UV lights and UV paint in escape rooms

This is a post I wrote for escaperoomblog.com, which was a website I planned to fill with posts about escape games. Kind of like an online magazine for escape rooms. However, I gave up on the project after writing just two posts. FML.

UV lights are one of the most common puzzles in escape games. When I first encountered a UV light, I started screaming, “SHINE IT AT THE WALLS! SHINE IT AT THE WALLS!” like Howard Carter finding King Tut’s tomb, or two cub scouts at night in a tent with a bear outside. You point the UV torch at the wall, and – whoa! Suddenly there’s a message that wasn’t there before.

Are UV lights a good idea for escape games?

Every escape game I’ve seen has included a UV torch puzzle. With hindsight this isn’t surprising, because according to a survey by Scott Nicholson, light puzzles are the third most common puzzle type used by escape rooms (the first most common is “searching for objects”, and the second most common is “team communication”). The survey also revealed that 54% of escape rooms use puzzles involving light.

This abudance of UV lights led Scott Nicholson to conclude that they have become an amusing trope:

A running joke used in adventure video games is “start to crate,” which is how long a player must play a game before finding a breakable object. The equivalent running joke in escape rooms could be “time to blacklight”, as many rooms turn to blacklights in order to add hidden information in a room.

Another escape room fan was more critical, saying:

They managed to include a lot of my least favourite escape room tropes – including tedious UV searching.

Another mistake game designers make is using UV lights when they don’t fit the game’s theme. This turns the lights into anachronisms and anatopisms (yes, that’s a real word), jarring the player out of their suspended disbelief. At www.realityisagame.com, Adam Clare recalls an anachronistic UV light in an escape game:

One game I tested was set in the distance past yet used UV lights without shame. There was no thematic (or narrative) justification for the UV lights to exist and this discrepancy bothered the entire team I was with.

How to set up UV lights in an escape game

So you’ve decided to use a UV light in your escape game, and you probably want to know how they work. Basically, UV light (also known as the oxymoronic “black light”) makes UV paint (also known as “black light paint”) glow.

Some UV paints are invisible in daylight conditions. It’s these paints that escape games use. The other UV paints are visible in all lights, which is pointless, because then the secret message will always be visible.

When you paint invisible UV paint onto a surface, it goes on as a clear lacquer. This means it is only visible when lit with a UV light. This YouTube video provides an example:

UV paints also come in different colours. This means game designers can combine the UV light puzzle with a color puzzle. The player shines the UV torch on an innocent-looking white wall to reveal: a red circle, a green triangle, and a blue square… what could it all mean?

Escape game owners will also need to buy a UV torch (and a backup for when the first breaks).

Note: Don’t confuse black light paint with phosphorescent paint (also known as “glow-in-the dark paint”). Phosphorescent paint powered the stars you stuck to your childhood bedroom. It glows in the dark, but it’s also visible in daylight.

Where can I buy UV torches and UV paint?

UV torches are cheap. One place you can buy them is Amazon, around $10.

A place to buy invisible UV paint is eBay.

More ideas

  • Why not write all over the walls, like a psychopath? Then reveal it like in The Simpsons’ parody of The Shining.
  • How about adding UV paint to unusual objects, like water in bottles?
  • Or you could use a UV marker to write an a hidden message on a seemingly-innocent document.

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