Escape Rooms: Escape the Ordinary

Today, we have Nicole Scherer from Fairfield (CT) Public Library talking about her Escape the Room games.


Sometimes a great idea crosses your path and you just have to say yes. Even if it’s overwhelming, I try always, to the best of my ability, to say “Yes. How?” (A stranger once shared this philosophy with me riding camels in Jordan. It’s a long, wonderful story but this isn’t quite the place for it.) This past winter, my staff and I ‘yes-howed’ ourselves into staging ‘Escape the Attic, ’ a locked room mystery game for teens and adults at our library. It was such fun that we are currently planning our second installment. Escape Rooms (or Locked Rooms, or Puzzle Rooms, or Mystery Rooms,) are popping up all over the country as a fun group activity that you can pay to play. These games typically set up a scenario where teams must solve puzzles and decode cryptic clues in order to ‘escape’ within a given time frame, or else face consequences (usually, imagined death and destruction.) Red herrings, secret compartments, fancy tech things like lasers…Sounds delightful, right?

Some of these commercial escape rooms use ‘a library’ as the setting for their games, which is probably how an article about this trend caught my eye last summer. This isn’t surprising: for some, the library is a place of the unknown waiting to be discovered, crammed full of mystery and endless, arcane secrets. We’ve taken advantage of this image for years now, running an annual ‘Mystery Night’ game where teens arrive at the library after-hours and use the catalog to trace a trail of clues hidden in items throughout the library, while being ‘haunted’ by volunteers hiding in the dark stacks, purposely trying to scare them as they work – bibliographic instruction and chills rolled into one fantastic event! A big part of the continued success of Mystery Night is its novelty – you can’t play a live-action game quite like it anywhere else.

Escape Rooms felt like they had the same sort of potential to astonish our audience. In researching, I realized that these games are, in form and function, very, very ‘library.’ Working together, solving puzzles, relying on multiple types of learning styles to succeed, detecting, problem solving, a strong in-game focus on narrative…!  Most of all, Escape Rooms have that essential thing that can propel teen programs to success – the element of surprise. Who would think that something like this could happen in a library?

This was a perfect ‘Yes. How?’ moment, with a lot to consider. If we could do this, and do it right, we would be tying ourselves to a popular and emerging trend that could shake up our image; we would be demonstrating our cultural currency and with that, potentially bring in new users who might not think the library had anything for them.

Teen librarians are typically excellent ‘translators:’ Many of us have had success with live-action, book and movie-based games before, but this felt different: converting a popular and well-defined phenomenon into something ‘library,’ which for us means, in addition to having some skill-building elements embedded in the game, it had to be low-cost to create and operate, and free to attend. Planning the thing became our own personal puzzle program. As I had started thinking about it with our astoundingly talented Teen Librarian-in-training Marissa Bucci, our library webmaster, Merry Mao, started visiting rooms as a new hobby: she loved the challenge and the way they presented an opportunity to challenge her (considerable) intellect while having a great, fun time. Hearing her rave about them, it felt like staging an Escape Room at our library was almost meant-to-be!

But…how? The challenge was if we could do it well enough: we had to make sure that our game was as close to the quality of commercial games as possible, because in this case we weren’t offering something wholly unique, but something that our patrons might have already had experience with. Calling something an Escape Room meant dealing with a certain expectation in a way we hadn’t before for similar events. We know how to connect stories and games into singular experiences and I had confidence that we could pull it off, even though we’d never actually played one before. (Since then, Marissa, Merry, I and other library staffers conquered a local room… with only a few minutes to spare!)

Teens working on a word puzzle and a song clue from the laptopDiscovering the last lock to open

Right away, we knew there were certain things we wouldn’t be able to replicate. Many rooms feature tech-based elements and incredible customized furniture that were way out of range for us and our program budget. We had to let those things go and focus on the goal: Creating something novel for our audience. We played to our strengths – creating a fun plot, devising an imaginative use of space and the knowing that things didn’t have to be fancy – we just had to execute the program to the best of our ability and keep focus on our audience, making sure that the game was something that anyone could win if they worked at it.

Index cards are everything!A combination lock that uses letters

We wouldn’t be able to match the ambiance created by commercial rooms, but we could maximize the resources what we had, like an atmospheric secondary programming area (with a high creepiness-potential) that lent itself to the concept without interfering with other departments’ space needs. I was  worried about being able to afford the small pieces of equipment needed to successfully ‘puzzle’ the room, but as it turns out, locks, which come in an incredible variety, aren’t terribly expensive, nor is black light ink. Most of the other stuff we could repurpose from items and supplies already in the library (thank goodness for the pack-rat tendencies of our colleagues for some already-busted furniture in our basement) or manufacture ourselves out of paper.

A tiny clue hidden in a tiny TR statueAdults searching the fireplace with a blacklight

I created a (long, long) manual on our program series that gives the technical details on how to plot and design and plan and organize. Everything we could tell you is in there, but here are a few extra things I am applying as we carry on with Escape Rooms:

  • Don’t worry about whether or not you can lock your room. If you can’t, just change the object of the game. Our teams were looking for pirate treasure!
  • This is the sort of program that really stands up well as a series – if you can run it multiple times, you’ll get the most out your efforts, both in terms of funding and staff time. We started with two sessions per day: early evening for teens and after-hours for adults, over three days.
  • If you are running multiple sessions, give yourself plenty of time to reset the room between them. We…did not, so after each game we had a nice hour of sheer panic. Not recommended.
  • Doing research? Need ideas for puzzles and codes? Get thee to Pinterest! There are plenty of escape room ideas. Oh, those party planners!
  • Outline everything – what goes where in the room, lock combinations, how pieces of your game connect. I designed puzzles and codes on the fly, but I would have been utterly lost if I hadn’t taken time to write things down. Color-coded index cards are everything.
  • The same exact game can work for tweens, teens and adults – and we are going to add family sessions this summer. It is worth your while to reach out beyond the teen audience if you can.
  • We had people register individually, which wasn’t problematic as much as confusing for veteran players, as commercial rooms use reservation systems. We added a warning about capacity and suggested that friends coordinate themselves onto the marketing for our next one.
  • Set up a time for staff to try it out before your program(s) start – it’s so important to watch people play your game so you can do last-minute editing – which almost always means simplifying things. Not only will your colleagues help you troubleshoot, they could be your best marketers if they have fun!

The results of Escape the Attic were fantastic: only two of our sessions were not full to capacity – thanks February weather reports – and the players loved it, in that way where they don’t seem to want to leave once the program is over! We saw new faces in each group as well, letting us know that we did reach out to a different set of community members in terms of teens, young adults and grown-ups. Escape Room veterans said they enjoyed our game every bit as much as the ones they had paid for, which made us very proud. I think it is because we took the time to focus on what was important – making sure everything worked, continual editing and streamlining throughout the series, making sure things weren’t too obtuse, and that there was enough variety in our clue types to make sure people with different detecting styles or abilities could contribute meaningfully to the team.

With some considered planning, any library with a closed program space could stage an Escape Room. As long as you concentrate on the quality of the game elements – and let go of the fact that you might never be able to create a laser maze or build a false-bottomed cabinet drawer – your audience will love it. The creation of original, live-action events is as rewarding and well worth the time to plan and execute. To hear the buzz building around the event in the weeks prior to its launch was extraordinary, and to see the look on teen (and adult) faces when they unlocked that final clue was always a thrill. There is nothing quite like surprising your audience with the unexpected. Crafting experiences that your teen audience will never forget is part of what makes this job so special. Take up the challenge and design something new for your community. You won’t regret it!

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