Why do so many escape rooms use a “horror” theme?
The other day I had a really interesting exchange with our game designer. He’s now done over 50 games in his career, and he sent me a list of them all. Most of them all had the same theme – Horror. They were designed to be scary above anything else. Games with names like:
- Haunted Dollhouse
- Zombie Lab
- The Raven Woods (serial killer theme)
- Haunted School
The list went on and on. If you’re a veteran of escape rooms, you know games like these. There’s the standard bank heist or murder mystery that you see everywhere, and then there was a list of dozens of horror-themed escape rooms. To be fair, he designs what he’s paid to design, but I asked him why he thought so many escape rooms, including ones he hasn’t designed of course, had a “horror” theme to them.
I asked because we don’t go the horror route. Our rooms are certainly thematically intense, but we’re not horror fans. We don’t want our rooms to feel like haunted houses, and we want them to thrill on a different level. Here was what he wrote in response to my question about why so many escape rooms go the haunted route.
“All escape room owners want games that will give players something to talk about later. Fear is one of the strongest emotions humans have, and it’s easy to create a feeling that
will be remembered by playing to fear. It’s easier to create a ‘fear-based’ game than one with high-level game play that actually forces people to think and enjoy the escape room
for the game itself.”
His point is a good one. We often remember our strongest emotion – not the whole range of emotions we feel during an experience. And fear is certainly one of the strongest emotions we feel, but I’ll also argue that “exhilaration” is long-lasting emotion. If we can build a game that is exhilarating, immersive, challenging, and fun then players will remember the intricacies of the game far longer than the fear that comes from a haunted house like room.
In our designer’s words, “choosing fear-based rooms over well designed escape rooms simply allows designers to mask bad game play and poor puzzles. To design a fun game is much harder than designing a scary game, and unfortunately most escape rooms are more scary than fun because that’s the easy road.”
I fully see the irony in him telling me it’s harder to design the games he’s designing for us. It validates his work, but I dispassionately agree with him at the same time. I’ve played 14 escape rooms, and I’ve intentionally avoided the “scary” themes. But nonetheless, 8 of them have ended up going the scary route. 3 of them were well designed escape rooms, and 3 just down right sucked.
I don’t hate haunted houses. I don’t hate horror movies, and I don’t have fear-based escape rooms. They may not be my cup of tea, but they have their place. Plenty of people love those, and that’s wonderful! I’m thrilled for that.
But our goal at Escape Tactic was always to build top-notch escape rooms that fully immerse you in the theme. That could well mean there are “scary” themes, but each time it’s come time to choose a theme for our next room, we’ve always followed a very simple decision tree:
- What theme sounds interesting to us?
- Is that theme generally unique and does it allow for a set, props, and scenic design that would fully immerse our players in the game?
- Can we build creative puzzles that will wow our guests and fit within the theme?
Every escape room we built MUST check all three of those boxes otherwise we don’t get past the design phase – and yes, we’ve definitely killed games that we’ve started to design then ended up failing one of these three.
So you’ll find our games to be intense, thematically consistent, challenging, and we hope memorably fun. Maybe we’ll even do a “horror” game one day. But for now we like the path we’re on, and we’re not out of ideas yet so we’re going to keep cranking them out.
Hopefully our escape rooms will live up to your expectations because that’s the only measure we truly care about!