How to use UV well

By | July 2, 2019

Any list of escape room tropes will inevitably include use of UV lighting, and no wonder – the ability to hide invisible messages that players can only discover when they find the correct tool is an irresistible mechanism for escape room designers. As a result, UV messages have been used since the earliest escape rooms and continue to be a regular staple.

However, frequent players often groan on finding a UV torch, and only a small part of that is the fact that they’ve probably seen it a couple dozen times before. There are several reasons why UV puzzles get tedious, and the first is that it’s often a bottleneck. Very few games provide more than one UV light source, and if there aren’t other puzzles to tackle in parallel then most of the team gets to stand around watching their teammate wave a torch around.

But even the player holding the torch probably isn’t getting much of a thrill from it either. The team has probably given the space a thorough search already, and now they need to do that all over again, except this time all the searching must be done by one person at a time.

That’s even worse if you have a lot of papers and printed material in the room. Sure, you know that running the UV torch over every page in each of the twenty books in the bookshelf is a pointless waste of time, but the players may feel obliged to try it any way. As a player, any time I have a UV torch and I’m not confident that I know exactly where I’m supposed to use it, I’m going to scan every new item and clue with it as well as every corner of the room; and typically that’ll be unwanted busy-work that adds no particular enjoyment to the experience.

And all of those problems become much, much worse if – as happens far too often – the torch’s batteries are low, or ambient light makes it hard to see the UV messages even when you’re shining the torch on them.

A far, far better use of UV is as a reveal: instead of giving the players a UV torch, you have a UV light source fixed in place, perhaps covering the entire room. The players complete something and in response the UV lights up and instantly reveals the hidden messages. This instantly avoids all the problems above, particularly if other lights dim at the same time to make the UV writing stand out all the more. (Naturally, make sure the lower lighting doesn’t introduce a different problem: darkness may make your UV message nice and clear, but if it means the players can’t properly see the place where they’re using that information it can end up just as frustrating.)

A halfway house is to have a UV light source fixed in place, and require players to bring items to that spot to check them. That doesn’t give the instant satisfaction of a reveal, and can also end up being tedious, but avoids the worst problems with a free search.

But while I reliably prefer a UV reveal to a UV search, there are ways to make a UV search work well. These are the guidelines to follow.

Don’t give the players a UV torch before they can use it

As soon as they have the torch, they’ll start using it to check everything, and if it can’t be used until later that will all be wasted effort. They may even stop working on other puzzles while they search.

Give players something to find quickly

And then have that lead them towards the correct spot. Want players to find a hidden message written underneath a desk? Add lots of other UV lines and messages that lead them toward it. That’s not removing challenge, that’s removing tedium.

Don’t reuse the torch

Once the players have used it to solve a puzzle, they should be able to put the torch aside and forget about it. When you have two unrelated sets of UV messages, the first risk is that players will find one and then stop looking. The second risk is that, having found two, they’ll have to check everything from that point on, in case there’s a third thing to find.

Only use UV messages in a dark environment

Otherwise ambient light may make them much harder to spot and read, especially when a group plays on a sunny day with sunlight streaming in a window. If you don’t have a dim room (and in all other ways I’m very much in favour of well-lit game spaces), give the players control of the lighting, even if that’s just letting them use the light switch for the room. (And be prepared for the teams who don’t think of turning the lights out while they wave their UV torch around.)

Keep the torches working well

Provide multiple torches, keep the batteries fresh, and have spares ready to swap in at short notice – as with any normal torches.

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