Image of Tomb’s sarcophagus illumination puzzle. ©2015, 5 Wits Productions, Inc. Used by permission.
The first time I visited Boston, I met up with a group of friends and broke into an ancient Egyptian burial chamber. The tomb’s resident pharaoh was not exceptionally happy about our flagrant act of trespass, and forced our group of amateur archaeologists to solve a series of puzzles before barely escaping with our lives.
The rooms in the tomb were designed with a family-friendly audience in mind, and our guide throughout the experience embraced his role with an exuberant gusto I had only seen before from a skipper on Disney’s Jungle Cruise. The experience managed to make even familiar puzzles feel extraordinary: no matter how many times you’ve solved Tower of Hanoi puzzles in the comfort of your own home, it’s a completely different experience when you’re passing oversized pieces across the room while the ceiling is slowly crashing down overhead.
When 5 Wits‘ puzzle adventure Tomb set up shop in Boston in 2004, it was something of a rarity. The interactive exhibit mixed theatrics with physical puzzles to make its guests feel like swashbuckling adventurers narrowly escaping danger thanks to their collective intelligence. And the design was flexible enough to reward that success, allowing for multiple endings based on groups’ performance. While the original location is now closed, the 5-Wits moved Tomb to Tennessee, launching additional puzzle experiences in Washington DC, Massachusetts, and New York covering themes ranging from undersea exploration to espionage. Over the past decade, this type of immersive puzzle experience has expanded exponentially, with hundreds of locations putting down roots across the globe. For many, visiting the nearest real-life escape room is a day-trip away.
Large-scale puzzle hunts like The Game and the MIT Mystery Hunt have been going on for decades, but generally only occur a few times a year due to the enormous effort required in creating new puzzle hunts every year. Starting in 2005, Accomplice: the Show experimented with a new model by creating a series of interactive theater performances that use puzzles to guide groups of ten from location to location within the city, meeting actors at every stop. With Accomplice: NYC, now entering its tenth season, audience members are asked to serve as gofers for a group of over-the-top mobsters, solving puzzles to locate each new mobster across lower Manhattan to unlock more of the narrative, before finally reaching the climactic finale.
The real-life escape room trend is yet another iteration on this theatrical model of puzzling, with many tracing their roots back to the Kyoto-based Real Escape Game franchise’s launch in 2007. Inspired by virtual “escape the room” puzzles, Real Escape Game quickly expanded globally, formalizing many of the tropes that are quickly becoming part and parcel of the nascent real-life escape room genre. While games are not necessarily confined to a single room (Real Escape Game’s Attack on Titan-themed game took place inside stadiums) escape room games typically rely heavily on embedding challenges and puzzles within a confined space. Small groups are asked to work their way through the puzzles to figure out how to “escape”. These groups are asked to adhere to strict time limits, with the very real chance of failure for those who can’t figure out the final puzzle before the clock runs out. High failure rates are often celebrated by companies, prominently displayed on their websites alongside photographs of participating teams. Many escape room companies even provide prop signs to heighten the thrill of victory or sting of defeat.
Since it’s difficult to tell whether a real-life escape room’s failure rate is an indictment of the players or the designers looking in from the outside, escape game fans are increasingly reliant on player reviews to assess the quality of the ever-increasing number of companies and scenarios available. Escape Room Hub provides a relatively comprehensive list of global escape rooms, while other sites focus on providing more in-depth coverage of regional games, like Toronto’s Escape Room Addict and Escape Reviewer blogs. Because the reviewers are often discussing experiences that are currently live, details on the actual puzzles and rooms are sparse. As established rooms are retired to make room for new challenges, this will hopefully give way to more detailed postmortems on concluded games to help prospective players choose the right experience in an increasingly competitive landscape.
For the most part, escape rooms operate as a locally-owned single “room” experience, asking visitors to purchase tickets for a time slot like a show. Since the experience is confined to a localized area, some of the larger players are opening up franchises in multiple cities or expanding to include multiple rooms at the same location to attract more repeat customers. Escape Hunt currently has 28 locations worldwide with plans to increase that almost ten-fold in 2015, while Omescape operates multiple themed rooms out of each of its five locations.
Escape room games have already been used as a promotional tactic, created in partnership with experience designers or even some of the larger escape room companies themselves. In addition to its collaboration on an Attack on Titan stadium game, Real Escape Game has partnered with properties including Resident Evil and Case Closed. To promote the film The Purge: Anarchy, the film’s producers created a horror themed escape the room road-show that toured the United States. And recently, USA Networks partnered with Victor Blake’s US-based Escape the Room franchise for a similar collaboration. Starting on February 26, Blake is revamping his New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia locations to run an experience themed around the network’s upcoming murder mystery, DIG. Additional locations will be added at Universal Studios in Hollywood and Orlando.
To find a room in your area, go to Escape Room Hub and choose a challenge to try your luck, and test your wits.