“What if we build that but make it so that it can pop open and reveal something?!”
The staff at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion must have been very amused – or bemused – at us two, wandering through the splendid rooms of the Palace and discussing re-building random artefacts on display. Little did they know we were at the height of the creative, exhilarating and draining process known as Room Designing.
Room Designing, n. The planning stage of an Escape Room, during which Escape Room Owners pretend that money is no barrier and dream up the story line, puzzles and flow of their next Escape Room. During this stage, anything is possible and everything is inspiration.
In our case, the inspiration for our first Escape Room was the Royal Pavilion, an iconic and historic building that welcomes visitors to Brighton and occasionally confuses them with its resemblance to the Taj Mahal. Our vision was to make all our Rooms quintessentially Brightonian and so this was an easy choice for our first Room. We visited the Pavilion many times, read their guide books and digital resources and bounced ideas off each other.
Stepping over the luxurious threshold of the Pavilion made it clear that modelling a Room after it was a tremendous challenge: After all, the Pavilion had been built by a King and expensively restored by vast teams of experts! The Dining Hall and Music Room in the Pavilion are absolutely breath taking, but as you can imagine, ceiling height would have been a problem, so we decided to model our Room on the equally elegant and dragon-filled Entrance Hall of the Pavilion.
Looking around this green room, ideas came flooding: “What if we take that table and….”; “I bet we could make a puzzle out of these…”; “Look at those dragons, they could…”. More inspiration came from the printed and online materials we scoured. Did you know the Pavilion used to employ a Gentleman of the Wine Cellar, a Remover of the Ashes and a Keeper of Swans? “There’s definitely a puzzle in there”, we thought, and there was.
Next, we needed a story line and a mission for our players. We wanted it to be historically accurate, exciting and with high stakes for our players to care about the mission and be invested in the story line – not much to ask! Luckily, the Pavilion comes readily equipped with historical twists and turns. During our visits, we learnt that after King George IV, who had built the Pavilion, passed away, the Royal Family had little use for the Pavilion and decided to sell it in 1850. One proposed use of the plot was to demolish the building and redevelop the land, but the good people of Brighton formed a petition, signed by a fifth of its population (that would be around 55,000 people today) to save it from demolition and preserve it for future generations. Good work, Victorian Brightonians!
What a perfect opportunity for a story line! In our story, the petition has gone missing (stolen?!) and we believe it is inside the walls of the Pavilion. Oh the irony – the one thing that can save it from destruction is trapped inside it! Can you and your team retrieve the petition before the demolition crew start tearing the building down with you inside??
Players particularly familiar with Brighton history may have noticed that the date we chose as the crucial day on which the petition has gone missing – Wednesday the 19th of June 1850 – was the actual day that the Royal Pavilion was sold to Brighton council, becoming the first (and to this day the only) Royal Palace owned by a council.
One of our underlying principles – which holds true for all of our rooms – is ‘immersion is key’. Now that we knew the story would take place in 1850, this presented us with a new challenge: There were no combination locks or padlocks in 1850, no switches, no buttons, no electric lights, no screens, no keypads. We were very restricted with what we could do, but at the same time, loved the challenge and felt it was true to our vision.
Having a room without combination locks presents its own unique challenge to its players: If you know you are supposed to open a combination lock, you immediately know you are looking for a sequence of numbers. In the absence of combination locks, players have to exercise their grey matter and out-the-box thinking even more to solve the puzzles: Are you looking for a colour combination, are you supposed to arrange the vases by height, or are you meant to lean a book at exactly the right angle? Forgoing combination locks required more creativity from us, but also means each puzzle has a unique, often surprising solution that is best found by players bouncing ideas off each other.
The biggest head scratch was the clue delivery system. How would we communicate with players during the game if they got stuck and needed help? We couldn’t use screens to display clues, couldn’t install an intercom, nor give players a walkie talkie. Eventually, an idea for a completely immersive clue delivery system hatched in our minds and gave us flutters of excitement – but we won’t give that away just yet.
The result of all of the above is the Pavilion Perplex: A room with no combination locks or padlocks, containing only objects that would be found in Victorian times (including a real Victorian safe) and that have either been built from scratch or modified to become the essence of an Escape Room, the puzzles. The walls have been painstakingly hand-painted by an incredibly talented scenic artist – we did contact the manufacturers of the Royal Wallpapers that adorn the Pavilion, but sadly they no longer produce the ones we were after.
We have now had several hundred teams through our Pavilion Perplex doors and the positive feedback we receive has been worth all the hard work and has spurned us on to keep designing and dreaming. Thank you to everyone who has so far saved the Pavilion from demolition!