivial Sherlock-esque mysteries to gruesome serial killers. In fact, just a quick Google search and I can find escape rooms based on prison escapes, runaway trains, haunted forests (no thank you), and even conspiracy theories.

But mostly, escape rooms are an opportunity to find out people’s true colours. To find out just how well your colleagues/pals/people-you-literally-just-met-on-Simon’s-stag-do cope under stress. 

Who takes charge? Who is able to look at puzzles objectively? Who jumps to obvious conclusions? Who refuses to be a team player and assumes only their answers are correct? It’s very easy for the whole thing to become an experiment in human behaviour. 

And while you sit back and watch the chaos unfold, you can’t deny the hero complex that inevitably takes hold. Am I the smart one here? Am I going to crack this faster than everyone else? Am I Indiana Jones??

Similar formats

Immersive, live-action, and role-play games walked so that escape rooms could run. And similar formats include challenge-based game shows like The Cube or The Crystal Maze, and whodunnit games such as Cluedo, Werewolf, and the classic murder mystery dinner (which, if you’re having one, please invite me to).

It’s also worth mentioning that since storming the cultural zeitgeist, escape rooms have inspired several horror films and in 2019 Red Bull even launched its very own Escape Room World Championships. 

Favourite episode?

When I first started out as a writer, I had one of those wild gigs you agree to do for “exposure” which involved going around the Netherlands reviewing various escape rooms.

Out of the unusually large amount of escape rooms I’ve experienced as a result, one that stands out is The Dentist in Delft. Purely because it scared the heebie-jeebies out of me. 

I imagine this is largely down to my profound fear of the dentist — but in the blur of panic, adrenaline, and blood(!!) that clouds my memory of the experience, the few things I do recall are: climbing into a chest freezer, an excessive amount of drilling, and an incredibly eerie use of sound and Big Brother-style voiceovers.

Honorary mentions go to Sherlocked in Amsterdam, Prison Escape Breda, and that brief moment during lockdown when digital escape rooms were circulating for groups to do over Zoom. I’m pretty sure one took place entirely in a Google sheet (a five word horror story in itself.)

Thanks Robyn.

We’re always looking for new formats to write about and want to cover as broad a range as possible. In the two years we’ve been doing Formats Unpacked we’ve covered:

That’s an astonishingly broad list of formats, especially as people frequently ask us “What exactly is a format?” As you can see, most people are engaging with formats many times on any given day. Unless you’ve worked in radio or TV like a lot of the Storythings team have in the past, people rarely give formats the attention they deserve. Especially in an era of ‘content’ where many organisation’s approach to producing media is either multiple one-off campaigns at best, or scattergun at worst. But social is changing and getting attention this way is much harder than it was a decade ago. That’s why we want to lead people out of the content era and into the format era.

So, what have we missed? What would you like to see covered? Is there a favourite format you’d like to unpack for us? Get in touch or leave a comment below. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

See you all next time,

Hugh

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