“Puzzle Scouting”: That looks cool… but so what?

puzzle scouting

Our company started out managing an escape game facility. Being locked inside a room can be fun, but the point is to “break” out. Even though we closed our escape game facility, this concept has stuck with us, becoming something of a motivating ethos for our company: How do we break out of our comfort zones to create programs and concepts that can exist in a variety of different spaces? 

Getting outside to explore was one of the first non-escape game activities we created. Hidden Secrets Journey started as a three-hour scavenger hunt around Asakusa and SkyTree in Tokyo, and was specifically created for a team building event of around 80 people. 

The groundwork that was laid for that first project has formed the foundation for all our Hidden Secret Journey programs since then, from the hilltop statue of Masamune Date in Sendai, to the wooded estate of A.C. Shaw in Karuizawa, all the way to the ancient shopping streets of Okage Yokocho near Ise shrine.

While each location has its own unique profile, we approach each of these projects with a similar objective and plan for turning it into a workable game area. As my colleague Chloe wrote about recently, we have to wear different hats all at once: we have to come up with a uniform design aesthetic, map the layout of the target area, and sort out the logistics of moving people around. 

However,  the core of the event is ultimately puzzle-solving. And so our number one mission when we go to an area is “puzzle scouting”.

As the name implies, we have to find different elements in the game area that can create the basis for a wide-ranging collection of puzzles. At this point, having evaluated hundreds of possible puzzle elements for inclusion in our games, it’s safe to say that we have the process of choosing good puzzle locations pretty well-figured out. It’s not just about the location itself though, but also about how it will fit in with the rest of the game to give players a good mix of challenges.

 So the following are some basic rules that continue to guide us when deciding if we should use a location for a puzzle. 

Reasons to say “Yes”

  1. Off the beaten path 

This does not necessarily mean that something is out of the way, but rather that there are many interesting things that people pass all the time, but fail to really appreciate. The modern world has a way of silencing history, not out of spite, but due to practical concerns. A space that now serves as a parking area for tour busses might once have been a courtyard for the luminaries of the day. 

But if you look in the right spot, you may see a statue, a plaque, or a set of totems that give voice to the past. We love highlighting these elements over the more obvious tourist spots (more on that below) and showing people a difference to the places they think they know.. One of the best comments we can receive is, “I’ve been here numerous times, but I never saw that before!”

  1. Use of space 

Space is a practical limitation inside of an escape room, but it also makes the objectives more clear. In the real world, space is limitless, which also makes things more challenging. We need to search for areas that can be turned into contained and delineated spaces for the purposes of the puzzle.It could be a pathway, a public square, or a forgotten alcove composed of a group of elements positioned in a certain way that creates a curious relation that is very rewarding. 

Among our most ambitious puzzle locations was a plaza full of mirrors, landmark plaques, a fountain, and more. These puzzles are often the most challenging to develop because we have to make sure that our instructions take into account all of the different ways a clever player might be misled or overthink things. When we successfully explain what players need to do, the answer to the puzzle appears with clarity and a satisfactory “Aha!” moment. It’s almost magical to see.

  1. Extra Attention 

While we really try to avoid places and elements that are too famous, there are times when we discover something that makes a second look worth it. Puzzles can be a way to back into an untold story. One often-used strategy is to look at the written histories that are placed near historical monuments and landmarks. Once we confirm that the event being memorialized is not tragic or sacred, we then get to work scanning the texts for numbers related to things like dates, sizes, or distances. 

By making a puzzle that requires players to look a little more deeply at the information related to our little puzzle challenge, we can hopefully get them to move beyond an initial impression of, “That’s cool… but so what?” and maybe learn something new about the area. 

  1. Inspiration for the story 

One of the biggest tasks that comes with making puzzles is to identify the target answers, or keywords. These keywords usually have to fit with the theme and story of the game. In an education context, perhaps a teacher begins with a set of material that has to be learned and then builds a lesson plan around it. 

However, in our case, we go into the project with a very open mind to see what story emerges naturally from the area. Even when we want to develop an original story, we have to work with the existing elements and adapt the story according to what can actually be done. In other words, where an escape room is a blank slate upon which we create something completely new, our scavenger hunt projects take on the existing shape of the space that they are in. That means that our stories take a lot of cues from the puzzle locations, so our goal is to keep on the lookout for places that have some sort of dramatic flair or narrative possibility. 

  1. Something on the back 

All creators know what their creations look like from every direction. There are millions of pictures of the front of the Kaminarimon Gate in Asakusa. But what is on the other side? An equally interesting pair of statues and another view of the iconic lamp! For us puzzle scouts, the back of a statue often has the name of the artist or the date the statue was commemorated or created. Rewarding players for taking the time to experience the real world from every direction is quite a pleasure. 

Reasons to say “No”

  1. Too Famous 

We have made so many great events around Asakusa, and Asakusa’s most famous attraction is Sensoji temple. I love Sensoji. It is an iconic location with a deep, mysterious history and an environment that sparks the imagination. 

But the main temple has been there since the year 628 and welcomes 30 million people per year. It is clearly a popular location. It does not need our help to draw attention to its beautiful details. And even if we do find something particularly useful for the purposes of our puzzle, the logistics of asking players to throw themselves into a throng of tourists in order to complete our game is just not very fun. Sorry Sensoji, you’re just too famous for us.

  1. Not Unique 

It happens all the time. I find some piece of tile or street art that looks really good. I start to see the puzzle in my mind. I take a bunch of reference photos. I think that I have scouted a unique puzzle, only to turn around and see 10 more of the exact same thing.

This phenomenon is part of what makes Japan amazing! This “collect them all” nature of so much of the art here (including ublix art) makes for rich environments that end up being unusable for our purposes. 

One puzzle that we were particularly proud of was created for a vacation location in one part of Japan. But it turned out that what we thought was unique was actually a chain shop that happens to be everywhere! No matter, we kept that one.

  1. Not Stable 

Japan is full of ephemeral artwork and seasonal installations. The art is often about the skill and craftsmanship that went into the creation rather than the object itself. So we have to be careful not to make puzzles out of elements that are temporary or go through seasonal changes. It can be really surprising how things can be changed by industrious crews that completely change a public art installation overnight. It’s nice, but it can destroy our well crafted puzzle!

  1. Not in the playing area

Because we have designed games that can be played by hundreds of players at once, we can sometimes lose sight of what, from the player’s perspective, a manageable challenge might be. Fun and engaging can easily turn into exhausting if the puzzle isn’t worth the extra effort. 

There may be something that promises to be a fantastic puzzle, but if players have to walk 15 minutes to get to it, that means they have to walk 15 minutes more to get back. Which is to say, we have to keep logistics in mind. As much we might fall in love with a puzzle concept, the players will never miss what is not included.

  1. It’s just a rock 

Chloe and I were puzzle scouting a particularly rich area full of lots of statues, monuments, artwork, and other landmarks. In our zealous effort to catalogue every possible nuance, we found ourselves staring very intently at a large stone next to a tree. While people bustled around us, we suddenly saw how ridiculous we must seem to others: A french woman and an American guy in a crowd of Japanese people just really appreciating a seemingly random rock. Which is to say, just because something may look interesting at first, it doesn’t mean it will “work” as a puzzle. Sometimes, there is no puzzle. It’s just a rock. (Although, come to think of it, we may have made a puzzle out of it anyway!)

A taste of our outdoor scavenger hunt puzzle games.

Photo by Justus Menke on Unsplash

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