Escape Games are the broad category of role playing games that involve mind puzzles, clues, and role playing. Included in the escape games genre are the online version of Escape the Room, the physical Escape Rooms that were first introduced to the United States in 2007, a few other physical games with role playing mystery, and it includes the Dispatch subscription game by Breakout.
This genre of escape games has developed over the years. It’s clear that puzzles, riddles, who-done-its, mysteries, escape strategies, and the like are all embedded into much of the gaming world. But the average person, who may not consider themselves a “gamer” is probably more familiar with these game concepts than they realize. Take, for example, mystery dinner theatre, or the board game Clue—both popular over long periods of time and both fit into this category of games.
To many people who don’t make games a part of their regular routine, the idea of escape rooms may seem brand new. Conversationally, they’re spoken of as a new invention or discovery—and certainly the specifics of escape rooms and their popularity are enjoying a new moment in the spotlight. However, the ideas behind them, what makes them appealing, engaging, and challenging—what makes people curious about them and drawn to them—has a long history.
Popularity of mystery
One classic element of escape games is the mystery. Mystery, of course, is timeless. As a genre, it has die-hard fans young and old, people who collect and obsess, and people who are fans in occasional or guilty-pleasure ways. And it’s not an American phenomenon by any means. Mystery in recent popular culture is often associated with British books and television shows, but it has roots in ancient theology and mythology. People have long sought out and studied and tried to make sense of found codes, symbols, and languages. The Hardy Boys book series came out in the late 1920s, revised and published again in the 60s. The ironic Alfred Hitchcock Presents ran from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, captivating viewers from the early days of television’s popularity. Mystery!, initially a spin-off of Masterpiece Theatre, adapted British, then American, mystery novels to the screen, and enjoyed over 25 years on-air. Unsolved Mysteries took the American television-watching audience by storm, eventually becoming one of the longest running shows in television history. Over the course of the last 30 years (?!) the program has existed in various incarnations, most recently as an interactive YouTube project and on Amazon Prime. What made it unique was that it was the first show of its kind to ask viewers to participate—again, bringing out the desire for people to be a part of the action—to put together clues and help solve the case. Radio waves were home to many popular old-time mystery dramas that were core to households through many eras, bringing together families, neighbours, and friends, not unlike the way today’s escape games do. CBS ran a program called Escape from 1947 to 1954, an offering of original and adapted storylines requiring characters and listeners to plot their escape! And more recently, pop culture has embraced a slew of detective shows that follow lawyers, police officers, and other investigators—whether it’s Law & Order or Veronica Mars, there’s been something for every generation for decades and new shows continue to be released nearly every year, and following along at home, everyone’s a detective, cracking cases with their favourite characters. Look at the classic mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express—the Agatha Christie book first published in 1934, made into a film in 1974, and remade into another in 2017. The longevity of a piece of work like this speaks to the authors talent, but also to what people are hungry for. Recent shows like Stranger Things and Riverdale, original as they are, pick up on what excites people about mystery itself—suspense, danger, and wanting to find out the truth. Whether it’s a literal “get out of town” or “get out of jail,” or a more implicit task of getting out of a sticky situation, all of these forms of media and pop culture are based on the same basic (but thrilling) premise.
What draws people to the escape games genre?
If mystery, crime, detective tropes, and so on, are at the core of escape games—how do we figure out what is behind the attraction? Over time, people have studied this very phenomena, coming out with various theories relevant to the times they were produced in.
Take, for example, this 1944 New Yorker article, in which the author argues that it is peoples’ feelings of guilt about the world around them, their sense of impending doom, and inherently the mistrust that comes with that. Or, this Psychology Today article from 2010—its author makes the case for the appeal of detective novels being about cognition; less feelings-based, and more to do with the actual ways peoples’ brains function. In a recent blog post, a New York literary agent working in the field, speculates on what makes mysteries so popular: albeit interesting, it’s not shocking to read that there may be something in it that speaks to peoples’ need to feel safe. In yet another example, this time looking at true crime, Time looks into the ongoing fascination with true crime stories. Here, the author (an expert in the matter having been both a criminology and television producer) speaks not only to why people like to follow these types of television shows, but why people are drawn to natural disasters and other catastrophes. Yes, he reasons, violence and death are particularly enthralling to people, but on the physiological level our bodies also produce “a jolt of adrenaline” upon witnessing these types of matters. It is this boost, too, that makes escape games so alluring to people.
Puzzles are the heart of Escape Games.
Escape games are a type of puzzle or strategy game. Why, given daily life can seem like a puzzle, do people want to experience this for fun? There’s no question that they do, but one might come to wonder why they do. Is it wanting to win, the thrill, being right? Any of these factors could play a role, but really it’s about wanting to sharpen these skills in an environment that has no stakes to the player. In a game, unlike in life, no one is going to get hurt, and nothing is going to get broken; players aren’t going to lose money, and there is no murderer that goes free if they’re not caught. Most of us don’t have stakes that are quite so high in our day-to-day lives, but we do all experience risk-taking when we make decisions. What’s best for us, our careers, families, companies? Even in sports, people are waiting for us to make a move, reliant on our decisions. In an escape game, the virtual stakes are high, but the possibility for things to go very wrong is almost non-existent.
Low stakes and a takeaway good feeling isn’t all that’s at play, either. In this NPR segment scientists say solving puzzles can actually reverse or aid some of the cognitive decline that comes with aging! And puzzle solving that happens from a playful state is not only the most enjoyable, but the best for you.
Now that we’ve described the foundation of the genre, let’s discuss the 6 forms of Escape Games:
1) Escape the Room computer games
“Escape the Room” video games have long had a widespread fan base worldwide. These games gained in popularity with the internet and computer gaming, but have been created for all kinds of video game systems over the years. They put the player in the position of having to escape the virtual room. These games give players the first-person perspective as they try to gather the clues and objects they need to escape, whether they’re trapped in a haunted house, prison, or washroom!
These games have been around since at least the 80s, and today are played on iPad and other mobile devices. The stories and technology may change, but the drive to play to “escape” is timeless.
2) Escape Rooms
Escape rooms are gaining popularity across North America and around the world. They’re a live action game played in groups (you can go in with your family, friends, coworkers, etc.). They’re great for stress release, team building, and getting a your mind working and adrenaline pumping.
They are perhaps the most popular form of the escape games genre and what makes escape rooms popular is a combination of things: puzzles, mystery, storytelling, creativity, logic, cracking codes, piecing together clues, thrill, and good old fashioned fun. Escape rooms speak to people who are doers, who want to experience and engage—they appeal to people who are leaders, and people who are cooperative; people who are practical, and people who are adventurous. And because this encompasses so very many people, they wind up being an excellent group activity for team building and other bonding.
Once your group is gathered in the room—which could be one of various themes—the rules are given. Typically you have an hour to gather clues and put together a strategy to break yourself out. Escape rooms are well-designed, each complete with a unique storyline and premise. Set designers and virtual reality experts come together to create an interesting, challenging and exciting immersive experience. You’re using your senses, your mind, and your communication skills to beat the clock and be set free.
Escape Rooms are an immersive experience. Putting together details and clues. The rush of hoping to be the first one to solve the mystery. Sometimes, the thrill of getting to enact what we’ve seen in the media—crime shows, newspaper articles, action movies—and being in the shoes of the one to save the day. While these may not all have a focus on escape, per se, they combine many of the elements that have people celebrating the escape game experience. The more society becomes screen-absorbed and cubicle bound, the more people are looking to get out—or stay in—and do. Why watch the puzzle get solved, when you can solve it yourself?
3) Other physical versions of Escape Games
Playing on your computer or visiting an escape room are not the only ways to enjoy an escape game. And really, whether it’s an escape game or not, games in many forms use the same parts of your brain, and pique the same types of interest. Logic games, crack-the-code, Who Dunnit style detective games—they all ask players to put together the pieces, to think outside the box and differently than they likely are challenged to in their day-to-day lives, to solve puzzles through deductive reasoning. These exist in board game form, as card games, and in many incarnations of mysteries—even books. Why do you think Choose-Your-Own-Adventures became so popular, even with folks less drawn to reading? Why are the words “Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the ballroom” ones with meaning for so many people? Simply put, it’s because people like to do. And they like to do and think even more when it happens in the context of playing. Play is important for folks of all ages, for relaxation, de-stressing from their busy lives, reconnecting with friends, family, and co-workers. Physical versions of escape games and escape style games, and their many offshoots and “sibling” games allow for just that.
4) Escape the Room in Virtual Reality
Virtual Reality is gaining speed in the gaming and entertainment world every day. How does this factor in to escape video games? VR has made it possible to have much more sophisticated, realistic, and cooperative games than ever before. A popular example can be found in Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. In this popular game, played via VR headset or on a regular Mac or PC system, can be played as a group in person or remotely. Through problem solving and communication, the group has to diffuse a virtual bomb. It is absolutely an escape game, with one player trapped in a virtual room, needing to be rescued before there is an explosion. “A different bomb every time” is good news in this case, as it means players can play again and again. Beyond virtual reality, there are even attempts to merge escape games with Augmented Reality. We’re looking forward to these initiatives.
5) Escape Games subscription
At this point it’s clear that there are many excellent ways to experience mystery and suspense, be it a card or video game, a television series or novel, mystery theatre or an escape room. But what are you to do if you’re a doer, but an escape room is not quite right for you? Though most people who need some coaxing and try it find that they love the experience, there are many reasons you might not be headed toward an escape room: maybe it’s your physical location and proximity to one, or your busy work or travel schedule. Maybe you aren’t finding people to join you, or accessibility is an issue. Feeling low energy or socially awkward; hibernating at home or recovering from a surgery or illness… whatever the reason—and let’s just be clear that wanting to add to your range of escape game experiences is a great reason—there’s a way to make the room come to you.
Not every experience requires a crowd, and not every solo escape game experience requires a screen. Have a secret agent lurking inside of you, an alter ego you’re ready to explore, a role you want to test out? Instead of reading, watching, or maneuvering through a game, you can be a part of the story. Dispatch is an escape game you can play from home, no need to find an available date or drive to an escape room. It’s an immersive activity that works in a group, a pair, or on your own. Each month you’re sent a dispatch—by mail—that leads you through clues in physical and digital form. The monthly packages build on one another, making for an ongoing activity, an ongoing investigation, if you will. It’s not a game where you move pegs around a board, or a virtual self around a made-up place—you get to solve the mystery as yourself, at your own speed, from the comfort of your own home. Dispatch is a unique game, and a unique gift option for anyone who enjoys a puzzle, a mystery, character play, or escape games. Here, the “escape” is less literal, as you’re more or less escaping from the conundrum at hand. Because Dispatch is developed by escape room creators, it has exactly the type of problem-solving appeal of escape rooms themselves. A monthly subscription gets you a monthly box mailed to you with all the clues you need to move forward in the game. No game lasts more than a year, and yes—there are more games than one, so the play can continue!
6) Escape Games in the future
While escape games are not specific to a particular age group or generation, but rather played and enjoyed by many, there are some considerations about the future of escape games. Millennials are the first generation to grow up entirely plugged in, and have come around to starting embracing a more slow tech lifestyle. And the younger kids of today are being raised in a wireless, but very screen-focussed society. Booksellers have spoken about toddlers coming into stores and trying to swipe the pages of board books, more familiar with their digital counterparts than what adults may consider regular books. Games like chess, checkers, and solitaire are often learned on-screen, and if played with others, those others are often strangers spread out across the globe.
So what does this have to do with escape games and rooms? The implications are broad, but ultimately it means young people today, and tomorrow, are and will be looking for experiences. We may think of vinyl records being retro, but if we look around we see it’s broader than that, with early gaming systems being released, book and magazine sales proving young peoples’ interest in physical objects, and then—most pertinently—the idea that group, in-person activities are new again. Consider the recent popularity of axe throwing studios. Or wine and painting venues. These are not new activities, but their popularity is a testament to people of all types, with all sorts of interests, wanting to do.
Parents are embracing puzzles and spy-themed activities, because they present creative and challenging ways to get kids’ brains working, while having fun. And kids themselves are more interested in solving a mystery or riddle put before them, than they are maneuvering around a screen eating dots and ghosts, or shooting monotonously at aliens, as once was the trend. Naturally, these youngsters are growing up with puzzle-solving and strategizing in mind, aging into escape games as part of the progression.
At Breakout Games, we are excited to see how the Escape Games genre evolves and what the next exciting steps are for this growing industry!