A lot of reality is subjective. This includes the relative difficulty of escape games. So in order to shed more light on my particular assessments of difficulty, I have created a rubric. Unfortunately, I took it really seriously and now it’s quite long.
But first, a brief glossary of some terms I use a lot:
Puzzle Array: The “physical” area where the puzzle exists. For example, let’s say the game instructs me to make a cup of coffee. I collect coffee grounds, a mug, use the sink to fill mug with water. Then I take all of these components over to a coffee maker and put it all together. Everything I just mentioned in italics was part of the puzzle array.
Puzzle arrays can be readily-apparent or somewhat invisible. If you can look at something and know intuitively that is is a puzzle array, then it is readily-apparent. A safe is a readily-apparent puzzle array. A panel in a wall that you need to pry open with a crowbar is not a readily-apparent puzzle array.
Cascade: Read more here.
Items: Things you can pick up and use.
Anecdotal test: Can I solve this while I am listening to the radio or half-watching a basketball game? If yes, we’re in Easy territory.
1) Readily-apparent puzzle arrays. Puzzle arrays are easily recognizable for what they are and the required solutions are strongly implied based on visual clues. A safe with a 4 digit input code strongly implies that I both need to open the safe and that I need to look for a string of 4 numbers elsewhere in the room.
2) Little to no cascade. Once I open the safe, the Finale Key is inside and I am done with the room. The puzzle-chain is this example is very short.
3) Components and items deactivate once you solve the puzzle array. If I use a screw driver to open a clock and successfully retrieve its batteries, the screw driver disappears.
5) Easy games have no Absurdity. Regardless of the game’s aesthetic the tools and puzzle arrays all function and operate very closely to how they would in real life. Or at least how they would on TV.
Anecdotal Test: Did this take me more than one afternoon to solve? Did the game do something cute, funny or cheeky that I liked? If yes to both, we’re probably in Medium territory.
1. There’s more cascade at work in a medium game so puzzle-chains tend to be longer. Instead of the four digit code opening the safe, it actually just unlocks a different panel on the safe which requires a two digit code. There’s more layering. As a result, games with more cascade take longer to solve.
2. Puzzle arrays are still visually apparent in a medium game but they sometimes have more esoteric visual clues. Instead of a four digit code to open the safe, this time it’s a keypad. So it’s unclear how many digits you are looking for. Or it’s simply a panel of colors and it’s not clear what the pattern will be.
3. Re-usable Items and Item Crafting: Let’s go back to our coffee maker example for a moment. We have made the coffee and retrieved the key but the sink and the mug are still active and usable. This strongly implies they will be involved in another puzzle. Re-usable items do not inherently make the game is harder but is usually means that a lot more thought has gone into the puzzle designs. That’s usually a good sign if you’re hoping for an intriguing experience. Item crafting may also be present in a medium game. That’s where you’re able to combine or deconstruct items to create new items. Crafting does increase the difficulty because you often have to think outside the box to truly determine what tools you have at your disposal at any given moment.
4. Medium games sometimes dabble in Absurdity.
So there’s esoteric interfaces and then there’s Absurdity. Pictured above we have both. The esoteric interface is the disc depicting four human body parts. The elongated finger coming out of the drain constitutes an Absurdity element. We may have some preconceived notions of how to use and operate a disc that depicts symbols but it’s not clear how to interact with an elongated finger coming up out of a drain. It adds a special degree of difficulty to the puzzle array.
Anecdotal Test: Did my blood pressure increase while playing this game? Am I frowning on the outside but fucking stoked on the inside? Then this game is Difficult.
1) Cascade out the whazoo. Difficult games are usually long form and so solving puzzle arrays only leads you to additional puzzle arrays as opposed to simply providing Finale Keys and letting you finish up quickly. As a result, difficult games tend to have their own vocabularies and rules. The game will most likely teach you a new game mechanic that is highly specific to that game or franchise.
2) In a difficult game, the visuals associated with puzzle arrays are almost always esoteric. Here is an example from my favorite game, The Room:
Unless you work or live inside of a crypto-science museum, I doubt that you’ve ever seen an interactive panel exactly like this one. In the difficult game, it takes some trial and error to learn how operate the puzzle array before you can figure out how to solve it. Harder still, puzzle arrays may be invisible or spread out across several areas that make it hard to see the different components as a single array.
3) Puzzle arrays are often re-usable. When everything in the game is reusable, more possible solutions exist.
4) The difficult game is no stranger to Absurdity.
In the example pictured above, this is a clear example of a readily-apparent puzzle array with an esoteric interface. We understand implicitly that it needs to be solved though the rules of engagement are a bit unclear. The Absurdity comes in with the weird, elongated finger coming out of the drain. The Absurdity element comes from the inclusion of a fish, parrot, frying pan, and Greek urn. It’s easy to understand what puzzle conditions will satisfy a lever or a safe but what puzzle conditions satisfy a fish? Absurd.