Escape the Interview – Talking With Jenni Allen, Escape Room Designer
There is nothing quite like being locked in a room, for a timer to start counting down, and for a deep and booming voice to tell you that you need to get out in sixty minutes or else be shamed forever. It brings out the raw detective in us, forcing us to think fast, react on a hairs notice, and think outside of the box. It is the perfect combination of primal and intellectual natures, and it is delicious.
I, for one, am a huge fan of Escape the Room experiences and I have even been known to write about the board game versions on this blog from time-to-time; so, when a friend of mine started designing them for corporate gigs, it naturally peaked my interest.
As a game blogger, who specialises mostly in things like board games, card games, miniature games, and RPGs, I don’t often get to talk about games in their experience form. That being said, there is a whole host of them out there, and Escape the Room experiences are no different. This is where I would like to introduce Jenni Allen, an up-and-coming Escape the Room Scream Queen and experience designer who currently creates them for corporate settings as a hobby.
I sat down with Jenni after completing one of her escape rooms, a passion project for her, to find out what inspired her to create it. The following is the transcript from that conversation.
INTERVIEW: Jenni Allen – Escape Experience Designer
So, Why? Why did you want to get into the Escape Room game?
I think, for me, I have quite a logical and a….what’s the word…lateral mind. I have quite a logical brain. I’m quite good at Escape Rooms, and my brain kind of works in a way where I can piece them together and unravel them quite easily, so I’ve always enjoyed doing that. I like competitions where there is a time limit and when it got to the point where I decided I was going to do one, which was a drunk decision, it just came really naturally to me.
Okay, it’s a bit of a strange thing to immediately come to you, so something must have inspired you. Presumably, that came from your first escape experience?
So I used to kind of do these kind of games, not morbid or locking people in a room, where I used to create puzzles when I was younger. I really enjoyed doing those and watching people try and struggle with the clues. Maybe that’s the inspiration, and I’ve always enjoyed treasure hunts and that kind of thing, so I think it just fits really nicely.
This is something that you are obviously passionate about –
I think the storyification, strong word, –
Yeah, real word –
– is also a big part of it. I’m quite dramatic and therefore being able to put all these weird ideas and thoughts into a real life scenario is really cool. It’s like the last one that I did, the Sozzled Santa scenario, that was just an idea about a really really drunk Santa – that’s nothing new, it just came about – and I could imagine the actors playing their roles in that.
So, do you like using live actors?
If you can interact with other people, you have more of an effect on the room then, and you have more control over it. So if an actor is in the room, and the players are doing something really fast for example, and you want them to slow down, you can do something to stop them. Or, you can help them along a bit more, not just by giving them a clue but by actually being a part of the world. It’s more fun for me as well.
Cool. So tell me about some of your favourite Escape Rooms.
I think one of my favourite ones is one that I didn’t complete. It’s the only one that I’ve ever not completed, it was in Coventry, and they had just opened it there. We went and we were all, I think there is a theme to this, we were all very hungover, we went along and the guys that I was with just did nothing. They didn’t help piece it together because (a) we were in a really bad state and it was also (b) because it was really well done. It wasn’t frustrating we couldn’t do it, but it was more like the adrenaline with the time going down. I think it was a really, really big challenge and I look back on it now as the one I couldn’t do.
The one that got away?
Yeah, the one that got away. I do fully blame it on the hangover though, I would go in and nail it now.
And blaming it on the others.
Oh yes, 100%. I blame it on the other people.
So what do you consider the core essence or core ingredients or core things that make an Escape Room?
That aren’t just the puzzles…
Well, Luke, puzzles are very good for them. In all seriousness, I think some of the things I’ve learned from designing them, is one of the core things, is to give people a chance. As a designer, you never know who is going to go into the room and you never know who’s going to be doing it. You kind of automatically assume, they aren’t going to get it if they haven’t worked something out that you think is really easy. You then give them a hint, or whatever, and it kind of ruins it for them. So, I think, that isn’t answering your question at all, sorry, but one of the core things is to make sure that you make it accessible for everyone. It’s about making it fun for everyone, no matter what their ability is. Do you think that answers it?
Absolutely. What about thematically then? What are your favourite themes to go to?
I think my favourite ones are the scary ones. I have this, I don’t know if it’s just me, but I get full on adrenaline and I can’t go into a room without being coaxed in by somebody else. It’s like that little bit of adrenaline gives you so much more, and it makes it so much more rewarding when you finish. I did one for work which was scary, and then I did another one that wasn’t scary at all. People, although they enjoyed the non-scary one, I think the consensus was the bit more adrenaline was a bit more fun and unknowing as well. The not feeling safe, even though they knew they absolutely were, was generally considered good.
Do you think that? Do you think a scary one is better? Let’s twist this interview around!
So yeah, the first Escape Room I ever did was a scary one in Birmingham. You know the one I mean.
So when we unlocked one of the secondary rooms, which I am not going to say for spoiler reasons, I was stood behind Beth and I was just like “Yeah, you go in,” I was like, “we may die in there. Just so you know, I love you, but you go first.” There’s also that moment where you are watching the big screen in the room and suddenly something happens – that’s something you incorporated into Sozzled Santa.
I remember the first one I did was a Saw inspired one. Wait, was that my first one? Well, one of my first ones…
Is this the one you were telling me about where you go in blindfolded?
Yeah, so that was like, the pinnacle of my facility for scared-ness. It was like living the movie, Saw, and you go in and you are handcuffed to different sides of the walls and you are blindfolded. Then you have to go digging in the toilet U-bend and you have to eugh, bleugh, bleugh, bleugh. And there was a body on the floor and you didn’t know if it was an actor or a dummy, it was very good.
Couldn’t you just tap it with your foot?
I couldn’t reach, I was handcuffed to the wall!
…and they just gave you a rusty saw beside you and now your boyfriend only has one arm…
Yeah, he’s only got one arm now, I have both arms. We chose to sacrifice him.
And there was this one bit where you go through and you have to – it was like a crawl space, it was like a coffin – so you have to get into this crawl space coffin, lie down in it, and then you get pushed by the other team members one by one, into like a –
How does the final one get through?
They get in and then the others pull them through. No they don’t. They separate us. Oh, that’s a great idea! Separate the players!
I worry about you at times.
Everyone keeps saying that. Anyway, you go through and into this room and it’s a really really dark, horrible, old hospital room. I refused to be last, I refused to be first, and then I had to get my boyfriend in with me because I was like “I am not going in that by myself”.
But it was good? It left an impression?
I enjoy it when I’m out of them. I think I do enjoy them when I’m in them but the adrenaline takes over and I’m kind of terrified.
Okay, so what’s next then for Jenni Allen, escape extraordinaire?
There are talks about taking it further in the corporate side – I am really enjoying doing it for fun at the moment, but I would like to explore the different options in regards to writing them, selling them, and doing them either as a game or as an actual physical thing. I have so many ideas and so many cool things I want to try out, that I know I am going to be doing them for a long time.
Chatting to Jenni is always great, but we had a lot of fun doing this interview, so I hope to do more with passionate people doing cool things with games in the new year.
You can follow Jenni on LinkedIn.