Christina and I recently completed a negative experience at a nearby escape room, Panic Escape Room. I don’t like speaking negatively about escape rooms regarding subjective elements that I personally didn’t like, but Panic had enough objective issues that make it a perfect case study for simple things to avoid in room design.
We solved the Narcos room. The room appears to be themed after the Narcos Netflix series, and the set design was the highlight of the room. I wont spoil anything about the game itself, but the space was well-built and the props were high quality.
And now that I’ve gotten the positive out of the way, I can dive into everything else about the experience that was problematic. Most of these things were little, but little issues compound each other and lead to an ultimately negative experience.
1) The game master wasn’t paying attention. This was an annoyance a few times, but the most salient moment was when our group spent literally ten minutes on one balky lock. The first combo we tried was correct, but after trying it about ten times (we’ve encountered these locks a lot and are aware how picky they can be about the direction entry), we figured we must be wrong and started trying other interpretations of the instructions. It took a long time before the game master finally alerted us that the first combo we tried was correct, after which it took a few more tries to get the lock to open.
2) The hints weren’t hints- they were answers. We used two hints, and in both hints, we really just needed a nudge on where to stand to look at something or where to start looking for pieces of a combo. Both times, the hints immediately gave us the final answer, robbing us of the chance to do any of the footwork.
3) The theming was unpleasant for the sake of “authenticity.” I’ve encountered a few cases where businesses make strange choices for the sake of attempted realism. In the case of the Narcos room, it was pornography. I get that it’s plausible a real drug lord might horde porn, but it doesn’t do anything to sell me on the quality of the experience- it actually leads us to spend more time speculating on what the game designer was thinking that made them decide this was a good idea. We’ve seen other cases like this in the past, and my least favorite example of this (to be clear, this was not at Panic) is the handling of rusty metal, particularly sharp rusty metal in the dark. Panic advertised “mature themes,” but our group assumed it was related to the drug trade, and we were caught off guard by the porn.
4) We were actually locked in. Most businesses don’t actually lock the door, and those that do have an emergency release. The one door into the Narcos room appeared to actually be locked with no emergency trigger. I’m usually not too squeamish about safety in escape rooms, but with the only door locked and no windows, a fire could be disastrous.
5) Puzzle design was lacking. I’m usually pretty quiet on the subject of puzzle design since I strongly believe the quality of a puzzle is very subjective. In this case, however, there were really only 3-4 actual “puzzles” in the room. For the most part, progress in the room was governed by finding instructions and following them, with any potential obstacles being due to the interpretation of the instructions. This isn’t a hill I’m going to pick to die on since an escape room focused on the “seek and find” elements rather than puzzles isn’t necessarily objectively worse than a room with more puzzles in it, but as I mentioned before, negatives tend to multiply, rather than add, together so what might feel acceptable in one room could be painful in another.
Of these downsides, points 1-3 are the things that really bothered the group, and points 4-5 are negatives that our group probably would have ignored if not already bothered by points 1-3.
Leaving my own opinion aside, of the three other participants I played with, one hated it, one disliked it, and one was on the lower edge of indifferent, all citing primarily points 1-3. It’s a shame for a business that clearly put a good amount of time and money into its space and theme to end up with negative experiences for some pretty simple customer experience issues, so I hope they get the feedback they need to clean up their games.
On a final note, I checked the web reviews for Panic and saw the reviews were generally positive. It sounds like most groups didn’t encounter issues #1 and #2, although issue #3 seems to be a problem for about half of their rooms. I wouldn’t expect issues #4 and #5 to impact the average newcomer, but seasoned escape room players would likely spot these details.