Here’s a potentially controversial statement – an average escape room with a great game master provides a better experience than a remarkable escape room with an average game master. Christina posed this to me as a hypothesis, and thinking back to the most memorably bad experiences I’ve had, I have to agree. The top four or five experiences that came to mind all had issues with the game master.
It’s not just a matter of a correlation between room quality and game master engagement, either. The whole reason Christina brought up this hypothesis was a recent experience at what I’d consider to be an excellently designed room, which aside from a few technical glitches was an amazing ride start to finish. But near the end, we asked for a hint and spent ten minutes going back and forth with the game master on hints for puzzles we already solved, only to eventually discover on our own, with two minutes remaining, that there was an equipment glitch that resolved itself when we jiggled a wall-mounted puzzle.
Both of Christina’s worst experiences across her ~80 rooms solved dealt with this same kind of issue- repeatedly getting hints for puzzles we already solved. I was a little surprised when I found I had a similar story. My worst experience ever was when I had to spend ten minutes requesting hints on the walkie talkie before learning that the puzzle was unsolvable because we moved some boxes, then waiting another thirty minutes for the game master to come in and address the issue (and then being greeted with a reaction of shock when I expressed that I wasn’t having the time of my life!). Every single other bad experience off the top of my head has had a similar story.
On the other hand, rooms that are average or below par from a puzzle or “fun” perspective are merely unmemorable, but never quite bad. My worst experiences from a puzzle perspective happen when I realize I’ve seen the puzzles before and that the room design is a carbon copy of another place I’ve been. But even in those cases, I drive away a little underwhelmed but otherwise no worse for the experience.
Some venues try to get around the dependency on a highly engaged game master by automating hint delivery, but personally I find there’s no substitute for working with someone who truly loves escape rooms. A great game master sets the tone from the experience from the introduction all the way through the debrief, and it makes a difference for the overall experience even if the team uses zero hints.
To make a long story short- my experiences across about 330 escape rooms support Christina’s hypothesis that the game master plays a huge role in how positively we remember experiences, and particularly that an inattentive or unenthusiastic game master can tank even the coolest of experiences in our memories. I’m thankful that nearly all game masters I’ve ever worked with have been wonderful people who go out of their ways to provide a great experience, so meeting game masters and owners is one of the best parts about traveling and visiting escape rooms everywhere.