The fun and fantasy of an escape room comes from putting yourself in a situation you only see in movies and television: everyone gets a chance to play MacGyver or Bond, Sherlock or Houdini, whoever is your favorite hero of ontological mysteries. There is a puzzle to solve, and if you are observant and clever enough to manipulate key items around you, you win.
It's cerebral and physically active entertainment, and apparently an unbelievably lucrative business. And like all games, it reveals a lot about the humans who do it, how we choose to amuse ourselves: what's really fun about simulated peril? Do you want to see how well your work colleagues could defuse a bomb? Would you say yes to an escape room marriage proposal? And how do they stack up against an actual escape?
Let's ponder all of this and more, just follow me into this room... lock clicks behind you
In the past ten years, escape rooms have popped up all over the world. The first Escape Room was created in Japan in 2007 by SCRAP Entertainment, and was inspired by point-and-click adventure video games. From 2010 onward, they spread through Asia and Europe, with some of the highest concentrations in Budapest, then to Australia, Canada, and the USA. As of September 2017, there were 8,000 venues worldwide. If one hasn't opened up in your city, here's how they work:
Scott Nicholson, a Game Design professor from Ontario, has produced the most comprehensive study to date of escape rooms worldwide, entitled "Peeking Behind the Locked Door", and defines Escape Rooms as "live-action team-based games where players discover clues, solve puzzles, and accomplish tasks in one or more rooms in order to accomplish a specific goal (usually escaping from the room) in a limited amount of time."
Essentially, Escape Rooms are mainstream Live Action Role Playing games (or LARP) – but instead of creating your own costumes, stories, and foam-covered weapons to boff each other with, you're provided a pre-made adventure, often with a distinct narrative and setting. Many escape rooms have been compared to haunted houses and immersive theater installations, but their true roots lie in puzzle and exploration games like Myst.
Approximately half of all escape rooms are set in a specific place and time from 1900 to today, but can also be set in the future or distant past. 36% of escape rooms, according to Nicholson's studies, have no overarching narrative other than "escape the room" or "escape a specific unpleasant place," like a prison, asylum, or a serial killer's basement.
In Russia, you can play a Soviet experience, where you have to destroy all of the incriminating documents in a dissident friend's apartment before the secret police come. In Berlin, you must smuggle messages to take down the Wall.
When escape rooms exploded in popularity in China, writers from both China Daily and the South China Morning Post commented on how young people in Hong Kong were using them to escape the stress of their daily lives, getting the same rush as video gaming but with even more immersion. For those who are exhausted by the chaos of life, escape rooms are an orderly simulation of a world where there are answers, even if they are hidden elaborately throughout the environment.
But it isn't only extreme escapists who want to test their wits in these environments: mommy bloggers say they're great for families, because they force everyone to look away from their phones from a moment and talk to each other; and others say they're a great first date idea. If there's no chemistry, no communication, or your date fails to wow you with their puzzle-solving expertise, you don't have to worry about being actually locked in with them for an hour: according to Nicholson's survey, the door isn't even actually locked in 22% of games.
I'm not locked in here with you, you're locked in here with me
According to MarketWatch's 2015 investigation into the escape room industry, corporate clients make up 50% of the escape room audience.
"Frothing" with your coworkers sounds like something only the trendiest startup offices would allow, or an HR violation – but it's actually terminology borrowed from LARP, that refers to the players' spirited post-game discussions. After an immersive, emergent gaming experience, the excitement that bubbles up and runs over, much like the head of an inexpertly-poured beer, can carry into the work environment and make colleagues communicate more creatively and work more closely as a team.
Plus, some escape rooms offer a full CCTV review for management to assess the experience, which at least anecdotally, has been used to determine natural leadership and potential for promotion.
Unfortunately, reports of a first date going too well caught on an escape room's CCTV were fake, but there are plenty of videos of marriage proposals. Usually these consist of the ring being hidden in the last clue to the room, and when you think about it, escape rooms are the perfect place to pop the question: a completely controlled environment, with everything being video taped, and the door locked. On a Reddit thread asking what are the weirdest things escape room employees have seen, one user witnessed a "Will you go with me to prom?" proposal, and (spoiler alert) she said no.
For those with an incredibly high tolerance for cringe, look no further than Escaping "The Room" with Tommy Wiseau, twenty minutes and forty-four seconds of YouTubers trying desperately to guide this creative genius through a series of puzzles in a recreation of the living room from his cult film The Room.
Breaking out, breaking in, and just generally breaking things
Most of the other horror stories from Reddit consist of people breaking things, so that game operators have to write on specific objects, things like "Do not climb." But of course, as an inquisitive player, you could always interpret that as a clue to definitely climb (and break) their props. Other popular methods of destroying escape rooms include tearing up the floorboards and climbing up into the ceiling tiles, a method of escape actually used by a murder suspect in Las Vegas and caught on camera:
There has also already been at least one documented case of a burglar breaking into an escape room, and calling 911 when he couldn't get out.
For escape rooms of the future, however, proprietors won't have to worry about the property damage that people who try to brute-force or speedrun their way through the puzzles inflict on the environments they've meticulously built, because escape rooms have already been created for Virtual Reality. It's a perfect use case: an immersive experience with endless objects and puzzles to generate, and particularly convincing for the horror genre, as VR zombies are much more disgusting and realistic than human actors.
Much like Alternate Reality Games, escape rooms have become a shrewd marketing tool, with branded experiences appearing for TV series like The Walking Dead and Dr. Who, and to build hype around movies like Rogue One.
Whether they're the future of advertising or will peter out like ARGs is yet to be determined. But if you really want to escape the stresses of your daily life, take out your passive aggression on your work colleagues, or make a smashing proposal, may we suggest a Rage Room instead?