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A Look at the History & Origin of Escape Room Games

What was the first escape room game?

The origin of Escape room games as we know them today, would have to give a very lengthy speech at an awards ceremony to account for the endless list of inspirations deserving praise. The commercialisation of escape games have a somewhat backwards publication history compared to how many forms of media entertainment are packaged. Where as you might find a book adapted to a movie, which is then accompanied by a video game port, escape rooms were first recognised in video game format in the early 2000's before being transmuted into a real physical setting. The true big bang of the escape room industry should really be traced back to it's myriad of inspirations stemming from puzzle games, TV challenge shows and engineering mechanics which have been interwoven into the attraction and entertainment history for decades.

Before we look at the more vague beginnings, let's focus first on what many agree to be the the first actual real world escape room experience. The publishing company “SCRAP” located in Kyoto, Japan was the first company to identify itself as running a “real escape game” or “REG” in July 2007. It was a single room which required a team of at least 5-6 people to participate to solve various puzzle, both mental and physical. The man behind the wheel in it's creation was a one Takao Kato who had became fascinated with the concept after witnessing his roommate playing an escape the room video game (more on these later). SCRAP events were very popular, limited edition and tickets to attend would sell out incredibly quickly as the local and national buzz surrounding his attraction grew.

Now not everyone will agree on SCRAP being ground zero for real world escape games, some point to a venue in Silicon Valley called "Original Piece" which hosted a more “live” version of the escape game concept and in 2004 a company named “5 Wits” opened it's door in Massachusetts labelling themselves as a “real life puzzle adventure” which definitely shares some off the core concepts of escape games albiet with some noteable differences. Mixed opinions aside, a large portion of enthusiasts we spoke to, combined with our research, does point to the consensus that SCRAP is viewed as the originator by the majority in the industry.

Now that the idea was out there and with massively increased consumer interest the installation of escape rooms grew at a feverish rate between 2010-2013 starting in Asia, making it's way to Europe (with Hungary among the first to develop a dense population of rooms), and then over to Australia, Canada, America, Singapore and of course England so yes basically everywhere. The first All-American escape game company appeared in 2013 from “Puzzle Break” based in Seattle-based, was actually co-founded by Microsoft alum Nate Martin and yes we do seem to welcome a large number of computer scientists through our doors here at iLocked, we guess they just fit the profile of people who love to sink their brains into a puzzle.

Now practically every county is brimming with escape game options, there are even cruise ships featuring them on-board! This booming popularity is fantastic if you're an avid player but as a company in this industry you might be starting to sense an impeding over-saturation of the once niche market. The competition though is healthy and what drives innovation, we often recommend rival rooms in the Nottingham area to customers who have already played all of our rooms.

We asked around in out network of escape room owners about their inspirations with the most common answers being SCRAP from Japan, Hinthunt in London, Parapark in Budapest and Escape the Room New York. Some owners on the contrary cited old horror movies such as The Cube or game shows similar to “The Crystal Maze” as their inspiration.

We strongly believe however with so many different inspirations to the mental playgrounds which make escape rooms what they are, we really need to go back in time to pay homage to where many core escape game concepts were first nurtured.

 

Early escape room inspirations:

 

Live-Action Role-Playing
 

One game genre that escape rooms tap into are live action role-playing games. As more and more hordes of friends with with infinite imaginations met to play Dungeons and Dragons, many desired to experience their tabletop fantasies - which are often confined to the darkness of basements or overcrowded dorm rooms - in more immersive settings. In the 1980s organizations such as the International Fantasy Gaming Society (IFGS), came up with the premise for players to dress up in costumes, carry foam weapons, and engage in scenarios that combined role-playing, puzzle solving, and combat. Some of the custom situations saw players hunting for clues and solving challenging puzzles, escaping from locked rooms crafted out of rather flimsy structures staged deep in the woods, which were often a part of these experiences. True Dungeon which now describes themselves as a “escape room type live action game” took the aforementioned concepts of live-action role-playing and put together a series of rooms for the event Gen Con 13 where players made their way through each room attempting to solve puzzles under within a time limit. Each player role played in character, and made battle against against imaginary enemies through a randomized system (the same type of RNG found in DnD). The real focus of True Dungeon however was not the combat but testing your puzzle solving skills and this helps it remain a very popular attraction at the Gen Con events each year.

 

Point-and-Click Adventure Games & Escape-the-Room Digital Games

 

One of the classic mechanics of escape the room games has always been searching for objects in various nefarious places, from the “painfully right in-front of your face” to the “never in a million years would I look there”. This find and seek system can be traced back to the retro interactive fiction games, still popular today with many new iterations of the genre. Generally in these games a the objective was for players explore their virtual environments, find items and input commands to a virtual console, triggering progression through the adventure. This soon evolved into the 2-D point-and-click adventure genre which gave more room for exploration than it's more rigid predecessor thanks to the use of Mice and ever improving graphical prowess from modern computers. Then of course came 3-D video game versions; Myst was one of the first puzzle room orientated games in glorious 3-D space, people familiar with the game often describe escape rooms as “Live-action Myst”. Another notable entry in this genre was called “The 7th Guest” with both games releasing in the same year 1993. Skip forward a decade and with the seismic and global integration of a little thing called the Internet, online formats of The “escape the room” genre appeared in the early 2000s in the form of Flash powered point-and-click puzzle games, the most infamous being Motas(2001) and The Crimson Room (2004), with hundreds of others sprouting up shortly after, cultivating a ravenous appetite amongst fans for item hunting and puzzle solving games. In fact iLocked actually recommend in this guide to escape rooms, honing your skills on these free to play games to get a basic idea of the escape game premise before attending your first room.

These digital games are what first officially coined the label of “escape the room games” and they are certainly the source of inspiration for many of the first real life escape room games. Now the next step has been taken in the digital escape room industry with virtual reality providing a whole new playground for developers and designers to work with and we're excited to see where this takes us.

 

Puzzle Hunts & Treasure Hunts

 

Puzzle/treasure hunts are another classic source of inspiration for any escape room designer. In these “orienteering” hunts players work together, combining their mental power to solve a string of puzzles, either in paper format or digital versions in the same style, one puzzle leads to another, usually with the objective of combing the results of each smaller puzzle to solve the overall master puzzle. Puzzle hunts and treasure hunts have existed for a very long time and in the last decade more sophisticated versions have emerged which offer a “live experience” wherein actors and staged scenarios are implemented to achieve more of an movie adventure for the players, think similar to the mind melting movie “The Game” staring Michael Douglas. Since puzzle hunts can last an entire day or some have no time restriction at all, puzzles tend to be more complicated and time consuming than those you would find in escape rooms but the core themes are quite similar, work together and overcome the mental challenges presented to you. The latest versions of these hunts often include geocaching and letterboxing, where players receive GPS coordinates or multimedia clues either at the start or after completing puzzles, this then leads them to a specific location where they will find a hidden box or something similar which either contains another clue or concludes the quest. The parallels here to escape rooms have given endless ideas to room designers with the difference in scope such as the confines of a room and a 60 minute time limit being the main factors that separate the experiences into their own categories. Puzzle and treasure hunts are obviously much more outdoor focused, nobody gets locked in, which is a shame, if you're into that type of thing..

 

Interactive Theatre and Haunted Houses

 

Immersion for many escape room designers is the holy grail of end user experience. Most players want to forget about the real world and feel completely submerged in the theme of a room as they interact with it's elements. They want to be at the center of an unfolding story. If we look at where the marriage of storytelling, immersion and audience participation has it's roots then interactive theater performances along with haunted houses provided heaps of innovation. In both instances these attractions have the players/audience move from one room to the next, interacting with actors and themed rooms as active participants in the entertainment. Many of the haunted houses (such as Trapped at Knott’s Berry Farm) actually feature puzzles which need to be solved to reveal the mysteries of the building, so are in-fact very similar to the sub genre of horror-themed escape rooms where “jump/scares” are implemented alongside puzzles. One of the escape room owners we spoke to in-fact once ran an interactive rendition of Shakespeare's Macbeth in an old warehouse in London, they studied film set-design at University so these skill set enabled a smooth transition to the now budding escape room proprietor.

 

TV Game/Puzzle shows and Movies

 

Pre-dating escape rooms there have been many TV based challenge shows where contestants are pitted against abstract puzzles in highly thematic rooms and environments. Two of the most well known being the UK television shows The Adventure game (1980) and The Crystal Maze (1990). Hugely popular and as entertaining as they are to watch, one can only surmise they are exponentially more fun to play. The Crystal Maze in particular sharing obvious similarities to current escape games has actually had it's own spin off escape room game creared that anyone is welcome to go and play. The original Crystal Maze TV show had contestants pitting their wits against a room filled with one or multiple puzzles with an hour glass rapidly depleting to mark the time limit, with failure to beat the puzzle often leading to a “lock-in” of members of the team, sound familiar?

Now when it comes to films most of the noteworthy mentions all seem to be a little on the horror/gore spectrum such as The Cube (1997) which has a group of seemingly random strangers wake up to find themselves trapped together in a futuristic cube, battling through interlinked rooms all booby trapped in terrifying ways, they must work together to escape the hell hole. Then of course there is the Saw franchise, not for the weak stomached but none-the-less filled with some pretty inventive puzzles.. It's quite common now as a publicity stunt for marketing agencies behind new media releases to use temporary/pop-up/travelling escape rooms to promote their products such as the TV show “Dig (2015)” where USA network partnered with Universal studies to run a crowd pleasing promotion in the form of an escape game. The infamous game franchise Resident Evil designed in partnership with iam8bit in Los Angeles and Capcom a special escape room experience for the 20th anniversary of the Resident Evil franchise, which also tied in with the release of their new video game and toured 6 US cities in 2017.

 

Were labyrinths the very first escape room?

 

If we really want to dig up the seed for today's escape the room experiences we have to look wway back, way way back, before the technology or engineering to even build an a modern escape room could be imagined. People have desired the thrill of a challenging adventure for centuries and they worked with what they had to get their kicks. One of the most famous examples of this is the labyrinth, a complex interweaving physical maze structure rooted firmly in Greek history. Many will be familiar with the mythical tale of King Minos and the beastly Minotaur from Greek mythology and the accompanying story. The legend goes that a labyrinth AKA a maze was built for the King and inside was placed the fearsome Minotaur. Then into the maze enter the brave Athenian hero Theseus who faced the monumental task of finding and killing the creature before then making his way back out again.

The labyrinth however is not historically exclusive to the Greeks and can be found linked to many ancient civilisations with artefacts and mentions of these structures discovered in countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Italy, Russia,India and England as well as in Native American culture. One of the recurring concepts was that a labyrinth would somehow trap evil spirits and tangle them up in it's many confusing passageways, keeping them imprisoned for eternity. Some sources cite they were also used by pilgrims who would walk through their walls while reciting prayers as part of a religious practise. The majority of these structures were made out of stone as today's hedge mazes might prove too permeable to keep entities such as evil spirits inside, since the 16th Century such creations were built as a display of wealth and an alluring pastime one of the largest and well known being the Hampton Court Maze which is still visited by hundreds of thousands of people a year where visitors enjoy navigating their way to freedom. Some amusement parks such as Thorpe Park have taken the maze idea a little further and during the Halloween season install a maze featuring actors to give participants an extra thrill / scare.

Wrapping it up!
 

So it would seem that the psychology of getting lost/trapped and having to conquer a path to freedom has excited mankind well, since potentially forever! As for or the explosion of today's now behemoth Escape Room industry, a growth which certainly shows no signs of slowing down, with over 2800 rooms worldwide, we're just excited to see where it goes next.

We've had heaps of fun looking back and letting in the nostalgia, it's clear to see the inadequacy of attempting to pinpoint just one source as the beginning of the escape room concept. One of the things that makes Escape rooms so beloved is the variety in the approaches different rooms take, incorporating so many different elements, borrowing from every shelf in the cabinet of amusement and entertainment so that even seasoned veterans like ourselves, who think they've seen it all, still find themselves pleasantly surprised every time the door locks behind us.

 

Special thanks to Scott Nicholson for his research into this topic for which we paraphrased at times in this article.