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.
A Glossary of 5 Terms I Use a Lot
Puzzle Arrays: 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 invisible. If the puzzle is readily apparent you can look at it and know intuitively that it is a puzzle array needing to be solved. A locked safe is a readily apparent puzzle array. On the flip side, a panel in a wall that you need to pry open with a crowbar is an invisible puzzle array.
Beyond readily apparent and invisible, Arrays can either have a straightforward or esoteric interface. The locked safe in the previous example is readily apparent and has a straightforward interface. If, instead, you were to come across a contraption with many levers and buttons, that would be a readily apparent puzzle array with an esoteric interface because the machine is clearly a puzzle array though it’s not clear what you need to do to “solve” the machine.
To summarize: a coffee machine is a straightforward, readily apparent puzzle array. A contraption with many buttons and levers is an esoteric, readily apparent puzzle array. If you hide either under a curtain, they cease to be readily apparent but instead become invisible.
Absurdity: Illogical elements that create difficulty or humor or both! Absurdity is distinct from just an esoteric puzzle array (discussed above). Imagine that instead of coming across that contraption with buttons and levers you find an orb that squirts goo at you. The contraption with buttons and levers is an esoteric puzzle because while you may not know how to “solve” the contraption, you do know how levers and buttons work. An orb that squirts goo is a very non-standard tool that you may not know how to apply or even test. The contraption is merely esoteric while the orb is both esoteric and Absurd.
Cascade: In a garden variety escape game, you will find several puzzle arrays in a room. Generally speaking, the first puzzle arrays you find are the easiest to solve. Once the simple puzzle arrays are completed, additional ones will reveal themselves. Eventually, the “finale” puzzle of the room will become clear to you. The finale puzzle typically draws on rules or patterns you learned during the other puzzles. The finale puzzle reveals the Master Key that allows you to leave the room and win the game.
Good cascade occurs when the designers have taken the extra time to create many, nested puzzles. So, the puzzle arrays progress from something like: Key on the floor > opens the safe > 4 digit code > opens the closet door > teddy bear > rip open teddy bear > bottle of honey > use honey to glue plate back together > secret message > Revelation > Master Key > You Win!
In a puzzle with so-so cascade, you may only get: Key on the floor > opens the safe > Master Key > You Win! See how much shorter that was? Boring!
Items: Things you can pick up and use. (Duh)
Solves (Typical vs. Unique): All puzzle arrays have a solution. That solution (or “Solve”) can be fairly standard or it can be strange. A Typical Solve is something commonplace like inputting a code or turning a key in a lock whereas a Unique Solve is a creative twist on the expected formula like uncorking a wine bottle or inflating a balloon with helium. You might think that Typical Solves are easier than Unique Solves but that isn’t always the case. For instance, imagine you are playing a game and you find a pair of shoelaces. Later, you also discover a pair of sneakers that do not have any shoelaces. This is a fairly easy, readily-apparent puzzle but I would argue that it has a Unique Solve as opposed to a Typical one. Unique Solves make the fundamental parts of the puzzle array more interesting and are one of the chief characteristics I use to differentiate a mediocre game from a good game. Unique Solves really make a game feel special, regardless of the game’s difficulty or aesthetics.
The Easy Escape
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 short.
3) Puzzle arrays 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 and the clock no longer respond to clicks.
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.
The Medium Escape
Anecdotal Test: Did this take me more than one afternoon to solve? Did the game do something funny that I liked? If yes, 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 readily apparent 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 array. Re-usable items do not inherently make the game harder. However, they usually mean 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. Item crafting does increase more difficulty because you 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.
The Hard Escape
Anecdotal Test: Did my blood pressure increase while playing this game? Am I frowning on the outside but very happy and intrigued 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. You have made the coffee but the game continues to let you make additional cups of coffee. Will you need coffee for a different part of the puzzle? Are you supposed to add creamer? Are you supposed to break the coffee machine? A thousand questions will occur to you. The difficulty is now in your mind. Will you escape, grasshopper?
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 a straightforward interface that also has elements of Absurdity. We understand implicitly that this array needs to be solved and the idea behind a pipe-maze is easily grasped so it’s not esoteric. But it is Absurd. 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? Or a frying pan?
The Beyond Hard Escape
Occasionally, I will designate a game as being “Beyond Hard.” This simply means I feel the game is impossible to solve without use of hints or a walk through. Beyond Hard games will never garner a Seal of Goodness because they are simply unfair. There are a few ways a game can become Beyond Hard. Here are just a few examples:
- Puzzle arrays are invisible beyond reason. It’s cool when a game contains secrets compartments or an ever expanding universe. It’s not cool when you’ve been playing a game for over an hour and you find out that the shelf you’ve been clicking on repeatedly turns out to have an underside with a code. And the only reason it wasn’t exposed to you before was because you didn’t click the right way.
- Puzzle arrays might be referencing one of multiple codices. If you find a door that requires a 4 digit color code, it’s reasonable to look for other areas of the room that seem to exhibit 4 elements of different colors. For instance, four hats each of a different color. The hats would constitute a “reference.” References are the bread and butter of escape games. So, if you are in a room looking for a four digit color code but in addition to the hats, there is literally four of everything in different colors (four vases, four couches, four colored prints on the wall, four mugs, four bobble heads) then the game has become Hard and you must brute force entry all the color codes until you find the correct one. The game becomes Beyond Hard if all of the references are actually referencing each other and some sort of translation needs to take place. If the game does not take pains to tell you which reference is primary, secondary and tertiary, it is no longer a game but instead it is just a sadistic exercise and a textbook example of learned helplessness.