Keep Talking, Escape Rooms, and Collaborative Puzzling
Wed Jul 17, 2019

For a while now I've been a huge fan of the video game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. For those who don't know, it uses a collaborative setup. One player has a hidden display only they can see (in the ideal case, a VR headset, but a laptop works fine) while the other player has a copy of a manual. The player with the display is presented with a bomb, and they can only diffuse it knowing the information in the manual.

The design of the bombs and manual makes it a really fun time with friends (as long as you don't get too frustrated easily). I keep a copy of the manual in my laptop bag most of the time so I can start a game whenever I can.

Keep Talking is, officially, a game about diffusing bombs, but when you look at it from another perspective, it's really a series of small communication tests. Each bomb module has a different thing about it that is difficult to communicate, such as creating things that lead to ambiguity (buttons where their position, 1 to 4, and label, also 1 to 4, matter for example).

This is, to me, what lies at the core of making Keep Talking a fun experience. You have to really focus on how you're thinking and communicating, and it turns into a fun collaborative puzzle of figuring out how to diffuse the bomb, and less about the diffusion itself.

This also got me thinking about other things that are in this same vein, and a few days ago I did a team escape room with some of my friends, and I think I've found the perfect form of this kind of gameplay.

Escape rooms, of course, can run at a far larger scale than a video game. The one I visited had a partial recreation of of the insides of a WW1 Trench Bunker, for example. Spanning multiple rooms with interconnected corridors, the puzzles come slower and each require more effort - like physically searching the room for clues, or decyphering a message, etc.

This means every player has an active role, rather than the more passive role of the manual player in keep talking, each solving smaller puzzles themselves that build up into a large collaborative puzzle that requires a lot of group effort. At its best, this is a group working together, revealing and sharing things, information flying everywhere. At its worst, everyone is slightly disconnected, working on their own thing, and only occasionally sharing information with each other.

Escape rooms more than make up for this somewhat lower emphasis on communication with their other amazing property - immersion.

It's surprisingly easy to buy into a historical or fantasy world, even one full of highly improbable things that are clearly designed as puzzle boxes, when it's all that you can see or hear aside from your teammates. They also share the same time pressure as keep talking, although it is typically closer to an hour than keep talking's 3-7 minute bombs.

Both are similar but different takes on a very basic gameplay idea, team puzzle solving and communication, and I love both. I'd also love to see a take on this as a board game or other tabletop game, it probably exists but I can't find it so I'd love to hear some recommendations.

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