The Design of Our Games and Motivation Behind Them

Scott M Reviews Second Telling Missions
May 16, 2017
A short history of the White Rose
July 21, 2017
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At Second Telling Missions we are often asked about the process for design of the games themselves, and our motivation behind doing so. This blog entry answers the questions about motivation and design. We will blog about building the games in a future post.

Motivation

First, the motivation. Patrick, the main designer, is an enthusiastic player of escape room games, playing his first in Prague back in mid-2014 during a visit there, having read of the concept in a newspaper article in early 2014.

He had also a long-standing interest in the history of nonviolent resistance groups. It might have started after reading Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia in 2007, which had an essay on Sophie Scholl of the White Rose group, but it certainly crystalized after he listened to Aung San Suu Kyi’s 2011 Reith Lectures, in which she spoke of the experience of being a dissident. (He produced a short film about dissent in 2014.)

The White Rose typed

These two interests were combined into the concept of Second Telling Missions – hypothetical situations set within real history. It’s a kind of experiment in presenting history, building on the idea of ‘serious gaming’.

Patrick also had an interest in interactive theatre and promenade theatre (where an audience walks through a set and observes actors). He thought there was scope for making escape rooms more theatrical, thereby helping produce immersion, a quality many players desire.

Design – in general

To the design.  There were the general principles that:

  • Puzzles should usually have unique solutions
  • Puzzles shouldn’t require outside knowledge
  • Puzzles shouldn’t involve too much of a logical leap
  • Puzzles should require reasoning rather than guessing
  • Puzzles should not be too easy, but neither be too hard
  • Solving a puzzle should bring a reward
  • A solver should know when a puzzle is solved
  • There shouldn’t be a great deal of ‘process’ involved in solving a puzzle – once you had figured out the secret, there wouldn’t be a lot of repetitive work.
  • A puzzle shouldn’t be able to be ‘spoiled’ by moving some pieces from their original positions.

Detail from dot puzzle

We wanted to present original puzzles that were plausible, that fit the historical context. This fittedness would also aid immersion.

Patrick had played around 40 games across 10 countries before designing Rescue the White Rose and Sabotage the Enigma. (He’d designed one and a half other games before getting to the present two, in fact.) He also read a lot of reviews (including by The Room Escape Artist and by Scott M), listened to podcasts, and read enthusiasts’ comments in various forums. This pointed to what not to do more often than what to do.

We had a sense that we wanted to give players agency, to make them feel that what they do matters, and that they were the ones to do it. We wanted to involve them in a story, and for them to be the protagonists, without the stories getting in the way of actual play.

Game specific design

Rescue the White Rose started with historical research. We tried to get a thorough understanding of the group’s activities, and read internet sources and books and watched films about them. Then we developed a ‘what if’ scenario that could form a mission for players to carry out – that would be the story in which they played.

From our research we noted down particularly interesting historical details.  Taking these, we tried to figure out individual puzzles that could use those details, and gradually developed 13 or 14 – not all related to the history, but all of them at least plausible for the time. Then we connected them to form a chain of puzzles, and tried to incorporate healthy doses of having puzzles in ‘parallel’, so that teams could break into sub-groups to tackle different puzzles at simultaneously. A parallel design is good for giving larger groups a lot to do, although it can make linking clues and pieces of each puzzle more difficult.

We had some additional space in our venue and decided to add another game, keeping in theme with the period and with the White Rose. Sabotage the Enigma was born from this – with so many escape rooms referencing the enigma in some way, we figured we could incorporate it directly. We allowed ourselves to be more fictional, and experiment with a non-player character being in the room. We knew from reading and experience that in doing so, we had to keep the players the protagonists of the game, to ensure they retained their agency, and not to get too much in the way of players solving puzzles.

Again, we developed puzzles using things that would fit with the theme and the story.

For both games, we tested our puzzle ideas with various people, often in a rudimentary form, tweaking them where necessary, before getting into the actual build of them, which is another story in itself.

We don’t think that we were 100% successful with our designs, but we are confident we’ve made a couple of good games. The interactivity works well in Sabotage the Enigma, and the response to the history in Rescue the White Rose has been as good as we could have hoped. We do have other games in the design pipeline, and we’ll surely learn from these two games, should we ever build more.