Escape rooms or immersive games sometimes use different types of puzzles to tie other puzzles together. At Secret City Adventures, we call this type of puzzle a metapuzzle. A metapuzzle is a puzzle whose components are determined by the solutions to other puzzles. Let’s think of regular puzzles as “little puzzles” and metapuzzles as “big puzzles”.

Clock within a clock spiral

In a game with four little puzzles and one big puzzle, the answers to — or outputs from — each little puzzle plug into the big puzzle, and either:

  • Make it clear how the big puzzle needs to be solved, or;
  • Solve the big puzzle by virtue being used.

Metapuzzles are often used in immersive games as bottlenecks, forcing a group of players to focus on a goal or outcome. A metapuzzle often marks the end of a section of a game, or the end of the game itself. Solving a metapuzzle sometimes results in some kind of change to the game by unlocking new rooms, unveiling secrets, or initiating a different environmental state.

The use of metapuzzles traces back to 8-bit games like Mega Man and 8 Eyes. In these games, players need to determine in which order to defeat bosses to beat the game most effectively. This order constitutes an overarching puzzle that makes replaying the game itself more challenging and rewarding. Later, single-playthrough puzzles became more popular, as video games became larger and more immersive. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, for example, uses an item-associated metapuzzle in each dungeon, and it uses metapuzzles as narrative checkpoints in the game.

This type of metapuzzle, where you collect rewards and then redeem those rewards within another, larger puzzle, occurs in Escape from the Tower. In the first room of Tower, each puzzle rewards the players with an object that they must then use to unlock the next stage of the game. Metapuzzles like these can help players stay focused on a particular goal. They also tie a room together, provide time for narrative moments and scenes with actors, and make disparate puzzles feel connected and purposeful. A well-designed escape room should evoke a sense of connection and purpose, rather than being a series of disjointed puzzles.

Escape enthusiasts know to look for metapuzzles as soon as they enter a room, and they can recognize design patterns in immersive games. Experts will probably remember effective metapuzzles from games like Escape from the Time Travel Lab and The Trial of the Mad Fox Society. Next time you play an immersive game, challenge yourself to identify the metapuzzle right away, if there is one (and there might not be one!). This will help you lead your team to victory in as little time as possible!