Description: The world's smallest escape room, with a story inspired by MKUltra and the evils of wartime human experimentation.
Platform: Physical
Completed: May 2019
Project Length: Two months.
What is The Subject?

The Subject is an escape room game that seeks to take classic escape game tropes and minimise them to a smaller scale; the play area is a small, dark box. The game is designed for two players: Player One is locked inside the box, and Player Two has to help them escape. Inside the box is pencil, paper and a flashlight, as well as a succession of cryptic messages and clues written across the walls. Outside the box; a coded lockbox, and another series of documents. Players must cooperate to piece together the different information available, a requirement to solve the game's puzzles and unlock the box.

The game's narrative draws from the horrifying evils of wartime human experimentation, as well as CIA programmes such as MKUltra. Whilst playing each player will experience a different half of the narrative: Player One is The Subject, a prisoner of war locked up in a black site laboratory, and Player Two is a Secret Services operative who wants to free The Subject. During the experience, Player Two can learn more about The Subject, where they came from, and what the purposes of the experiments conducted on them are. Player One’s story is focused on delving into the psyche of The Subject during their ordeal.

I've written extensively on the design process for The Subject in my blog.

On the left, the completed box. On the right, puzzling over clues.

Why this project?

I’ve always wanted to design an escape room. Unfortunately, I don’t have the means to take over a warehouse for a week and deck it out in eccentric themed paraphernalia. With this project I wanted to see whether I could take the escape room concept and shrink it as small as possible, whilst still retaining the central pillars of escape game design.

I also wanted to try and redefine what escape room games can be. I believe that current escape rooms are far too gentile; they’ve become something that groups of friends do for weekend giggles, or corporates do for team-building. In reality being locked in a room should be an uncomfortable experience. I wanted my game to be one that you’ll want to finish as soon as possible - not for points or pride, but for sheer physical necessity.

On the left, a player explores the clues (took this photo outside the game experience, for obvious reasons). The photo on the right shows a sample of the materials available to players outside of the box.

What's next for The Subject?

I have only had the opportunity to do one playtest of the full experience, so the next step is definitely to arrange a few more run-throughs with different players to further refine the play experience.

I'm also looking into ways to improve the material outside of the box. In previous tests players have been given a folder with different papers, and are expected to read through them to discover the clues they need to guide the player in the box. However, a big aspect of escape rooms is the interactive, kinaesthetic nature of the puzzles, and I haven't quite managed to capture that with my materials. I also feel there is room for improvement of the quantity of messages inside the box. My goal would be to fully plaster the interior of the box, but I need to be careful not to overwhelm the player - I will wait until after I've conducted further playtests to make a final decision on this.