March 20, 2022 – I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to play some really cool escape rooms on my birthday in the past, and 2022 was no exception. Escape Code in Branson has placed well in the USA Today escape room rankings, and I was curious to see what it was all about.
Escape Code has two rooms listed that immediately should pique the interest of any escape room enthusiast based on a high level description- the Escape Sagas games. These 90 minute games span about 3000 square feet each. 90 minute games are rare enough in their own right, and having that much room to explore? Sign me up.
Upon arriving at Escape Code’s facility, we were extremely impressed by how large and how polished everything was. The lobby has both a front area for signup and a waiting area for players getting ready to start their games, and the waiting area conveniently has a rack featuring flyers for many of the things to do in Branson. It makes a great way to kill time before a game. The waiting room also has a projector showing the movie-quality trailers for each of Escape Code’s seven games on repeat, which is a great way to get players excited about trying more.
We ended up playing three games back to back to back – Secret Passage (90 min), Revenge (60 min), and The Zeros (90 min). I’m focusing today on Secret Passage to make sure I do it justice.
A famous writer is staying in a hotel for a relaxing getaway to write a new novel in peace, but things aren’t going well. Scenes from her unpublished manuscript are being recreated around the hotel, and her prestigious award has gone missing. It’s up to the solvers to figure out what’s happening and retrieve the missing award.
The Set Up
At the very beginning of the game, it’s clear Escape Code has dedicated a lot of thought to making the experience optimal. The hotel isn’t too dark, but even though teams could probably complete the whole game without a single flashlight, Escape Code provides enough flashlights that every single team member could use one. Likewise for pads of paper for taking notes- in the event a group of eight note takers playing together, every single one of them could choose to carry around a notepad.
This approach goes back to a central concept of customer experience in dim and spooky escape rooms- squinting in the dark at tiny or faint numbers is not fun. There are decent ways to solve for that problem (e.g. a dark escape room just needs to make sure there’s one area with sufficient light that any writing could be brought to), but Escape Code’s solution is perhaps the most elegant and impressive approach, especially in a space of this size. The challenge is due to the puzzle, not due to the solver’s eyesight.
The element of choice at the beginning is also a wonderful way to encourage situational problem solving right off the bat. Each player only has two hands, so if everyone carries a pen and clipboard, no one will be free to explore high and low using the flashlights. Even though it’s not a puzzle in the conventional sense, this early decision may go a long way toward influencing the group’s success.
At the risk of getting close to spoiler territory, I will say that the game has as many twists and turns as the average mystery novel. No joke, the hotel environment could house multiple guests comfortably- I’ve stayed at smaller real hotels in the past. The game makes good use of the large space for hiding secrets that slowly unravel.
The game is nonlinear with several paths that can run in parallel. At one point I branched off from the rest of my team and saw them only briefly over the course of about ten minutes. It was extremely cool and added to the awe factor of the game- there are enough spaces and enough puzzles to get lost in.
The puzzles were fair and thematically satisfying. Everything tied back to the underlying objective and each distinct room had puzzles related to what would really be happening in that room. The room had some good moments where the team uncovers clues that seem borderline useless at first until the group has a rewarding revelation as to how the clue needs to be used.
One final special callout on the game design- I’ve visited over 500 escape rooms, never before have I played an escape room game that gives a team of experienced solvers so much to do. Typically when solving with others, I make a point to maximize the rest of the group’s enjoyment and never be the first one through a door, first one to interact with a gadget, or first one to leap upon a new puzzle. For the first time in a VERY long time, I was able to turn that switch in my head off and dive right in on everything I found without feeling guilty about it. The game gives enough time that a less experienced team could work through the different threads together, but it was invigorating being able to tackle them at the same time.
Our team finished with plenty of time to spare, but we had the biggest puzzle high I can recall in recent memory. We couldn’t stop talking about the game and trading stories about the puzzles that were accomplished in parallel. Each member of our team had at least a few good puzzle solves, and with so much content, it’d be hard for anyone to feel left out.
The final sequence in the room wrapped up the story nicely, answering all the questions posed by the story. I’m typically more focused on puzzle design and challenge more than the story, but I really appreciate the intricacy involved in weaving together such a tight experience where every reveal shines light on a central mystery, including some doozies at the end. I imagine many of my friends who are enthusiasts for immersive narrative like murder mystery dinners or interactive theater would love the game.
I am thrilled that Escape Code has seven games, because it means I can plan a few more return visits to try their others. The games are good enough to warrant planning a trip around, and I can’t wait to visit again.