Taking classic escape room gameplay, compressing it down to an uncomfortably small scale and mixing in a mind-bending narrative, The Subject is a truly unique experience for two or more players.
The Subject is an escape room experience like no other. The game is designed for multiple players; one player enters a small, cramped box, and is locked inside. The other player(s) must solve a series of puzzles to free their teammate. The twist? The information they need to solve the puzzles is on the inside of the box.
In the ultimate test of communication, concentration and calmness under pressure, players must work together to piece together a mysterious narrative, solve the puzzles, and free the subject from the box before their time is up…
The Subject was a solo project, designed with two aims: to redefine what escape room games can be, and take them to a new level of intensity.
Project insight - the concept
An escape room no bigger than a two-metre-squared crate is a pretty ambitious design challenge, which is partly why I chose to take it on. I’ve also always wanted to design an escape room, but don’t have the means to rent a warehouse for a week and deck it out in themed paraphernalia.
I was interested in experimenting with stress as a mechanic; how does debilitating physical anguish affect a player’s ability to solve complex puzzles? And I felt that the concept of the ‘escape room’ by definition should be more stressful than many existing escape rooms. In reality, being locked in a room with no conceivable means of escape is an uncomfortable experience.
The box - and the player who is locked inside - was the first element of the game that I became fixed on, with everything else to be designed around it. I still wanted to retain the central pillars of escape game design, namely challenging puzzles and teamwork.
The idea of a solo escape room did not appeal, as I felt this didn’t take full advantage of the different information spaces created by the box. If you’re going to lock someone in box it has to be relevant to the gameplay, and not just a gimmick. Adding players outside of the box, and puzzle mechanics that force them to communicate with the player inside, created a far more interesting dynamic. The player inside the box was reliant on the player outside to escape.
This decision also heightened the ceiling of complexity for puzzles. In an escape room all puzzles should be solvable by using clues hidden in the room. By essentially ‘splitting’ the room, I could also split the location of the clues, introducing mechanics that force collaboration. For example, one half of a map could be outside the box, and the other half inside, meaning both players have to work together to figure out a) that they each have one half of a map and b) how to connect these together given the spatial constraints.
Games that utilise similar asymmetrical information spaces, such as Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, were definitely an inspiration here.
The final concept
With ideas for puzzles already bouncing round my brain I locked in the concept I wanted to proceed with:
- Player One will be locked inside the box. Player Two has to help them escape.
- Player Two has all of the puzzles outside the box, Player One has all the information needed to solve the puzzles.
- The answer to each puzzle is either directly or indirectly a number. These numbers form the combination that unlocks the box.
- The task must be completed under extreme time pressure - five puzzles in 30 minutes.
- ‘Player Two’ can be a solo player or a team; this allows more than two people to take part in the experience.
At the start of any major project I also like to outline the design values that I want the project to encompass. For The Subject, I settled on three:
- Claustrophobia – Player One should feel trapped, uncomfortable, almost scared. These feelings should impact upon their ability to parse information and solve puzzles.
- Cooperation – The only way that Player One can escape from the box is by cooperating with Player Two. The game leans on an asymmetrical information space between the two players, with communication requirements built into every puzzle.
- Emergent Storytelling – Players will naturally learn more about the backstory of their characters by reading the materials required to solve the puzzles. The story is two-sided, so each player will learn things about the game world that are unique to their experience of the game. They may choose to share this information with their partner after the game is concluded.
Iteration: playtesting puzzles under pressure
One of the chief mistakes I made when developing The Subject relates to playtesting. Rather than build a quick prototype out of cardboard and use this to test the game’s puzzles, I became transfixed with the physical aspects of the box - planning it, building it, and then polishing the look and feel.
The extra time it took to build the final box meant that I did minimum testing before the game’s first public showing, which was at a scratch event at Newspeak House.
Puzzle design without testing is inadvisable. There were a number of problems that would quickly have become apparent in earlier testing:
- Three of the four puzzles were far too difficult, and the time limit too strict to accommodate this difficulty level.
- There was no difficulty curve to the puzzles. Players could approach the four puzzles in any order, meaning they were often overwhelmed by too much information at any one time (although a linear solution I tested did create bottlenecking).
- The players outside the box had far more work to do than the player inside the box. Although the player inside the box performed important actions to solve puzzles, they were often left unoccupied.
- The wording of some of the puzzles was confusing, where I’d allowed the world-building and storytelling to occlude the comprehensibility of the clues.
I was fortunate that there weren’t any technical flaws with the project, and the showcase ran fairly smoothly. I picked up a lot of useful feedback from players, and took a proactive approach to utilising this feedback during the showcase itself, rather than waiting to iterate at a later date.
I’d had the foresight to build adaptability into the box, so I could make adjustments to the game between playthroughs, taking advantage of having groups of players queuing up to play. I used blue tac to fit the clues and story material to the inside of the box, meaning I could add or remove clues. All the content in the box was also written in pencil rather than pen. Game materials outside the box were laminated, so I could use a white board marker to edit sections if needed.
One example of this kind of ‘on-the-fly’ iteration working well relates to the final puzzle of the game. To prevent players from brute-forcing the number lock once they had three of the four digits required, I introduced a number-shuffle riddle (that needed all four numbers before it could be solved) that would output the correct combination for the lock. This proved to be a puzzle too far for many players, so I simply removed it from the experience, instead trusting players not to brute-force the lock. Of the subsequent playtests, about 50% of players did force the lock, but this strategy ultimately became part of the game - it is a viable technique in code-breaking, and should be rewarded.