Escape the Room


Escape the Room games are a style of video game played on desktop or mobile devices that fall under the broader adventure game umbrella, also known as Escape Games. In these games the player assumes the role of the “main character” in the game—the game is about them, so to speak. It is not role playing, per se, but the idea is that the game player is to act as though they are manipulating things on-screen themselves, rather than having a character do it. In these games, other on-screen characters, where there are any, are not manipulated by other players.

Original Escape the Room games are a specialty game that fall under the subgenre of “point and click” adventure games. A single player has to figure out how to break out of a locked room by using the tools and clues available to them. In early versions, the set-up was quite minimal and often involved logic puzzles. Today, players are often looking for clues under clues, secret compartments, and areas not immediately visible. Text tends to correspond with the items and clues as they are revealed, to provide insight into what might be require next, or at least what has been achieved through the previous set of actions.

It is widely believed that this type of freeware or shareware games were the progenitors to the modern-day live-action Escape Room games. And the similarities between the two are significant enough to support this. Escape the Room games were very popular in the era of computer games just around the beginning of the internet, with many being made available online through flash interfaces on web browsers. The first games were relatively simple, evolving in complexity as technology allowed, but the basic structure always remained the same: you’re trapped in a room, and you need to find clues that will allow you to escape. Wit, logic, cunning and close attention to detail are the only things that will save you.

In this very basic sense, these computer games are very closely related to the modern-day craze of Escape Room games. Of the hundreds of Escape the Room games that exist, their origins go back as far as text-based computer games in the late 80s, evolving into more complex versions as technology allowed.

While Escape the Room games are played alone, they did lead to many message boards, wiki projects, and other interactive online engagement in which players would swap tips, ask questions, and share their knowledge.

It’s generally thought that Escape the Room games were a precursor to Escape Rooms. It is with the same mentality that people must look beyond the obvious, use tools, and put together clues to escape within the allocated time frame. Escape Rooms offer an offline, experiential, and collaborative way to use the same skills in the race against the clock.

Origins in ancient history

While we’ve mostly discussed modern examples here, the idea of puzzle-solving and logic games are truly ancient in concept. Even in early mythology, mazes and problem-solving feature centrally. Take, for example, the Greek legend of the Gordian Knot. Today, it’s commonplace to reference this story as being historically the first to present the idea of creative strategizing.

In this story (or this very condensed version thereof), an ox-cart is tied to a post with an unusually complicated knot. It’s decided that the person to untie the knot will rule the continent. Though the outcome of the story is highly disputed, all variations depict Alexander, who ultimately undoes the knot, as undoing it either by slashing it with a sword, or taking out the linchpin. Which is to say, the knot is not untied, but there is resolution. The relevance here is in thinking outside of the box, using resources creatively to achieve the ultimate goal. This is one of the better-known versions of many similar myths across different cultures.

The appeal of creative escape, specifically, also dates back to ancient times. Think, for example, of the story of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, a classic in Greek mythology. This is an escape story, not about a room but a maze. Still, the principle of escape is central.

Early escape games

Returning to modern days, there are many examples to look at. John Wilson, creator of the text-based Behind Closed Doors, started Zenobi software in 1988 and it is still in operation today. Developing games for the British home computer, the ZX Spectrum, Wilson was originally a TV engineer, but was caught up in the wave of interest in computer games. For those interested, you can still download and play the game here.

More complex in its set-up, but rooted in the same principles, is the game Myst. This game, originally developed back in 1993 by Rand and Robyn Miller and meant as an adult game that would be appropriate for all ages, is an adventure puzzle. When the brothers initially were approached by Sunsoft to develop Myst, they realized that these types of games were essentially mysteries. And the entire game was tested on paper, like a Dungeons and Dragons game, before a single line of code was written.

The worlds created within Myst are influenced by various classic fantasy stories. It also requires clues, and one resolution before moving onto the next, and onward in this vein until the end of the game. It is also first-person, played as a point-and-click. If point-and-click Escape the Room games are a specific sort of game, it could be argued that Myst is an explore-the-room game. Its premise is that you are given very little information on what needs doing, left to figure things out for yourself with your location as your main source of clues.

While originally created for Mac (Macintosh at the time), it was Myst’s success on the PC platform that boosted it to the popularity it came to know. In fact, it was the best-selling game for PC prior to the launch of The Sims. It’s also thought to be the game that most impacted the popularity of CD-ROMs—its release on the format is what propelled CD-ROMs to become more widely used than they had previously or may otherwise have been.

In the early 2000s people were introduced to the Submachine games—this series now has ten games in its original series as well as several spin-offs. These were games that required an escape not from rooms, but from various abandoned buildings.

Toshimitsu Takagi’s Crimson Room was an early example of an online escape game. Though Takagi would go on to create other room-based escape games, Crimson Room was the original. In 2004 the game became one of the most popular of its kind, and the premise was quite simple: you’re locked in a red room and you need to get out. The link to modern-day Escape Room games is abundantly clear. Few details are immediately given; a yellow dresser is visible, but not much else. The objects you can find and your immediate environment are all you have as resources. Tagaki made the original game in Flash which used several key features, like the ability to zoom into specific areas of the screen to reveal information or clues that couldn’t be seen without this.

An online walkthrough of this game shows the 15 main steps required to escape, but gives no indication as to how long these steps may take. It does flag that at points, passcodes are needed to open locked boxes you’ll need to open to move forward. An updated “sequel,” Crimson Room: Decade, was released in 2016. If there was any doubt that this is one of the games that lead to real-life Escape Rooms, that was quelled when multiple “red room” escape rooms turned up, based on Crimson Room specifically.

MOTAS—officially Mysteries of Times and Space, but commonly known by its acronym—for Microsoft Windows actually came out in 2001, but its current incarnation was released in 2008 (yes, this version was so popular that people are still playing it a decade later). MOTAS is thought to be the game that coined the term “Escape the Room.” Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (Nintendo DS, originally, though it has since been adapted for other platforms) gained popularity in 2010 in North America, and before that in Japan. The Room (for iOS) peaked in 2012, making over a million in sales—there has since been a sequel to it, and another is expected in 2018.

Between 2008 and 2015, a number of Escape the Room style games took off in ways that were beyond the successes of such games up until that point. This level of popularity likely correlates to the accessibility of tablets at the time. Games could be played on the go in an easier format, and so they were.

One thing that has been abundantly clear in the evolution of this type of game is that as interest has grown, the technology has also evolved to meet that interest. What started as essentially a “choose your own adventure” type of novel in text-based gaming, quickly became a mainstream convention and easily identifiable genre that adapted as the gaming platforms grew. From text to static images, to point and click, then fully realized 3D environments, and finally to mobile, it’s clear that what gamers really wanted in the end was to experience these scenarios that put our minds, instead of just sheer muscle, to work. In short, these are games for people who love intellectual stimulations.

Escape the Room vs. Escape Room: similarities and differences

What defines an online Escape the Room game are a few main features:

  • Location-specific
  • Clues hidden in rooms
  • Immersive; first-person view
  • Often fixed perspective
  • Use of logic and curiosity to reveal mysteries

In the real-life Escape Room games, we find a lot of the same features:

  • Clues in objects or words throughout the game
  • Location-specific—tied to one room or series of rooms in one location
  • Immersive—with or without characters, you control what you see
  • Use of logic, deduction, teamwork to reveal clues and solve mysteries

The key differentiators are that Escape Room games happen in the real world, even though they are still staged games. And perhaps more importantly, is that they are done in teams. Most of the computer Escape the Room games are single-player affairs. An Escape the Room game’s advantage is that it brings people closer together in a time where technology can tend to isolate us. Other people bring in unique perspectives, both to identifying clues but also to problem-solving. And best of all, it’s something done together. Strengthening the bonds between family, friends and even co-workers. The immersion is the same—the pride in identifying clues and solving mysteries is still as fulfilling—but the time spent together increases the connection between people.

Perhaps it makes the most sense to look at what is similar between Escape the Room games and Escape Rooms, as the choice to play isn’t an either-or. Playing one might gear up your brain for the other, and vice-versa. The fact that Escape the Room point-and-click games are played as solitary activities, and that live Escape Rooms require an interactive social element, means both that you can become an expert in your own right, and that the differences in how people problem-solve and think creatively outside of the box can influence you. While the details that seem far from our day-to-day realities may seem the most exciting, it isn’t the dungeon or kingdom, haunted mansion or prison cell that makes the game—it’s you. And in the case of Escape Rooms, also your friends, family, and colleagues.

Some know off the bat that these types of puzzle games appeal to them; it’s ingrained. Others are truly surprised at the thrill they get from escape games, that they are compelled to play again once they’ve got their detective wheels turning. Most people, regardless of how they come to the game of escape, are glad that they have.