The Wondrous World of Escape Room Design
Escaping Convention with Strange Bird Immersive
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This month’s interview with is conducted by Katy Mulvaney, who you can read more about at the end of the piece. You can find previous Culture Study interviews on antiquities smuggling, on music as torture, on the social lab of PE — or just scroll back in the archives.
Maybe you’ve been invited to an escape room — whether by an adventurous friend/family member, or for a birthday party or (horror of horrors) an HR Team Building Day. Never has being locked in a room with friends and strangers (or ::shudder:: colleagues) been such fun!
Unless you were lucky — or an adventurous friend is a careful connoisseur of the industry — you may well have found the experience fairly cheesy. The world is full of shoddy escape rooms with frustrating puzzles, cheap decorations, and a weird, patched-on story. But there are also gorgeous rooms with stunning environments, inventive puzzles, and even a few that tell complex stories that take you on a transformative adventure.
If you haven’t played an escape room since the early days of the industry, you might scoff at the idea that anyone could turn this medium into high art. But a lot of that is changing, and much of the increase in industry-wide quality in the United States is due to the influence of Strange Bird Immersive in Houston, Texas, which, despite its relatively small size, has become an industry leader in escape room design across the globe.
And they do it by effectively giving away their secrets. On her blog, Immersology, co-founder Haley Cooper freely shares the practical tactics, guiding principles, and long-term planning that’s led to Strange Bird’s escape rooms winning national and global accolades. (One of the regrets of my life is turning down the chance to join the team at the start, as I had just taken a full-time job as a high school theatre teacher, and you can’t add working at a start-up to that life). I’ve loved talking with Haley over the years as they’ve designed Man From Beyond: A Houdini Séance Parlor and Lucidity (coming Summer 2023) — and can’t wait for you to hear all her insights on everything from why they share all their secrets to how to deal with a group of hecklers. [AHP Note: This interview is long and IT RULES SO HARD. Even if you don’t think you care about Escape Rooms….just trust me, etc etc.]
Let’s start by differentiating the two main terms for Strange Bird Immersive: escape rooms and immersive theatre. I think people have a lot of worries about escape rooms, that they’re going to be like Murder Mystery Dinners where you put on a goofy character or that you have be a Benoit Blanc-level riddle-solver, but that’s not what y’all are about at Strange Bird. So what IS an escape room, to you?
An escape room is a reality game that takes place in a physical place with physical objects. It can't be done via headset, and it can't be done at home. Within that game, you work as a team, usually somewhere between two to eight (four is actually the best team size), and you basically buy a story or a scenario.
In a typical escape room, you're going to see something like a submarine-themed game or a prison-themed game. Sometimes a ruined temple and you’re on some sort of Indiana Jones-style archaeology adventure.
Or locked in the basement by a serial killer…
Yep, horror is another genre. Escape rooms do all the genres of films.
When you buy a submarine game, you enter what somebody has built to look like a submarine and then your team faces various challenges inside. These challenges usually have to be completed within a certain time frame, typically 60 minutes. Although they're beginning to be trending games that are a bit longer (like ours). You face those challenges — some people call them puzzles, but I think it's way better to think about them as challenges, because it's not a crossword or sudoku. It's more observation and connection. A good example of an escape room puzzle is to find a prop that you realize goes with this other prop, and when you put them together you see something new that you can then use!
Early on, most rooms were just: you're in a room and you need to escape the room. Although let me be clear, escape rooms are not locked! That doesn't happen in the industry. It’s a huge safety hazard. So it's a terrible name, honestly, because you're not always escaping, and there's usually more than one room.
At Strange Bird, we wish that we could call them like “adventure games” or something, but the ship has sailed. That's fine. A lot of people have heard of escape rooms, and, if you haven't tried one yet, I encourage you to go out and try one. But don’t just go to one at random! Go to a review site like Room Escape Artist to find the best one in your region, because they do vary widely in quality.
The other worry some people have is that they won’t be able to solve them or they’ll feel stupid. It is easy to create very frustrating puzzles, so if you’re in a room like that, you’re not failing because you’re stupid. It’s more likely that the room isn’t well-designed. Escape rooms are hard to get right. I like them because they are a team activity. It’s not a challenge about your intelligence, it’s an experience that you get to share. You’re going on an imaginary adventure with your people.
Originally, Strange Bird Immersive wasn’t going to focus on escape rooms at all, right? You were inspired by immersive theatre – so what is that, and how did it affect your escape rooms?
I say there's three litmus tests to see if something is an immersive theater piece.
The first change from traditional theater is that the world of the show is all around you. There is no clear dividing line between where actors perform and where audiences are supposed to be. In an immersive, you have to be able to go anywhere, and the world just keeps on going!
The second rule is that the audience has to be active, which can happen in a lot of different ways. They can choose where to go and what to see inside of the world — that’s the open structure we call a Sandbox show. (Punch Drunk’s flagship show Sleep No More is a good example of a sandbox; all of Punch Drunk’s works are sandboxes, actually.
You can also make the audience active by just having the actors look the audience in the eye or engage them in small tasks: Would you hold this flashlight and put it on the character, please? You can ask them questions, like: How old were you when you first fell in love? That is a great way to get the audience involved. And let me tell you how much people love love love it when it's personalized. We do a very simple trick in Man From Beyond where we collect people's names when they book, then we write their names, in chalk marker, on a book they're greeted with when they come in. People lose their minds.
And then, for the last option, you can get the audience involved and active by presenting challenges, like in an escape room.
Wait, that’s only two tests.
The third test is that there are actors! There are a lot of amazing installations where the space tells the story — built-out worlds like House on the Rock, for example, but I wouldn’t call them immersive theatre.
So you’re primarily an escape room company, but what elements of immersive theatre did you feel it was important to incorporate into the design?
We get 98% of our business because we are an escape room. And any escape room in the world would easily meet rules one and two for what makes immersive theatre – the environment surrounds you and you are active. Rule Three is where most would fail the test: storytelling with live performers.
Storytelling inside of an escape room is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, because people kind of go into a blind panic inside of an escape room. They know that there are so many things to discover, and it's a good panic! You’ve got the adrenaline going, you know you want to get the win, so you're just pulling open all the drawers and discovering everything and putting it all together in a joyful panic. But that's not a great mindset to sit and listen to a story.
Or to sit and read the collection of letters in the desk, which I love to do in escape rooms, but I'm weird like that.
The trick is then you make reading the letters the answer to a puzzle. Using the puzzles to forward your story is really important if you want narrative inside of your escape room. Not all escape rooms want to do that, but we have committed to a narrative that people remember years afterwards. They remember what happened inside of our game because we took them through a full five act journey.
I think what makes our escape room so special is that very disciplined telling of a story, with actors who are professionally trained and scripted. Quite often, when you see an actor inside of an escape room, they're coming from an improv background. They're just kind of let loose, and you don’t want the actor competing with the gameplay. In order to tell a story well, with a live actor, you have to have a very disciplined structure. I write a lot about how we do that, how we structure the scenes and the puzzles and the storytelling through the gameplay on my blog Immersology, if people are interested in learning more.
So those things still set you apart from most of the industry, but you have also set out to change the industry, with the blog and by speaking at conferences and offering your time to people who are just getting into the game design process.
We set out to revolutionize live entertainment, so we love sharing how we do it! That’s a lofty goal, and we are very small, but that is still our goal. We believe there's so much potential in reality entertainment. As much as I love traditional theater, it is a bit passive. It’s the difference between wanting to play a video game and wanting to watch a movie, but for this we use the elements of reality rather than technology or software. It has a bigger impact because it’s all really happening in real time.
It's interesting to hear you make so many comparisons to video games, because a couple of months ago on Culture Study, Adrian Hon talked about the spread of gamification, the pitfalls and the manipulations in it. I’ve always thought of Strange Bird as resisting the most gamified elements of escape rooms. For example, early on, you decided that you weren’t going to have a leader board or even keep track of how many people passed your room, which was part of how escape rooms advertised themselves at the time.
When we opened in 2017, we were a little bit unusual. We didn't think it was about competition; we thought it was about the experience. That was the big pivot [from what others were doing]. At the time, most companies were looking to create a challenge, bragging that only 10% of teams solved the room.
Meanwhile, we aim for something more like a 90% or even 100%. We wanted 100% of people to “win” the game — solve all the challenges in front of them and complete the whole story. I think we're at like 96%, but it fluctuates a little bit here and there. That was controversial at the time, but we’ve found a way to create challenges inside of the experience. It's not easy, but it is doable. And now I go to conferences and everybody is talking about: How do we do dynamic scaling difficulty? So that the teams who are playing their first escape room get the same entertainment experience and get to complete the same story as people who have done hundreds of escape rooms? Everybody is trying to figure out ways to get closer to that 100%.
Right, because on a given day, you could be catering to very different audiences. There are people kind of dragged out for a friend’s birthday and then the next team might be people who travel the world to play escape rooms.
Once you play more than, oh, 10 escape rooms, you're definitely an enthusiast, but there are enthusiasts out there who have done 1,000 escape rooms! What we found is that what an enthusiast wants is also what that first time person wants.
You’d think that enthusiasts would want the hardest puzzles so that they don't blow through the entire experience quickly, whereas a new player is not going to like that kind of puzzle at all. But what Strange Bird delivers is the feeling like you’re at the center of a film, and that caters to everybody. What enthusiasts actually want is something that stands out and is memorable. Something that gives them a sense of adventure. So do first time players!
That gives me an excuse to pivot to the most recent talk you gave at an escape room conference in Boston. You called it the Magic Circle, that place where “I am at my friend’s birthday party” stops and the world of the experience begins. You are trying to encourage the entire industry to adopt this way of working that has made Strange Bird successful.
The Magic Circle, as we define it, is that boundary where you've crossed that clear threshold. Everything is immersive and consistent within that world while you’re there, and then there also should be a clear moment where you exit that. There are rules and other warnings that you need to do to get people into the experience, but once you're in the experience, you have to stay there. You can't have a TV giving hints in your Mayan Temple. That’s breaking the Magic Circle. You also can't have your game master, who is wearing your company logo T-shirt, inside of the Mayan Temple, talking to you about the rules of the game.
That was actually one of our hard rules from the conference. We said: Get that game master doing those rules in the hallway or even in front of the game door. Give them another physical space, so that when you open the door on the Mayan Temple, everybody gasps and they can immediately start their adventure. That talk in Boston — that was the first conference talk from Strange Bird where I had people coming to me not just saying “I'm going to implement that change” but “I've already implemented that change.”
That's what you want — for the industry to get better. You want the whole industry to implement the things that you found the most effective. We view each other as “co-peters.” That's kind of what I call it. I don't know if there's a better term, but we're not competitors. We are cooperating together. Better escape rooms in my home market of Houston or anywhere else in the world is better for my business, because you can only play escape room once.
It's not a zero sum game, like a lot of businesses.
No, it's not absolutely not. The better the games in my local market, the more audience I'm going to get to come and see what I do. If you choose a game that isn’t very good as your first time, then you think oh, this is what all games must be like! Escape rooms are not for me. We don't want that, so the industry is very supportive of each other.
Also, everybody is really excited! People come to the industry with different specializations. Sometimes people are coming from the Haunted House industry, so they do really creepy set build and maybe some animatronics. Then you have people who are coming more from the puzzle world where they invest in very clever puzzles and mechanisms. There's people coming in from engineering, and there's a lot of tech involved in these games. It takes a lot of software to make it all work. I often step back and think, this is such an explosion of pent-up creativity! Humans are fundamentally creative, and because of the priorities of the market, they don't have the opportunity to make profit off of creativity.
And there’s a limit to what the market will reward in terms of creativity.
Exactly! And with the escape room industry, the bar to entry is really low. It has gone higher over recent years, as far as what it costs to enter the market, but ultimately, we are looking at an industry that is still dominated by small business owners, just like me and my partner, Cameron Cooper. We had an idea, gathered the funding, put a plan into action, then just ran the thing — and now we bring people from all over the world to see it. That's amazing. The industry is not yet run by franchises and chains, although they are starting to kind of creep in a little bit here and there.
So you don’t worry about telling other creators what has made your games so successful, because you don’t need to protect trade secrets. You need your fellow mom and pop stores to be even more awesome. That’s must be a great industry to be in, where you can share what makes you special.
We know what makes us special. We come from a theatre background, so we bring an expertise in storytelling. We know how to structure a character arc. For example, the other interesting thing about the Magic Circle talk was that you can put that boundary between the real world and the game world in different places. At Strange Bird, we begin the Magic Circle the moment you enter our entire facility. When you arrive, it doesn’t look like an escape room company. The Strange Bird lobby is a conglomeration of other strange businesses.
The Strange Bird lobby looks like a normal business park lobby, black and white with bright lights and nice high modern Chrome finishes. But then you start paying attention a little bit more, and you see that there are a bunch of strange businesses here: Apologies by Design or Existential Crisis Management or the School of Accidental Photography (that is actually the bathroom).
Yes, if you go to a Strange Bird show, definitely stop by the bathrooms! The School of Accidental Photography is probably my favorite, just because I got to understudy for that role in the zoom show, The Mystery of Adrian Rook, which you put on while shut down for COVID.
When the pandemic hit, we created a story where all these business owners had an open house, and one of their characters is missing. So you engaged with these different characters and you found out more about what happened, and then you're able to put it together at the end and discover where he had gone.
It also allowed you to keep your cast of actors employed when almost everything performance-based was shut down.
I mean, it wasn't the same amount of shows, of course, or as many as we wanted. It wasn't a replacement, but we were able to give our actors two or three shows a week and from the revenue of that we were able to pay them and also pay our rent, which was big at that time. We did use the space for some of the sets, but we had all of our actors in different rooms so we were able to do it responsibly.
We have to take care of our cast — and keep them! — because the way we use actors is what sets us apart. Our actors are what has made us the number one Escape Room in the Western Hemisphere for four years in a row. All these people who have played 1,000 Escape Rooms are, of course, very nerdy, and so they've done all sorts of intense rankings.
To brag on you a little, Strange Bird Immersive is also one of the few places that maintains their rankings year after year. On a lot of those world lists, there are games that chart really high the year they come out, but then they gradually fall down the list. Y’all stay up there.
We have, and I think that that is the power of a story well told. We really invest in the narrative. We make it something that stays with you because we have live actors. It’s not video characters or voiceovers; they are a real human presence inside of the room. I think that adds to the sense of reality. I love that people sometimes ask me what happens to Daphne [from Man from Beyond] after this. They think of her as somebody who exists outside of her story. We couldn’t do that without our actors in the room.
It's also a really different experience to work for a company like Strange Bird Immersive — particularly compared to any other acting job. A project with this kind of longevity is unheard of in traditional theatre – that model is just not viable outside of the most successful Broadway shows.
That’s the other exciting thing about what we do. It is professional theater at an approachable small scale. We don’t need to spend hundreds of thousands on sets like Broadway, but it is a way to get professional quality regional theatre. We’ve been running the same show for over five years, and we've been able to hire and retain actors who perform with us for over a year. Steady employment as an actor just does not happen.
I think it’s important that we are not a nonprofit theater company. We are for-profit theater, which also just doesn’t exist outside of Broadway. But this work excites the public so much that they are willing to pay ticket prices that support the business. So many theater companies have whole grant writing departments. They live or die based on their sponsorships, and we're not having to deal with any of that. We don't have to prove ourselves to anyone but the public.
It is a different model of employment for actors too. When we hold auditions, we have to communicate to the local Houston market that this is a minimum yearlong contract with the possibility for renewal. Everybody is used to two-month long contracts. They do a month of rehearsal, a month of performances, then boom! Done. And you’re lucky if you are employed half the year.
Strange Bird can give actors permanent work and permanent income from their artistic talent. It’s also great that they get to stay with a role for a long time, which you just don't get to do artistically. They get to really take a deep dive with these characters. And you honestly feel so free, because you are so confident in your performance, so you can put your attention on the players.
The people you are in the scene with — namely the escape room players — changes every night, just like traditional theatre always aspires to do.
Often in the traditional theatre experience, you're just like, ”The audience is so quiet tonight…” Actors live for the audience that laughs. But in immersive theater, of course they're there with you – you get to look them in the eye! You get so much more connection and, as an actor, it's so rewarding to build new relationships every single performance.
When I'm performing — and I train everybody else in our company to do this as well — you read the audience and meet them where they are. They're a bit giggly? You’re gonna change your energy and your tone. They’re really leaning into the scary aspects? Then you play that up. They’re being a little flirty? Oh boy, do I got the flirt for you! We get good at figuring out the levels where people are comfortable. Because after months, you're super off book, you're not concerned about hitting any of your marks, you’re able to play in a way you can’t with shows that close within weeks. Actors really get to explore the depths of the work, and it gives them the freedom to build something that is different every single night.
For Man From Beyond, we have a 108-page script. Granted, I think the acting portion of that is only around 20 pages. The rest of it is other kinds of manuals, because our actors do the stage management and game mastering. But we also have a section called the Immersive Acting Toolkit. None of our actors, with maybe one exception, had ever done work like this before.
The script also has a five-step technique for handling asshole players because we care a lot about not putting our employees in a bad situation. The tactics escalate.
Step One just asks, “Can you ignore this person?” If they’re being disruptive, but it's easily passed over, just go ahead and do so. That's the easiest thing. But, if a person is getting consistently in the way…
Step Two — and this is not intuitive! — get vulnerable.
That is the opposite of my instinct. As a teacher, my next step would be to get firm with them, but now that I think about it, that can lead to a lot of resistance.
Exactly, we do the opposite. We get vulnerable. Take what was said and respond to it honestly from the character's point of view. When audience members have an attitude, they are often trying to get you to break character. They want to see that they’ve gotten a rise out of you. When you answer in character, that actually puts them in their place, because they don't expect you to be a person in that moment. Basically, what you show is that you are not an NPC — a non-player character. It shows that you are a real person, and that works — it really really works!
But if it doesn’t, Step Three is making an appeal to the rest of the group. Peer pressure does wonders. “Are they always like this?” you say, or you make a joke to the rest of the group. You make them accountable to you and to their friends. Usually, the rest of the group will give that person a little bit of a look, since they would like to continue with the scene. Sort of like, “You’re making it less fun for all of us.”
And then Step Four, if that still doesn't work, if you're looking at an entire team of hecklers — which we have had before, four or so people who think they’re here to make fun of what is happening — we tell the actors to plow through the script. The story we tell is a very serious one, and it's very emotionally mature. We ask our audience to come along with us for that, and some people don't have the level of maturity to be able to handle the content. So just don't give them the spotlight and keep going with the script to give them the information. Get through it and out of there.
And in Step Five, we say that you can abort the scene. We give all of our actors the option that if you feel like you are being emotionally abused — or worse, physically abused — that is an immediate end of the game. Hard stop. Kick them out.
Our policy is: our actors are not out there to be your punching bag. If they do not like what is happening, they can immediately break character and end the show. They can just say, “Congratulations, you've won, the experience is now over.”
We've only had that really be exercised a few times though, and, strangely enough, it's always at the end. I think teams are hyped up after the win, but the story after the win in our game is not easy to swallow. It’s complex. It’s not the triumphant high note that you expect, but you really go through the full gamut of emotions.
I’m sure a lot of people in customer service jobs (say at Southwest over Christmas) would LOVE to be able to just abort a customer interaction. But so many industries are absolutely committed to, “Put the customer above all!”
Oh no, my employees above all! Let me be clear: my cast above all. I need them! They are my special effect. They are my magic! Without them, Strange Bird doesn’t have what makes us special, and I want them for tomorrow and for a year from now. Unlike most people who hire actors, we are all about retention. So we train you to handle assholes and make sure you know that you can leave at any time. We've got your back. Whatever it is that you tell the customer, we're going to be on your side.
We also make clear that they should always let us know when this has happened, because aftercare is really important. But we’ve done 1,571 performances, and this has happened around five times. And that makes me hopeful for humanity. Because let me tell you this: everybody is so fucking kind. You have no idea how people sparkle inside of this experience. They are extraordinary. I don't know if that's a reflection of just the people who come through our door, who are willing to try something new. I’d like to think it is partially a reflection of our design encouraging the right behavior. A good immersive entertainment design is going to make people want to be kids again and just fill them full of wonder.
And your story in Man From Beyond is also about helping someone rather than combating someone. I have been to a lot of good “combating someone” escape rooms, but yours is about cooperation.
You’re not saving the world (another common goal in escape rooms). It is literally helping one person with their problem, so that opens up a lot of empathy in itself. I'm just happy to report that it works. I actually have a friend who was a big fan of Man From Beyond who told me, “When I think about that scene that I had with Daphne and then I think about somebody not being nice to her, I get angry.” I'm just like, “Calm down, David, it's really really rare.”
Learn more of Strange Bird’s secrets by checking out Haley’s blog Immersology. You can find me at katymulvaney.com, where I run a monthly advice column for science fiction and fantasy characters, mostly from children’s literature.
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