Scott Hardie | January 4, 2023
"You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." That's the lyric that got me pondering a virtual escape room.

Since roughly the start of the pandemic, I have wanted to create a Rock Block tournament that plays like a virtual escape room. I imagined creating a virtual hotel for players to explore, with individual rooms that draw upon lyrics from "Hotel California" (for example, a room where feast-goers stab at food with steely knives) or upon California's rich history of rock music (for example, a room with a map of Beverly Hills where you have to figure out where Weezer lives), or maybe a combination of the two. This might be presented in an all-text format, but I'd prefer to illustrate as much of it as possible.

Players would have to defeat at least one puzzle or mini-game in each room to advance to another room, or to collect an item that lets them go back and do something new with an object in an old room. The eventual goal, of course, would be to escape from the building.

What I love about this idea is that it's truly different. It's not just a race to rack up some kind of score (hit more targets! pop more balloons! collect more tickets!), with few points of interaction between players other than the concerts themselves. With a virtual escape room, players would be challenged in entirely new ways, having to figure things out and explore all on their own, but it also creates possibilities for cooperation, such as puzzles that need multiple simultaneous participants to solve. Maybe the players could be divided into teams, or maybe they could all work together until reaching a final competitive segment, or maybe they could explore individually but seek help once in a while since we play friendly here. (We do, right?)

What has stopped me from pursuing this so far are several big questions that stump me. If you can help me answer them, then maybe we can actually play some version of this thing in 2023.

1) How would concerts tie into a virtual escape room in an interesting way? If concerts merely stagger your opportunities in the escape room (something like each time you win a concert, you get to guess again at a puzzle or move to the next room), then I don't see how to involve them in a way that doesn't feel like a ho-hum retread of the "race to score" format mentioned above. Maybe it's not possible to avoid "race to score" formats with Rock Block's concert-based game structure. Maybe we should ditch concerts completely for this one tournament and just let players free-explore the virtual hotel until someone escapes. But I want to incorporate concerts into the plan if there's a sensible, appealing way to do so that I'm missing.

2) How would progress be kept balanced? If players can free-explore and solve at will, then a player with lots of free time will win on the first day. If progress depends upon something that stalls for time like winning concerts, the tournament could come to feel sluggish and boring. We could play this live over a video call sometime to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity and that it plays quickly, but considering the time investment by me to plan it: Yikes, talk about a long walk for a short drink of water.

3) How would I participate if I know the solutions to the puzzles? Even if the puzzles were built with randomized elements so that I don't know the answers, knowing how they work would still give me an unfair advantage. I'd almost certainly have to sit out this tournament and observe, which I'm happy to do, but I'd prefer to play if there's a fair way to allow that.

4) How would I reduce the complexity of this so that I can code it? I have more time these days, but still not enough for this, which is probably a few weeks of uninterrupted work depending on how big and complex the virtual escape room gets. Rock Block tournaments usually rely on computer-aided repetition to last all summer , but what I propose to build here is entirely custom from start to finish and far more demanding! I don't see a way to reduce the complexity other than buying or stealing a pre-made virtual escape room on the Internet, but I can't find any of those, and even if I could, wouldn't that expose the game to cheating by players who found the same one online that I used?

5) How would we avoid information-sharing that gives some players an unfair advantage? We have a small enough (and friendly enough) player base that the good old honor system is probably sufficient. But in a tournament that so critically depends upon some players figuring out information before others, if the game was joined by a pair of close players like spouses or siblings and they quickly got ahead, would you be able to take them at their word that they're not cheating?

Those are the conundrums that I've been pondering for the last two years. I think the answers to 3 and 5 are obvious, and the answers to 1 and 2 might have to be "stagger progress by tying it to concert wins," but I don't have a clue how to get around 4.

I've been considering giving up on the idea altogether and trying something else for summer 2023, because there are many other great ways to stage a summer tournament that don't have these problems. But I still love the idea enough that I'm giving it one last chance by putting this out in the world to see if anyone else can help me figure this out. Consider this your first unofficial puzzle if we actually play. :-) Thanks in advance!

Scott Hardie | January 4, 2023
To clarify something:

Many real-world escape rooms involve tangible objects that you must manipulate in three dimensions with your primary senses. For example, you might have to rifle through a chest of pebble-sized gems with your bare hands, feeling around for a buried object, which you then remove and have to examine by turning it upside-down and holding it up to a special light in order to discover hidden symbols on it, which tell you exactly how to fit it into a 3-D space elsewhere in the room. That sort of experience is almost impossible to recreate using Funeratic's 2-D imagery and form inputs. Unreal Engine is cool, but I'm not going to learn it just for this.

So, this all means that I cannot replicate an existing real-world escape room, nor can I use guides online that advise how to create a good escape room since they're all written for the real-world kind. That will make the planning of this project take considerably longer. Ideally, our virtual escape room would be designed with puzzles that are optimized for our unusual format, rather than merely adapted to it, but that takes time. I had really hoped that someone out there had made a simple online or text-based escape room that I could plunder for inspiration, but I'm coming up empty in searches... and if any of you find one for me, then you'll know its secrets too. :-(

Steve West | January 4, 2023
Consider requiring a concert win of 7 -2 or even 8 -1 to advance. Not always, but in particular few rooms. How about reviving Devil and require a win over the cheating bastard? Allow players to submit puzzles of their own without revealing the answer ahead of time. More to come... Brenda beckons.

Scott Hardie | January 13, 2023
Steve, I appreciate the ideas, especially letting players provide puzzles of their own. I just replied to the email that you sent me about this.

However, I don't see a way past the issues that I enumerated above. Even if the other issues were solved, I don't see being able to make the time for this, when it needs so much more work than a typical tournament and I have so many other things to spend that considerable amount of time on.

I will plan to do a different summer tournament this year, something more traditional. I have no shortage of ideas for one.

I'm glad that I at least tried to do justice to the "Hotel California" idea that I had in my head. There's enough of a good idea there that it could have made for a really neat tournament, if it were actually possible to do. Thanks for considering this with me, everybody. And thanks especially to you, Steve, for your suggestions.

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