In a world inspired by the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, you and your fellow adventurers are tasked with working together to break a witch’s curse and escape from an enchanted forest. To find the clues, you’ll need to choose whether to first visit a series of mysterious castles or speak to a set of magical animals, knowing that only some of them will tell you the truth.
This isn’t a video game—it’s an online version of an escape room, the trendy pastime that’s mostly been put on hold during the coronavirus pandemic. Puzzle Break, an escape room company with four U.S. locations, a presence on Royal Caribbean cruise ships, and a traveling program that visits business conventions, devised a virtual version of its challenge the Grimm Escape that can be played by remote teams during virus lockdowns. It’s proven popular with companies looking for virtual team-building activities, part of the Seattle-based company’s usual customer base. And, it turns out, it’s also become a hit with groups of friends and relatives looking for something to do together online while most in-person activities are suspended.
“Almost as an afterthought, we put up games for consumer audiences on nights and weekends, and those were selling out immediately,” says Puzzle Break cofounder and CEO Nate Martin. The company charges a list price of $35 per player, with a current discount to $25.
An online game selling out might seem unusual, but capacity is limited since the Grimm Escape isn’t exactly a video game. It’s an experience where players closely interact with Puzzle Break staff members, dubbed “fairy godparents” in the game’s context, who can guide players, verify puzzle answers, and offer customized hints to the perplexed. Teams ordinarily have their own dedicated guide, although one employee might supervise multiple teams if a corporate or other group has multiple teams playing at once.
“We engineer all of these puzzles to lean into the fact that they’re kind of curated by our staff,” Martin says.
Players interact with each other and Puzzle Break employees through a videoconferencing system, typically Zoom, and access puzzle elements through a file-sharing system, usually Google Drive, although alternative technologies can be used if they’re more convenient for corporate customers. To keep things moving, players are asked to designate a team “oracle,” who usually shares their screen with other players; an “ambassador to the fairy godparent” who takes charge of interactions with Puzzle Break; and an official “scribe,” who takes notes on what’s transpired so far.
An online escape room can’t replicate some of the aspects of a physical space, such as clues hidden in props. Nor can it mimic the pop-up escape experiences Puzzle Break brings to corporate events, which assume players are all in the same space. Instead, players sift through images and other files in a shared folder to explore the puzzles they need to solve. Some challenges focus more on scouring images for clues, such as one revolving around a series of images of fairy-tale castles, while others emphasize language and logic, like one involving figuring out which of those magical animals speak the truth and which only tell lies.
As teams make their way through puzzles, Puzzle Break employees drop new challenges into the shared folder, the equivalent of remotely unlocking a secret panel in a physical escape room.
The shared drive also includes an “Adventuring 101” guide to the online escape room concept designed to help new players ramp up, as well as an entry-level videoconferencing guide. However, Martin says it turns out most players come to the experience already familiar with Zoom. Staffers typically give players a brief tour of the files and interface as they begin.
“You can’t assume that every single player on every single team knows their way around Google Drive,” Martin says.
Visual, logic, and other sorts of puzzles are designed to appeal to players with varying interests and aptitudes. That’s a deliberate choice to make sure that even players skeptical of escape rooms or the general concept of interoffice fun can find a way to participate. Some of the best players have proven to be kids from ages roughly 10 to 14, according to Martin, but there’s often a range of levels of experience and enthusiasm among different players on the same team that the games need to take into account.
“You need to make sure that every single person on the team wants to be there and has buy-in,” says Martin.
In practice, Martin says, many teams work through the puzzles together, exploring the files through a shared screen and often marking up the visual puzzles through Zoom’s annotation feature. As a result, a future version of the escape room is likely to include a connect-the-dots-style puzzle designed to encourage players to draw on the shared screen.
“We kept seeing folks love annotating and drawing on the screen,” says Martin, adding that the company has seen the new puzzle be a “big hit” in tests so far.
The online experience in general has proven successful enough that the company has been able to bring back some staffers who were initially put on furlough as a result of the pandemic, Martin says. Of about 20 primarily part-time employees put on furlough, roughly five have been brought back, and the company anticipates hiring more staffers within a few months to handle the growing demand. Unlike its existing escape experiences, which are typically limited to the United States, the online game has pulled in inquiries from would-be players from around the world through Puzzle Break’s website.
“Embarrassingly late, we had to add a what-time-zone-are-you-in field,” says Martin.
Puzzle Break is already planning to roll out a second virtual escape experience within the next few months. It’s slated to be a “kitschy” hacking-themed game inspired by 1990s hacker movies. The company may also continue to offer online team-building experiences even after coronavirus-related restrictions ease.
“This is still a great activity,” Martin says. “It’s a lot easier to get everybody together in a teleconference than it is to get everybody together in a ballroom.”