Escape rooms are basically everywhere now. Most towns and cities in the UK have at least one, and on a worldwide scale they’re such big business that they’ve come to merit their own Tripadvisor category (suck on that “Universities AND Schools”). Indeed you can see a marker of their growing popularity in the fact that ordinary people actually know what they are. Just a few short years ago escape games were the kind of quirky activity that would be written off as the territory of committed nerds only, and which would earn you a puzzled frown if you brought them up at parties.
So how did this (admittedly somewhat strange) activity come to be so ubiquitous? When did getting locked in a room and solving a series of puzzles in order to escape enter the public consciousness as an ordinary thing to do on a Saturday night? Let’s start at the beginning and take a detailed look at the origin of this puzzling (haha) phenomenon.
Escape The Room Computer Games
Long before live escape rooms were a thing, there existed dozens of computer games which took as their central conceit a character trapped within a single small room, with a series of increasingly fiendish puzzles in between them and freedom. You can trace these back as far as 1988, when John Wilson created his text adventure game Behind Closed Doors for the ZX Spectrum, in which a Balrog – stricken by an upset stomach after one too many cat vindaloos – finds himself locked inside a dingy restroom by some mischievous goblins. It may look pretty basic by today’s standards, but for a time when computers had less memory than the average blender it was nothing to be sniffed at.
As Flash became more popular, graphical escape games which riffed on the same mechanic soon gained in popularity. Many of these were fairly simple, browser-based diversions which could be completed in a matter of minutes, and which had little in the way of story or logic to string them together. Crimson Room and Viridian Room are classic examples – both of them are bizarre, simplistic and yet also infuriatingly obtuse. Which isn’t to say they aren’t still fun in a teeth-grinding, keyboard-smashing kind of way. Mystery Of Time And Space also deserves a mention – although it breaks the mould a little by not confining itself to a single room. From these humble beginnings, escape room computer games exploded in popularity… to the point that the sheer quantity of them now warrants a game titled “Another Goddamn Escape The Locked Room Game”. What a world.
The First Live Escape Rooms
Takao Kato, a worker at the Japanese publishing company SCRAP, is usually credited with being the first person to conceive of a live action, real-world escape game in 2009. Like all good ideas, it was had while slacking off and playing browser-based games during working hours. Kato, the story goes, watched one of his co-workers complete a classic escape room game and questioned why something similar couldn’t be rendered in the real world. In an interview with The Japan Times he expressed it thus: “I wondered why interesting things didn’t happen in my life, like they did in books. I thought I could create my own adventure, a story, and then invite people to be a part of it.”
Soon enough Kato was making interesting things happen in hundreds of lives, as well as his own. The games he devised were a little different from what we might today recognise as an escape room, however. Called Real Escape Games, they tended to run for several weeks at most, and were based in bars or clubs, rooms of which were temporarily repurposed for the run. Each game lasted about an hour, but could have as many as twenty participants, who were often divided into teams to try and plot their escape – a feat which might involve passing an exam, ousting a traitor in their midst, or even turning back time.
Real Escape Games were an instant hit, with tickets for each new adventure selling out in a matter of hours. It wasn’t long before competitors started to take notice and organise events of their own. By 2011, the concept had made the jump overseas. Parapark – a company founded by team building expert Attila Guyrkovics – was established in Budapest, and constituted one of the first permanent escape game venues. Situated in the basement under a ruin bar, it was designed to help visitors flex their teamwork muscle, while also plunging them into a pleasant state of flow. Guyrkovics put a lot of energy into that last point, adamant that his puzzles should be neither too easy nor too hard. It was a winning recipe, and within two months he had quit his day job and was focussing solely on Parapark. As rivals popped up across the city, Guyrkovics turned his venture into a franchise – one that is still going strong today.
Worldwide Escape Rooms
It took another year or so for escape games to make their way to America, but the concept caught on after Real Escape Games set up a venue in San Francisco in 2012. The first American escape game company – Puzzle Break – was established in Seattle the very next year. HintHunt, the company credited with bringing escape rooms to the UK, was slightly quicker off the mark, opening a venue in London in 2012, just a short walk away from my favourite gift shop. Meanwhile, the floodgates now having been opened, rooms appeared in Australia, Singapore, Russia, and pretty much every country in Europe.
Since then, the escape game industry has grown exponentially. There are now over four hundred rooms in the UK alone, with at least one to be found in most towns and cities. Worldwide, the number of escape rooms is uncountable, with more popping into existence faster than ants on a dropped scone. You can get locked in a room everywhere from Uzbekistan to New Caledonia, and there are even – in a pleasantly circuitous development – computer games based on live room escape games. I’m eagerly awaiting the day when someone puts together a board game based on one of those.
Given the sheer popularity of these strange diversions, it can be hard to believe the industry is as young as it is, but if escape games were a person they wouldn’t even have yet hit puberty – although they would at least have stopped routinely throwing up on long car journeys. What the future holds for live escape games remains to be seen… but really, at this point in time, the fun is just getting started.