Making an escape game inside Amsterdam’s most secure museum

Sherlocked’s team is now in the last stage of delivering a project we’re incredibly proud of.

We’re making an immersive mystery experience in collaboration with the world-renowned Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Last summer, the museum made a pioneering move of staging a large scale game inside its pretty magnificent building. Our team had a lot of fun playing it, with one strong feeling prevalent afterwards: we wanted to design an experience for this amazing space ourselves. One that would truly immerse players in the story and would mix our knowledge of elaborate escape rooms with the building’s innate mysteriousness.

We started a search within our network for possible connections to the Rijksmuseum team, which eventually led us to the duo behind last year’s game. We pitched them our vision for a new edition and invited them to experience our escape games in Amsterdam. Some months later, we were given the green light to develop that vision for the coming summer!

By this time it was already April, and we had just 3,5 months to develop it. That’s less than half the amount we’d normally take for such a project, so there was no time to waste.

We dove right into finding a storyline by interviewing different curators at the museum and learning their unique perspectives on Rembrandt. This year was the year of Rembrandt, so the game had to have some connection to the Dutch Master. In one of these conversations however, we were nudged in the direction of a different artist who was mentioned in the same breath as Rembrandt. His technique was as groundbreaking as Rembrandt’s and his works were often so realistic that people at the time suspected him of sorcery. This, along with a debaucherous lifestyle and his alleged involvement with a secret order, eventually got him jailed, tortured and sentenced to death. Miraculously, he managed to survive, but all of his paintings were destroyed by his prosecutors.

All of his paintings, but one. One hanging in the Rijksmuseum today.

That is when we knew we’d found our story.

Of course, to say more would be to divulge too many details about the experience we’re making. Instead, we’d like to share a few experience design principles that we employed in this project.

We don’t take the time to reflect upon these processes as often as we like, so if you’d like to encourage us to do this more often, please leave a message in the comments.

The Art of Inception

As game designers we continuously face the difficult task of creating challenging-but-conquerable obstacles.

Make the obstacle too challenging, and a player will experience a sense of failure, frustration or even anger with the game. Make it too easy, and a player will feel bored or even insulted. On top of this balancing act, as designers, we’re always dealing with different levels of intelligence, knowledge and life experience that can create massive differences in thought patterns.

One trick for making a satisfying challenge is to ‘give’ people the answer in a way they don’t realize it’s a clue, or at a time when they don’t know what to do with it yet. We call it priming and it’s basically what the characters in the movie Inception are doing: planting a thought in someone’s subconscious so they will think of it themselves when the moment comes.

The goal here is empowerment. If you give people a difficult-enough challenge ánd the tools to overcome it, magic happens. They’ll enjoy both the obstacle as well as the triumph.

Beware: Moving Parts

As we raced to design the experience, we quickly came to realise that creating a game in a heavily secured museum comes with a special set of design constraints.

For instance, the Rijksmuseum -massive as it is- has limited space and a vastly larger collection. Therefore it continuously changes its selection of what’s on display. This could mean that, after creating a puzzle around a particular piece of art, that piece could get moved or sent away for restauration.

Similarly, walking routes through the museum have to be carefully calculated to ensure the game’s expected 20.000 visitors won’t cause traffic jams in busy spots. This gave us the challenge to create a storyline centered around Rembrandt while also physically avoiding the spaces where Rembrandt’s works are located, the busiest spots in the museum.

It’s poetic justice that the development of a puzzle experience is one big puzzle in its own right. Everything is connected and all the moving parts can drive one mad if not careful. When multiple stakeholders are involved and you’re dealing with an iconic cultural institution like the Rijksmuseum, things are bound to change along the way and obstacles will pop up unexpectedly.

One thing that’s absolutely crucial in this, is having a project leader with an elephantine memory who keeps track of every change and can access, both from documentation as well as memory, how and why every particular decision got made. This allows for quick iteration and guards the team against wasting time on ideas that have already been explored, or ideas that are impractical due to interdependences.

Test Early, Test Often

“If you’re not embarrassed by your first version, you’ve launched too late”
Reid Hoffman, founder of Linkedin

As creatives, we’re often afraid to show our work to other people while we’re not completely satisfied with it. It’s human nature. We’re afraid to ‘fail’.

When you make experiences that people interact with, like we do in the escape game industry, you can’t start testing soon enough. Until you do, the majority of your design is based on what is often referred to as the mother of all screwups: assumptions.

Of course we have our best experience-informed intuition, some best practices, theories and (somewhat) proven frameworks, but as every experience is different, assuming too much for too long will burden your process later on with rewrites. You can’t assume that a player will think of the solution to a puzzle when you want them to. Or, that they will have the right insight at the right time. You have to test it.

Since starting Sherlocked 5 years ago, we’ve gradually learned to start testing our projects earlier and earlier in the design process. With this project, we forced ourselves to orchestrate the first ‘paper prototype’ runthrough a full five weeks before launch. It was uncomfortable, and we had to say “imagine this here” and “we don’t know what happens here yet” a lot, but we learned heaps from it.

“No plan survives first contact with the user”
Steve Blank, startup guru

Immediately after the first test, we could separate fact from assumption. Since that run-through we’ve changed our design a lot. And we keep testing: every Tuesday morning we invite a fresh team of testers to go through the experience, and every time we discover new things.

Now that we’re happy with the general game flow, we have to start testing with different types of players and different age groups. This is a lot of work, but thankfully, an immense amount of fun. Tomorrow’s our next test game and we can’t wait to find out if the changes we made worked out!

The Rijksmuseum Escape Game will run from July 13 to August 31 and you can book it at www.rijksmuseum.nl/escapegame

Sherlocked is always looking for adventurous play-testers of all ages, experience levels, and player types. If you’re interested in testing our games along with us, email us at guineapigs@sherlocked.nl

NB: we’re now hiring Experience Guides for this adventure.

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