On the Definition & Importance of Actual Puzzles in Escape Rooms

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio famously said on pornography, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

I was chatting with Puzzle Break co-founder Lindsay Morse about a topic on which we both agree: Escape Rooms with a greater number of actual puzzles are more fun than those with fewer puzzles and more "tasks". As the discussion continued, we discovered that neither one of us had a great way to put language to the definition of "puzzle" in this context. What is a puzzle? Well, that's hard to say, but we know it when we see it. Unsatisfied, Dr. Morse hit the dictionary:

Lindsay:  1st def: "to cause (any one) to be at a loss what to do or how to turn; to embarrass with difficulties; to put to a non-plus; to perplex, bewilder, confound"

that's for the verb, for the noun:

3a "something contrived or made for the purpose of puzzling, or exercising one's ingenuity and patience; a toy or problem of this kind"

so I think that actually hits what I'm trying to get out

the need to bewilder, perplex or confound at first

otherwise there isn't really much pay off for "solving" it

and it's really just a "task" and not a "puzzle" with that component missing

Ancient Greek has this amazing word "aporia" which means "to be at a loss" or "to lack the resources needed" and they talk about it a lot

partially, I think, because it feels so good to get out of that feeling

and I think the need for "ingenuity" to solve a puzzle ends up being key for the satisfaction

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it is about humans that make us like solving puzzles so much, and I sadly haven't come to an answer

back to the etymology...

they think the verb might have come first, and it might be related to "pose", e.g., "to pose a question"

All good stuff, but I'd go even simpler. In escape rooms, most objectives can be broken down into two primary components:

  1. Figuring out what to do
  2. Doing it

"Tasks" are extremely focused on #2 and almost completely ignore #1. "Puzzles" focus on both. Ironically, traditional jigsaw puzzles (as in the image accompanying this blog post) fall into the task category. At Puzzle Break, we like to focus more on puzzles and less on tasks. The "A-ha!" moment (and it's accompanying endorphin rush) when a player figures out what they need to do has been described as similar to crack cocaine, and I think the comparison ain't too far off.

Unfortunately (in my opinion), many escape rooms are eschewing meatier and more rewarding puzzles in favor of easy-to-grok tasks. Spoiler-light examples from some rooms I've played:

  • Using a blanket to retrieve an out-of-reach key.
  • Using a spoon to unscrew a screw.
  • Using pairs of sticks to manipulate an object in a maze or out of a container.
  • An electric maze game.

In a vacuum, there's absolutely nothing wrong with tasks in an escape room (except when they are frustrating and unfair to execute). Well designed tasks have a time and a place, and they can definitely enhance an experience. However, experiences that sacrifice puzzle content, A-ha! moments of discovery, and general mental acrobatics in favor of exclusively "do-this-objective" tasks are missing out on a vital component of what makes escape rooms so very fun.




Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the oldest contemporary escape room company based in the United States. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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