Board games, video games, treasure hunts, murder mysteries, cryptic crosswords, Sudoku, TV game shows. We all love a good puzzle – something for us to solve, a set of clues just out of our immediate grasp that we solve to feel fulfilment, accomplishment and potentially even a smidge of superiority. We participate in teams, individually, in person and online, all to foster a sense of connection and often friendly competition. There’s a personal satisfaction of understanding a riddle of brainteaser, but also the smugness that creeps upon us when we know the answer that others don’t, a secret hidden in plain sight.
A Door In A Wall started with this style of treasure hunt format and quickly grew to become one of London’s foremost in immersive puzzle solving. Director Tom Williams and a group of friends set it, a way of expanding on a favourite hobby of theirs. Now the company devises full scale public events that sell out fast and are rapidly expanding their business into private events provision as well. I caught up with Tom in their Euston HQ to understand how it started, how it all works and his favourite moments over the last decade:
Give me an idea of where A Door In A Wall came from and how it’s got to where it is now.
It’s hard to fix a date on it because it’s an organisation that’s grown out of a hobby essentially – a group of friends doing something just for fun. It’s been an incremental journey, not something that’s happened overnight, we’ve matured like a fine wine!
The first things that we did were very much traditional treasure hunts – you’re walking around trying to get from A to B, you look at things, answer some questions and get to the next one etc. They were a lot of fun but they’re a fairly known quantity and there’s only so far you can go. Then we injected some story into it – you were following clues to gather pieces of a story. We tried to make those clues more interactive; rather than just standing somewhere looking at something, either something about the environment has changed or you affect a change in the environment. The other major change to move away from the traditional treasure hunt was to let the people taking part make the decisions as to where they go and what order they do things in. In some respects, that’s not a big deal because ultimately people experience the same things. But it seems like a very big decision – you’re taking responsibility for your own story, not just being led through something. You choose how you experience it.
We view ourselves as game designers. What we do leads into immersive theatre, most notably A Veiled Threat, and there are parallels with escape room and classic murder mystery games. But I like to think that we sit in our own unique spot in the middle of those. Over the last six years we’ve been writing original stories and using actors to convey those stories.
You’re taking responsibility for your own story, not just being led through something. You choose how you experience it.
Your last piece, A Veiled Threat, just finished in The Dead Dolls House, Islington. Is this typical of the work you produce?
A Veiled Threat was the first all indoor, more immersive production that we put on. It was very successful in terms of audience and we’re anxious to take that format forward in a more controlled space. The difference with A Veiled Threat was that it used one indoor venue where, once you step through the door, you are immersed within a world. We didn’t have to make allowances for running around London and interacting in short bursts, here we could create a much more stylised, more unified experience where everything looked and felt consistent within that space. The story was specifically designed for that space, we had an existing relationship with The Doll’s House venue – it means we could do little things like extending the black and white venue scheme into our world. Simple touches help create consistency, the hurdle for suspending disbelief is lower.
So when you’re putting on a new piece, for example Horses For Corpses, which runs in Camden Market in May – June, where do you typically start?
We have a broad structure to our process that we try and follow every time. The first thing we do is define a structure i.e. if it’s going to be an outdoor game or use certain locations, so we know what the practical constraints are devoid of theme. For example, with Horses for Corpses we started by considering the concept in outdoors games we’ve designed before – everyone arrives at the same time, they do some bits and then leave at the same time. A model we’re moving to with this is people arriving in smaller groups, doing a bit and then leaving for the next group to come in – there’s more of a flow.
That tells us what we need in terms of the venue – how big does it need to be and what does it need to have. Then we start talking theme – we always want to pick a broad area that people are going to have some familiarity with. That’s important to us because we have a very limited time with our audience and there’s a lot of work we have to do to explain the rules of the game that we’re putting in front of them. Giving them something that they can slot those rules into is incredibly helpful – we’ve found with stories that are a bit more fantastical and don’t fit a framework, people rapidly start getting confused. There’s too much information to process in too short a time. Something like a murder mystery is a nice framework, it gives you a clear objective i.e. identify the killer, but also a familiar story structure and people understand the mechanism of that narrative.
We also take inspiration for the venue itself and what suits the space. For Horses for Corpses we wanted to pick something fun, something colourful and something with a lot of tropes in popular culture. So we ended up with horse racing – it spans the class spectrum; it’s something we a lot of history to it; it can be very glamourous but also very seedy. With a venue like Camden market, we’ve got the stables too so we can jump that fence!
The theme then launches into other things – who might our victim be and who might want to kill that person with plausible motives that resolve in a coherent way. We do a lot of testing of the plot to make sure people can piece it together with the raw information – the last thing we want to do is spend loads of time writing stories that don’t make sense.
Have you ever run into that problem before?
There’s usually a bit of fine tuning, that’s to be expected. We’ve never had anything major, normally it’s a problem with how the story is presented, so by reframing a point in the plot you can get it across the way you mean to. There’s normally some adjustment to the game once people have played it too – if people are missing a point because it’s not prominent or clear enough.
With a venue like Camden market, we’ve got the stables too so we can jump that fence!
How do you strike a balance between making the game too easy and unsolvable, with people either getting bored or giving up halfway through?
The ideal outcome for our murder mysteries is that we want most people to get the murderer right, probably 70 – 75% of people. Following the clues, finding your way around and solving the puzzles should be relatively straightforward, the difficult bit is reassembling all the fragments of the story into the correct narrative. We still want people to be able to get it in their final guess, but to come away with a complete understanding of every nuance should be reserved for those who have put in the extra effort.
What is the longer term vision for A Door In A Wall?
There are two strands to our business – one is the private events side, which we’re doing a lot more than we did before and where our growth is targeted. For the public events, they act as our largest marketing tool for those private events. We’ve got an established and loyal fan base, but there’s no comparison for word of mouth in driving business – it’s put us where we are.
Longer term I would like A Door In A Wall to have its own premises; it would allow us to experiment as well as feed into private events, have an ongoing public show where we’re more in control.
But isn’t there something to be said for having different stories in new locations, something exciting in a new place each time?
Absolutely. One of the big bits of feedback that we consistently get from outdoor events is from people who enjoyed either being introduced to somewhere they don’t know, being reintroduced to somewhere they haven’t been back to, or (my favourite) where people see a place they know really well in a new way. It’s part of the joy of playing in London, you have the world’s most elaborate set – the city itself – to play in, populated by a cast of millions. So even if we had premises we would still do shows that moved around and there are different ways to do that too, for example I’m talking to a couple of museums about doing events in partnership with them.
Which is your favourite A Door In A Wall production?
I think for many people, a creative favourite was Sheiks On A Plane. The process for that started with the name; it was the last show we did purely for fun; the theme was incredibly strong and shows what you can do with a good theme. It was all based around air travel – we dressed up a bar to look like a departure lounge with the crew in cabin crew and pilot uniforms and it was an all-day event in glorious sunshine with everyone running around town following a really silly plot. A briefcase full of cash; a mystery diamond heist; murders in mid-air; selling to an arms dealer; all kinds in there. It really set the bar for everything we did after that and we have done so much cool stuff since.
More recently, the event we did in the city, An Appetite For Murder, was a really slick show. We had a really good relationship with the venue, really good actors, a really good partnership with the City of London corporation to get access to different things, we sold all the tickets and everything ran like clockwork. It was us at our best.
Horses For Corpses plays at Camden Market from 5 May – 18 June. For more information and to book tickets, please see the website.