“Making an escape room feels like an escape room in itself, sometimes,” our warped creator muses. “The biggest challenge is staying sane throughout the process.”
As the man behind the Mysteries, Ben knows a thing or two about the line between madness and genius. As it turns out, the recipe for a perfect escape room calls for more than a little of both.
Come, take a look behind the wizard’s curtain, and discover the secrets behind our wonderful world of escapism.
The key to a great escape room is locked in an unopenable box, guarded by a restless spirit who speaks only in riddles.
The key to creating a great escape room, however, is immersion.
“The best escape rooms are those that take people out of the world,” explains Ben. “The world isn’t great right now. We’ve all been thrown about by politics, and we’re feeling out of control – so why not leave the world for a while, and go somewhere bizarre and wonderful, where the choices you make actually matter?”
There’s a certain twisted logic to escaping the chaos of the everyday into a world where the dead talk and toys come to life, but in many ways that world feels more real than the one we see through our screens.
“We overindulge ourselves with technology, and it’s hard to keep in touch with our creative sides,” says Ben. “An escape room offers a live and tactile experience, beyond the screens we’re surrounded by. We’re going back to what everyone yearns for deep down – not virtual reality, but actual reality!”
Traveling through time
So what comes first, a great story or a perfect puzzle?
“It’s a constant overlapping process,” Ben explains. “The average game takes a year to create, from the first idea to the finished product, and during that time the game and the backstory are constantly feeding into one another.”
While every game is a complex interplay between plot and playtime, the rabbit hole goes deeper still. “We have a family of characters with interlinking stories, so there’s that Lovecraftian quality to working out all the connections,” hints Ben. “If you’ve played more than one game, you can start to piece them together.”
So if you think you know all there is to know about Lady Chastity, perhaps it’s time you thought again…
Our Handmade Mysteries are certainly tales of the unexpected. One thing you can be sure of, however, is a trip back in time.
“The backstory’s always set in the past,” Ben confirms. “It allows players to touch and feel a genuine reality. You couldn’t really have that with a futuristic game, because it’s anyone’s guess what the surroundings would be like.”
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security, though. By taking you on a walk down memory lane, each game subverts preconceptions, taking everything you think you know about an era and turning it on its head.
After all, time is relative in the realm of the Handmade.
What can you do when your only voice of reason is somewhat… unhinged? Our strong, subversive characters are on hand to assist and unsettle players in equal measure.
“Each main character is born out of a need for clues,” says Ben of the games’ unforgettable guides. “They exist disembodied for the most part, as a guiding voice, and the whole backstory needs to be reflected in that voice.”
As an aspiring improv actor, Ben takes great pleasure in creating ridiculous voices for each of our guides. “I may even have done a little bit of method acting when it came to Chastity’s drunkenness,” he admits.
“I recorded her voice about thirteen times, and during that time she became a caricature of herself. She’s a product of the late 1800s, the turn of the century. She’s well-to-do, which makes her quite aloof and uncaring – but she also has a reputation for her fabulous orgies, so she needs to sound drunk and a bit depraved.”
Devil’s in the details
It’s not just the sound effects that need to be believable – every aspect of the Handmade Mysteries experience is designed to suspend disbelief, allowing players to see, hear, smell and touch the strange new world around them.
“The immersive lets you go beyond, constantly interacting, feeling the age and the weight and the spirit to every object in the room,” says Ben of the handmade ethos that each game is built on.
Indeed, in a world of virtual thrills there remains an undeniable magic to physical technology – the turning of gears in a skeleton watch, for example, or the moment when Indiana Jones steps on an ancient trap and triggers a volley of arrows.
“No matter how good the headsets we wear are, they’re never going to beat the magic of physicality,” enthuses Ben. “We have a certain nostalgia for that sort of thing – a real yearning for levers and pulleys.”
As well as contributing to a bizarre yet believable experience, the myriad details also ensure that everyone’s kept busy. “We always offer something for the sixth player,” says Ben, “You know, the person who’s just along for the ride. We make sure there’s always something extra for them to notice or explore.”
Walking the line
As any sixth player will know, exploring an escape room can easily result in a hilarious surprise or a sudden shock. The knowledge that anything could happen heightens your sense of suspense, and you find yourself caught between hysterical laughter and shrieks of fright.
How does Ben find the balance between Handmade Mysteries’ eerie atmosphere and belly laughs?
“Stephen King once said there are three types of fear,” he replies. “There’s sudden shock, there’s gore – all blood and melting faces – and then there’s suspense. That’s the element of the unknown, leaving things unexplained and letting people make their own minds up.”
Building on the intrinsically Gothic idea that the greatest horrors are of the mind’s own invention, Handmade Mysteries creates an unclosed circle and lets the imagination run wild. From complete darkness to hidden crawl spaces, Ben knows how to get our test subjects… uh, that is, players… into a malleable state.
“If you can create this heightened state of suspense, and then throw in something absurd, it will seem all the more hilarious to them,” he explains.
“The humour aspect is kind of the same – directing the mind and then letting it wander. Those not-quite innuendos that rest on a slight pause or a stressed syllable, letting you fill in the blanks.”
The technique is not a new one. From Hamlet asking, “Did you think I meant count…ry matters?” to Charles Dickens’ disruptive Master Bates, there is a strong English tradition of understated silliness – one that fits our experience well.
The great unknown
No matter how many surprises Ben meticulously plans for his players, they still manage to surprise him in return.
“The best thing about an escape game is that you never know what a human is going to do. These people are plunged into disorientation, and the pressure can make them act… strangely. There’s always an element of the unknown as to where their incredible brains will take them.”
In a world of escapism and suspended disbelief, you can become the hero of your own story and rise to unimaginable challenges. Of course, you could also end up as the comic sidekick. Either way, you’re an intrinsic part of the experience.
“We let the characters become the stars of the show by pushing them out of their comfort zones, and that’s where the real reward comes from. That magic place between genius and stupidity,” laughs Ben.
The sweet spot
So how does Ben know when he’s got it right?
“All of our experiences offer different angles on escape,” explains Ben, “But at the end of the day they’re about taking a group of people who may or may not know each other, and giving them this sudden, wonderful realisation that they’re sharing something utterly bizarre.”
Now that’s what we call a penny-drop moment.
We’ve set the scene, but it’s up to you to finish the story. Wake your inner hero and discover a slice of supreme silliness with a Handmade Mystery.