115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Escape the Narrative: Theatricality as Escape Game Design

Sawyer K Kemp, University of California, Davis

This paper will investigate the role of narrative as a tool for managing audience perspective, and will draw on performance theory as well as ethnographic experience designing and operating a live Escape Game venue. I am particularly interested in the role of puzzles as a function of genre, with a working hypothesis that the more elaborate and complicated puzzles signify theatrical obstacles, and tend to evoke a comedic rather than tragic affective experience.

Proposal: 

Because of its dependence on a live audience and the feedback loop that results from having said live audience, some have argued that theater is closer to gaming than it is to film.  As immersive theater and immersive gaming grow ever nearer to each other, “Escape” style games are an interesting object of study from a performance perspective. These live games are based on an early genre of simple video games with point and click mechanics, in which a user finds themself in a locked room and must uncover, assemble, and use objects in the room to escape.  A live escape game works much the same--except that the room is real, the player is usually part of a team, and a timer mechanic (almost always 1 hour) puts a sharp deadline on the game play.  

The earliest of these digital games had very limited narratives--at most, “you wake up in a strange room after a night of drinking!--but the live games follow a more theatrical and narrative-driven function as part of the immersive experience. Live game venues differentiate themselves from and compete with other venues by having a more unique storyline, a compulsion which interestingly contrasts with immersive theater which tends to become more abstract in immersive adaptations like Punch Drunk’s Sleep No More and Fergus Scully’s The Seagull.

This paper will investigate the role of narrative as a tool for managing audience perspective, and will draw on performance theory as well as ethnographic experience designing and operating a live game venue. I am particularly interested in the role of puzzles as a function of genre, with a working hypothesis that the more elaborate and complicated puzzles signify theatrical obstacles, and tend to evoke a comedic rather than tragic affective experience.