Designing the Experience
The biggest thing about the game that I knew right from the start is that no one should know it was going to happen beforehand. In true horror movie fashion, I wanted the party guests to be caught off guard (and probably already somewhat intoxicated) before Shit Hit The Fan and they had to deal with whatever was thrown at them. There was also the question of difficulty; I am friends with both other game devs and people who basically never play games, and I wanted to be sure that both groups would be able to enjoy the experience. I went through a lot of different ideas about how to make a party a gameified experience with these constraints, but I finally came upon one I liked: an escape room type experience. Gamers and non-gamers alike enjoy them, they don't require anyone to remember a role or stay in character, and there's props, which could be hidden in plain sight as Halloween decorations. Perfect!
I came up with a general story idea: the party host (played by myself) went to a mysterious antique store for Halloween decorations and ended up getting the entire house infested with hauntings that the players would have to banish through various actions, like taking shots, dancing, or sharing Halloween memories. It would merge traditional puzzle solving with party activity, so people of various skillsets and interests would be able to participate. Since the party would be taking place in November, I decided to make the theme of the party "bringing back the Halloween spirit for one final night," and created the Halloween Toast, a special shot-taking at 9pm sharp, to ensure that people would make it to the party before the game started.
Then I ran into a snag. A big thing in escape rooms is using locks or new rooms to designate when old puzzles end and new ones begin. My apartment isn't that big, and I don't have many boxes that lock. I enjoyed the idea of a more free-form environment, but didn't want people to get stuck thinking two elements were connected when they were different puzzle props. Additionally, since this would be taking place in my home, my own possessions would be in the play zone as well, and I didn't want anyone digging through my closet for possible clues. I needed a way to, without locks and keys, show the players what items were puzzle pieces, and which were related to each other. Enter the smart home device Alexa, aka the game's AI system.
The "Final Boss" and the Power of Friendship
In addition to the actions that players had to perform at the end of puzzles, the document also warned of a possibility that the entity would appear in some kind of physical form after the actions had been taken, and a special final action would have to be done to stop the haunting completely. To prepare for this, the Alexa response to each action success would also inform players that the security system has new information about the specific haunting, if they wanted to hear it.
The haunting updates gave more story to the game: the paranormal entity haunting the house was created from the negative emotions of humans, specifically from people who were excluded from Halloween parties. The entity, born from these feelings of exclusion and loneliness, wanted revenge on those trying to have a good time, and the Halloween Toast that had taken place at the start of the party attracted the being's attention to the party-going fun that it hated so much.
After all the puzzles above were complete, I set the lights to go red and a second alarm to go off, warning that the entity had appeared and, oh no, it's possessed the party host! I planned for a quick costume change to become the entity, and had a general idea for who I was as a character: an angry spirit lashing out at everyone, but secretly craving to be included in the festivities. The final action to take, as listed in the document under the Possessed Friend entry, was "repeat all the countermeasures you have done with the friend as a participant." By including the entity, the players would teach it the power of friendship, the haunting would be over, and the game would be won.
What Actually Happened
Once I had everything planned and set up, it was time to actually run the game. I had two parties set up, one on Friday and the next on Saturday, in order to let more people play the game without filling my small apartment with too many guests. One party happened to be way less game-oriented than the other, which let me see the differences between how new-to-escape-room players and players who worked at escape rooms or other game development jobs would think. The Friday party was the Newbies party, and the Saturday party was the Veterans party.
Newbies vs Veterans
The parties ended up being quite similar in completion time. Not accounting for a full-party food and smoke break, the Newbie party finished in a little over two hours, and the Veterans party finished in an hour and a half. I gave the Newbies party more clues than the Veterans, but never blatantly solved parts of puzzles for them, so the difference in solve time is pretty fair.
The Newbies party had a harder time figuring out when they were looking at puzzle pieces or solutions to puzzles without my prompting or an Alexa command, which is something I expected. For example, a player overlayed the see-through photos to get the 8_9, and had the _3_, but didn't tell other players or realize it was a solution until I commented. They were also pretty open to using Alexa and relied heavily on her clues, though I also had to remind players to scan rooms before searching them when I found two of them in my bedroom. While they did enjoy the puzzles, they were much more invested in the story of the game. Every attendee would yell "Computer, Haunting Update!" when Alexa said she had one to learn about the entity and its backstory. Additionally, when the entity did appear, everyone immediately began interacting with it, and were hyped to include it in the party when the final action entry was translated.
The Veterans party knew exactly what to do once the game elements of the party were revealed. They generally could recognize which of my decorations were props, and were immediately comfortable with the three-digit-number solution system. However, their familiarity with traditional escape rooms also tripped them up; they would routinely forget about Alexa as a game mechanic, leading to confusion about which puzzle elements connected with each other when they couldn't find markings or symbols on the objects (a traditional way of connecting puzzle elements in escape rooms). They also had little interest in the story of the game, and were so solution-focused that during the final confrontation, they translated half of the passage (repeat all the countermeasures you have done) and began excluding the entity in their activities once again before translating the second half (with the friend as a participant).
One person in each party did something I didn't plan for, but made for a very satisfying conclusion to the game. After partying with the entity, it would give a final thanks about letting it be included, even if it had taken over the body of their friend to do it. In both parties, someone grabbed the mouse plushie from the box and offered to let the entity possess it so they could keep partying together. It worked so well as an ending that no one believed I didn't plan for it, and I'm surprised I didn't think of it myself.
A Few Bumps
A first try at anything will have a few bumps in the road, and this game was no exception. Since I was keeping it a secret from everyone, I couldn't test anything beforehand, and had to just hope it worked. Thankfully nothing was straight up broken and the puzzles were in a good area of difficulty where players felt challenged but not stumped, but a few things did need tweaking.
I've never designed or run an experience like this before, and had an absolute blast doing it. Everyone at the parties had a great time, and multiple people remarked that, even after realizing it was a puzzle game, didn't realize just how much complexity there was to the game experience. I managed to get all of this done in about two weeks (I don't even think about Halloween until after my birthday in mid October), so I can't put into words how happy I am that it all came together and worked almost perfectly. I also loved interacting with the players as the entity possessing a body, and love that players liked the character enough to want to keep partying with it in plushie form.
People were asking me at the parties if I planned to do something like this for Halloween or some other time, and as I picked up all the props and put them into a storage area with my other random creative endeavors, I decided I absolutely will. I don't know what form it will take or whether it'll be another solo venture or a team effort, but figuring all that out is part of the fun.
Stay spooky, everyone ✌️