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The history of escape rooms is a fascinating thing to study. Often marketed as real-life video games, escape rooms are puzzle-filled adventures. Players step into detailed sets and scour the rooms for clues. There may be hidden doors, secret passages, or treasures. They may be looking to escape from danger or searching for immortality. Dim lights and ominous music set the mood as a clock ticks down.

Escape rooms have taken mainstream media by storm in recent years. It’s easy to see why. Escape rooms can be just as immersive as theme parks. All of the hidden secrets and locks add to a rich feeling of exploration. Add in well-designed puzzles and you have a recipe for hours of fun. They’re addictive and engaging, so it’s no surprise that they’ve become popular.

The question is, how did this phenomenon get started? Let’s dive in and see what we can learn!

A rope runs the length of the dungeon wall from cell to cell.

What is an escape room?

An escape room is a form of entertainment where a group of people get together to solve puzzles and accomplish a goal. They combine aspects of puzzle games and exploration adventures. Typically, the goal is to escape from the room or scenario, but many variations and themes exist. The focus of the game is mainly on solving puzzles, though there is usually a story establishing why the players are there and what the goal is.

A typewriter, a pipe, books, a newspaper and a magnifying glass on top of Sherlock's desk.
A newspaper on Sherlock’s desk in Sherlock’s Study.

The rooms are decorated to suit the theme. In a dungeon-themed escape room, you’ll find have rocky walls painted to look like an underground room. A Sherlock Holmes room will be decorated to look like a room in Victorian London. Some escape rooms give a brief backstory to the players at the beginning. The rest of the storytelling comes through the environment. Notes, newspapers, or symbols on the walls establish the backstory for the players.

The game is simple. Once you’re given the scenario, you have to solve all of the puzzles within a time limit. Most escape rooms set a time limit of 60 minutes, though longer games exist. For example, The Escape Effect‘s shortest game is 75 minutes and the longest game is 2 hours!

When you play, you’ll hunt down codes, open locks, find secret passages, and make your escape. If you get stuck on a puzzle, you can usually ask for a hint. Some places limit you to three hints per game, but others don’t have a limit. Don’t worry if you aren’t able to solve everything within the time limit. You won’t actually be trapped in the game.

A screenshot of the island from the game, Myst, which plays a big role in the history of escape rooms.

Escape-the-room video games

There’s a reason why escape rooms are often marketed as real-life video games: the history of escape rooms can leads right back to them. Secret panels hide important objects. Unusual items triggering an event elsewhere in the room. These things are common in puzzle-themed video games. They’ve become common in real-life escape rooms as well.

We’re big fans of video games here, and we’ve talked about other escape room-style games before. If you’re familiar with different game styles and mechanics, you’ll see the similarities between different games and escape rooms. Many real-life games took cues from puzzle-themed point-and-click adventures. Finding items in one place to use in another, and using the items only once, are elements that you’ll find in both those video games and escape rooms.

The idea of being stuck in a single room can be found in a lot of older games. Similarly, a lot of point-and-click games required players to use odd items together in interesting ways. Where escape-the-room games really seemed to kick off, however, was with Myst. This 1993 puzzle adventure became a massive hit. In fact, it’s still popular to this day. Its engaging puzzles and curious story have made it a classic in the genre.

While remakes have brought the game into full 3D gameplay, Myst originally used pre-rendered images for the setting. This design detail, along with its point-and-click mechanics, became a staple of later escape-the-room games. Many of these games got their start as Flash-based browser games.

A screenshot of the 2004 game, Crimson Room.
A screenshot of the 2004 game, Crimson Room.

Adobe Flash was a staple of the internet until it was phased out in 2020. The introduction of ActionScript in 2000 opened the doors for many people to start experimenting with game development. In 2004, Toshimitsu Takagi created Crimson Room, one of the most well-known escape-the-room games of the era. This game featured simple graphics, a point-and-click interface, and very little story. Set in a stark red room, the player had to find the sparse items scattered hidden throughout the space and escape.

More games followed from him: The Viridian Chamber, The Blue Chamber, and The White Chamber. While it’s hard to find a site that can still play those games now that Flash is no longer supported, Crimson Room did get a sequel in 2016. Even today, Takagi’s games are considered classics among escape-the-room game fans from that time period.

Likely inspired by Myst and Crimson Room, many other escape-the-room games emerged over the 2000s–2010s. Many games ended up on sites like Newgrounds, where Flash-based browser games were collected. It’s easy to see why they became so popular, both to make and to play. The mechanics are simple: just point the mouse at the thing you want to use and click. Simple inventory systems were relatively easy to put together. Items didn’t even need to be hidden in the menu. A lot of the games had the item icons floating off to the side or at the top.

Very few games in this genre had characters other than the player, and the camera was typically in the first person. There was little animation required, and the scenery could be made from static images. In fact, they could be drawn in Flash as well. Items could then be drawn directly onto the background and turned into something interactive. That’s not to say that it was easy; it was just more accessible to indie developers.

Since making the game didn’t require as many tools, more people could get into it. They could even take advantage of the online aspect of the games for their puzzles; Crimson Room had one puzzle that required players to go to a URL in order to get a code. However, that site no longer exists, so players can no longer use it even if they can find the game.

A screenshot from the online game, Don't Escape.
A screenshot from the online game, Don’t Escape.

Over the years, as Flash and ActionScript evolved, the games became more complex. Since Flash was also an animation tool, more animations and complex puzzles could be added. Looping animations added some flavor to backgrounds. Horror games could animate jumpscares to trigger with events. Games like the Don’t Escape series from 2013 even changed the endings based on what the player did. Each advance in technology made the games even more popular.

Escape room-like video games have remained consistently popular. Even though the old Flash games can’t be made anymore, HTML5 advances and other web programming languages have allowed web-based games to continue. Those looking to make more advanced games have also used game engines like Unity to create unique puzzle games. New video games with similar elements, like exploration and puzzle solving, have emerged to kept puzzle fans entertained. The Room video game series is a great example of an escape room game. However, the cycle of escape-the-room games to real life has come back around to fiction.

Real-life escape rooms

A screenshot of The Crystal Maze TV show from 1990.
The Crystal Maze TV show (1990).

We can trace the history of escape rooms back to more than just escape-the-room games. Puzzle-themed television shows emerged around the same time as the games did. In the 1980s and ’90s, shows like The Adventure Game and The Crystal Maze required contestants to solve different puzzles in order to win. The Adventure Game was inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, which was fairly young at the time.

For example, contestants on The Crystal Maze ventured into themed zones (Aztec, industrial, etc.) which featured different types of puzzles. Some puzzles involved mental challenges and others were more physical. The mental puzzles that one might find in the old game shows are not unlike what might be used in an escape room today. However, most escape rooms feature very limited (if any) obstacle course-style challenges.

Puzzle game shows had similar concepts to modern-day escape rooms. However, it wasn’t until the point-and-click games started taking off that the current idea of escape rooms started taking shape. In 2003, True Dungeon started its own real-life dungeon crawling experience. It’s not generally considered the first escape room, but True Dungeon is very similar to escape rooms as we know them.

The dungeon features a combination of puzzles and combat (in the form of a game), much like a game of Dungeons & Dragons might. They also have a form of currency for the game, to let players buy equipment for their adventure. True Dungeon also places importance on teamwork and problem solving, like escape rooms do. However, their D&D-inspired experiences lean a little closer to live action role-playing (though they don’t consider themselves a LARP experience). Despite some similarities, they’re more of an adventure experience than an escape room.

A spaceship room at 5 Wits.
A spaceship room at 5 Wits.

Other entertainment venues, like 5 Wits, came up with their own experiences around the same time. 5 Wits markets themselves as an adventure rather than an escape room, but they do share some similarities. People venture into detailed sets and work through different puzzles and challenges. 5 Wits places more emphasis on the story than most escape rooms do. One draw to their experiences is how the players’ actions can change the outcome of a story. Most escape rooms put the focus on the puzzles, and players can either win or lose.

These television shows and early entertainment venues, while not quite escape rooms, paved the way for the first real-life escape room: Real Escape Game. In 2007, Takao Kato took inspiration from escape-the-room flash games and created what is largely considered the first modern escape room. Bringing video game-like puzzles into the real world, Real Escape Game took off. The company behind the venture, SCRAP, spread to the United States in 2012. From there, the American audience picked up on how fun the games are and started making their own.

Around 2014, not long after Real Escape Game made its way to the States, escape rooms started taking off. Since then, more and more companies have appeared, bringing their own escape room visions to life. In cities all over the country, and the world, rich sets filled with secrets have appeared. Puzzles of all types, hidden in various compartments or behind locks and codes, are drawing people into the games.

A player is entering a code attempt into a number lock.

Escape room evolution

Not only are escape rooms becoming more popular, they’ve also become more complex. Early games used more paper and pencil or simple locks. Small props gave away combinations or key words. However, it didn’t take long for the experiences to grow. Much like how the Flash game community learned from one another, escape rooms designers can take inspiration from what they see. New mechanics are developed over time and become widespread. Some developers might have even taken inspiration from puzzles that they saw in escape-the-room games.

A photograph of a SD2000 device being held to contact spirits in Fright Before Your Eyes.
The SD2000 device in Fright Before Your Eyes.

Advances in technology have also made it easier to build new puzzles. Over the last decade, computers have made significant leaps in power and versatility. As small electronics like Arduino devices become easier to work with, more can be added to escape room puzzles. 3D printing and RFID devices have also allowed people to create new custom props and make puzzles more advanced.

An RFID reader might be used to tell if an object was put in the right spot to trigger a hidden door to open. Magnets and switches can initiate different effects. Lights can be triggered to reveal a clue. With so many options available, escape room designers are able to add more intricate puzzles. More sophisticated tools make the escape room experience even more immersive and fun!

To real life and back again

Escape Room (2019) Promo Image
Escape Room (2019) Promotional Image

Nowadays, escape rooms are everywhere. In fact, escape rooms have become mainstream enough to have multiple movies made about them. They’re mostly horror movies, taking the fictional danger in some escape rooms and turning the rooms into real life-or-death threats. We wrote about Escape Room (2019) before, but there are other movies about escape rooms. Two movies, both titled Escape Room, came out in 2017. One movie was directed by Will Wernick and another was directed by Peter Dukes. There was another movie, No Escape Room, released in 2018. And, to bring the television-based inspiration back full circle, Jack Black hosted a celebrity escape room special in 2020. The puzzles once inspired by television are now inspiring television and movies!

But that’s not all. The cycle continues into video games as well. Games like Escape Academy and Escape Simulator have been released in recent years. These games seek to recreate the experience of playing real-life escape rooms, which themselves were intended to recreate the video games. They’ve brought with them many of the elements that escape room introduced. For example, not many escape-the-room games of old had time limits, but real-life escape rooms do. And, now, so do these real-life-inspired video games. Some of these games even feature hint buttons like we have at The Escape Effect!

A close up of the hint button, in the shape of a shield.
A screenshot of a hint button in an Escape Simulator room.

These games incorporate other elements of real-life escape rooms while expanding onto things that can’t be done in reality. Escape Academy includes complex puzzles with flooding water, fire, and other dangers that no real-life escape room would ever have. They often feature much larger sets, as well, since they’re not restrained by real-world limits. Multi-story buildings for a single room might have dangerous traps that require the player to climb all over the set. None of those things will happen in real life, but they make for great fictional challenges!

Escape Simulator includes a lot of other wild puzzles and unique sets. Some elements of the game are similar to real-world escape rooms, like having secret panels in walls, though they do it in a more fantastical way. Real-life escape rooms are not likely to have items dramatically rise from the floors, for example. Escape Simulator also allows the players to design their own escape rooms. It’s a lot of fun for people who like video games and escape rooms. You get to combine two of your favorite things into a single creative experience!

So what comes next?

The history of escape rooms is surprisingly rich and future is still being written. Technology is constantly evolving, which means game developers are still experimenting with new ways to challenge players. We’re always looking for new inspiration.

We hope you’ll keep coming by to see what amazing puzzles we come up with!

Visit The Escape Effect

Come play an escape room for yourself! Immerse yourself in a real-life video game and take on some amazing puzzles.


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