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The strange appeal of escape the room games, explained

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A screenshot from The Room, a popular mobile “escape the room” game.

Tim didn’t understand the need for vowels, as I watched him try to figure out a simple word problem. He tried to pry chess pieces off a chessboard, even after he realized they were glued down. He also attempted to speak to a dead man.

My friends and I spent close to an hour with Tim and one of his friends, solving puzzles, crawling through an air shaft, working on math problems I hadn’t seen since high school.

And Tim is the reason we weren’t able to defuse the bomb and escape the room.

The universe had conspired to bring our lives together in an “escape the room” exercise, the type that has recently become popular all over the country. Groups of people pay good money to be trapped in a room, slapped with a time limit, and challenged to find their way out by solving a series of puzzles as a team. Assuming they’re not like me, they actually escape.

Escape the room games combine storytelling, puzzle solving, and a social atmosphere

Paradiso: Chapter 1, an escape the room game in New York City.
 Caleb Sharpe

The mechanics of all escape the room games are essentially the same: a series of intricate puzzles that multiple people must solve while racing against time. The puzzles are supposed to work in a progression. For example, you find a key that opens a drawer, and inside the drawer is a clue that leads to a puzzle. Solving the first puzzle leads to another puzzle, which leads to another, which may lead you to another room and another set of puzzles, and so on and so forth until you solve them all.

Each adventure has its own backstory. For example, one could put you in the throes of a robbery or another could put you in a haunted hotel room. Depending on the game producer, the puzzles, number of rooms, and general themes of the rooms differ. The prices also differ — ranging from $30 to $60 for an hour.

The best escape rooms add to the experience with their decor and the props they use. The game Tim and I shared, Paradiso: Chapter 1 in New York City, had the feel of a sinister company hiding behind a seemingly ordinary office building.

There’s a strange thrill and surreal awkwardness to the experience in that puzzle solving is often a private act, rather than a performative one. Without giving too much away, at Paradiso we solved one puzzle and then crawled through an airshaft to a room containing a desk, a chessboard, several books, and a ladder. We didn’t have any clue what to do next.

Escape games require you to rifle through drawers and rummage through bookshelves to find clues and act like a maniac in front of other people. They also require you to think out loud, which can be strange for someone who’s used to working out problems in their head.

“You really get to know someone after this hour,” Jennifer Worthington, a producer at Paradiso, told me. “Who is a leader? Who is the best strategist?”

By the end of the game, there was some crazy math going on that made it all but impossible to finish. Worthington says the escape rate at Paradiso is at around 30 percent.

“We can adjust by making the puzzles harder or easier,” she told me. “We have settled with an average escape rate of 30 percent. People love to win, but if it is too easy the victory won’t be as sweet.”

The goal is never in doubt: Finish that final puzzle and get out.

Escape games owe their existence to “adventure” video games like Myst

A screenshot from Myst IV.

The origin story of escape the room games begins in Japan around 2007, with the first US rooms opening around 2012. (There’s no official tally of escape rooms, but they exist in several major cities and have expanded to places like Petoskey, Michigan, and McHenry, Illinois.)

That sort of makes sense. Japan’s quirkiness and innovation — as seen in several of the country’s trends, from cat cafes to love hotels to robot restaurants — have become a fixation of sorts to Westerners. And while some people are quick to scoff at the “oddity” of Japan’s experimental nature, I’d argue their skepticism is actually a guarded form of genuine interest. It’s no surprise, then, that eventually these “weird” Japanese phenomena find their way onto American soil and become popular. Just look at the recent uptick in cat cafesaround the country; escape rooms are a similar trend.

Escape rooms can also be savvy business ventures. In 2015, Marketwatch looked at the business model and found that some bring in up to $70,000 a month. Finding space to host an escape room and then building it out are what eat up the most money, but maintaining a room experience doesn’t have that many overhead costs.

But the roots of escape games come from puzzle-solving video games.

Arguably the most legendary game in this genre is Myst, which was released in 1993. I was 11 at the time, and was more into traditional side-scrolling beat ’em up games than puzzles. I never gave Myst a real shot — though that’s more my fault and a function of my age than anything Myst did.

In Myst, you’re transported into the point of view and life of a person called “the Stranger,” who must explore an island and solve a number of puzzles and logic games along the way. You click and drag various items and ultimately interact with the world (usually it’s a set of dials or setting a pattern into place) on your screen. The overall goal is to explore rather than defeat a boss or kill your opponent.

Myst was a game-changer, in that it seemed poised to pioneer a whole new frontier of gaming. But that never came to pass.

“It just kind of puttered out,” Myst co-creator and Cyan founder Rand Miller told Grantland in 2013. “It was kind of weird: We got accolades for increasing the exposure of what was called the ‘adventure game,’ and then we got blamed on the other hand for the death of the adventure game, because it was too big and too hard to top it.”

Miller brings up an interesting point, not just for himself but for the genre: that later adventure video games had to, if they were to succeed, deal with the pressure of topping Myst. Miller also hints at the idea of aching openness versus the idea of achievement, suggesting that too much of an open-world feel without tangible results isn’t something people want.

The appeal is in the potential for accomplishment

A screenshot of The Crimson Room.

As the aforementioned Grantland article points out, there are only a few contemporary successors to Myst. But there are also a lot of great, popular games — like Assassin’s Creedand Grand Theft Auto — that incorporate the open-world concept that Myst was going for.

Constricting those types of worlds is the key to escape rooms’ success. If the room you’re trapped in is the only intricate world you need to worry about, it allows for endless replay as you solve puzzles in succession and feel accomplished as you make progress.

Myst’s problem was that it was too aimless for certain types of players. But if you add a sense of immediacy, the texture of the game changes. And that’s the kernel of appeal in escape rooms’ video game predecessors.

Though Myst popularized and drew people into the adventure game genre, a game called Behind Closed Doors, a basic text-based adventure (which doesn’t have graphics; every action and description is written out) from 1988 is credited as the grandparent of all escape games. It featured a hilariously simple task: Find your way out of a bathroom.

More than a decade and a half after Behind Closed Doors was published, in 2004, a game called Crimson Room was released by creator Toshimitsu Takagi. Crimson Room popularized what Behind Closed Doors and games like it had started. It’s pretty basic — there’s text prompting you, telling you that you’ve woken up in a room and need to get out, but the door is locked. By clicking around the room, you find certain objects that unlock or fit into other objects, and that ultimately leads to your release.

What Takagi created has become a format for popular smartphone games like The Roomand the Dana Knightstone seriesThe Room in particular was released in 2012 and has since swept all kinds of mobile gaming awards; the game and its sequels have been downloaded more than 11.5 million times.

The popularity of mobile escape games is in how different they are compared with popular video games of today. In a sense, they’re closer in style to how we navigate social media and YouTube rabbit holes (one click leads to another, then another, then another) than the traditional sense of what’d we’d play on Nintendo.

They also run counter to console-based shooters like Overwatch and multiplayer online battle arenas like DOTA 2, which put a premium on action and reaction. Mobile escape games are designed for you to wind down time rather than actively kill it.

But these mobile games, like all video games, are ultimately private acts; you don’t share them with anyone. And that doesn’t really explain the lasting appeal of real-life escape games.

Escape games thrive because they’re social activities

I was stuck in this room for a good 15 minutes.
 Caleb Sharpe

What struck me most about my experience, aside from universe’s maudlin sense of humor in forcing me to interact with Tim for a brief pocket of time, is that escape rooms hit that sweet spot between icebreaker and party game. They also reveal how bad many of us are at icebreakers and party games.

It’s not that surprising.

The argument has been made over and over that our smartphones and social media havechanged the way we interact with fellow human beings. A common reaction to receiving a voicemail is a feeling of dread that something has gone wrong. We talk with emoji. We’ve even created apps where we don’t have to call restaurants for pizza orders. I have often talked to my co-workers who were right next to me by chatting them on Slack.

And when it comes to some of the most popular video games, it’s exponentially easier to stay at home and play with your friends over the internet than engaging in the “old” practice of going over to their house and playing Golden Axe.

In light of all this, giving orders to a complete stranger is extremely awkward. Telling someone they have to listen to you, and convincing people to trust you is a lot more difficult when we (or maybe it’s just me) are so used to doing everything ourselves and on our own. It’s especially difficult if your escape room experience involves your own supreme distrust of a human like Tim.

Still, there’s a thrill there.

“People want to get out of their houses — come out from their screens and interact with people,” Worthington said. “I think there is a real trend of people wanting to be around other people again. There are not a lot of fun activities for groups or friends beyond bowling.”

Because of escape games’ social element (and our increasing lack of it), corporate overlords have used them as team-building exercises, but regular people have also turned them into birthday parties, bachelor/bachelorette parties, and dates. (I don’t really recommend escaping a room as a first date, unless you are a monster.) Escape rooms really stress a group dynamic, and coax out traits and personalities — leadership, strategy, communication — you don’t normally see in your friends, co-workers, or strangers.

By the end of game, I’m told that there is often a buzz of accomplishment and camaraderie. I believe that happens if you escape.

I was left with was the heat of burning resentment and a stronger bond with my friends. We honed our ability to make that slip of telepathic eye contact where you understand everything they’re thinking and the frustration they may be feeling.

And in its own way, that’s a success too. If I didn’t feel anything, the game would be a failure. That there were such heightened emotions in such an artificial situation is a credit to the producers and the room and the puzzles they created; my feelings of anger and defeat are a testament to what makes escape games compelling.

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