History of Escape Rooms

black and white photo of a united states map and a compass

Where did escape rooms originate?

Escape rooms are a real-life puzzle adventure where players are “locked” in a room and must work together to find clues and escape before their time is up. So where on earth did this idea come from? Escape rooms have a fascinating history involving everything from early Greek mythology to video games and corn mazes. Generally, modern day escape rooms are directly inspired by “escape the room” or “point and click” computer games—but that’s only the beginning. Human beings are naturally curious, after all. We like to poke and prod things. We like to explore, discover, and learn. Our ancestors were no different! Read on to discover the many influences throughout history that have led to what we know as the modern day escape room.

Video Games: Crimson Room and the online origins of escape rooms

The basic concept of escape rooms can be traced back to their online roots. The idea is simple: a player is trapped in a room and must interact with their (virtual) environment to uncover clues and eventually escape the room. Sound familiar? These video games were incredibly popular among early gamers. The 1988 text-based adventure Behind Closed Doors by John Wilson is one of the earliest examples of this “escape-the-room game” subgenre—players had to enter text commands to escape a restroom. The genre has come a long way since then! Following those early text games came graphics-based games like MOTAS (Mystery of Time and Space), Viridian Room, and the award-winning CD-Rom game Myst. By far the most influential escape-the-room game, however, was Toshimitsu Takagi’s Crimson Room. Crimson Room, released in Japan in 2004, was a runaway success with hundreds of millions of plays. The game is widely considered to have inspired the current escape room craze and is still popular today. But before computer games, our ancient ancestors had their own version of escape-the-room games. Read on to find out more about how Greek gods built their own escape rooms.

black icon of a labyrinth
While our love for modern escape rooms is a new phenomenon, civilized societies have a long history of enjoying the kind of adventure quest we now associate with escape rooms. Take the labyrinth for example. The labyrinth is a complicated physical maze structure with Greek origins. In Greek mythology, a labyrinth referred to the maze built for King Minos to imprison the Minotaur. The Athenian hero Theseus had to solve the labyrinth in order to find and kill the Minotaur (plus he had to find his way out again). The image of a labyrinth even appeared on Greek coins as early as 430 BC and the labyrinth pattern can be found today on everything from gothic cathedral floors to modern beer labels. The labyrinth isn’t wholly a Greek phenomenon, however. Physical artifacts and references to labyrinths have also been found in Turkey, Egypt, Italy, India, Russia, England, and in Native American histories. Traditionally, a labyrinth was meant to trap evil spirits or tricksters. They were also thought to be used by pilgrims who walked the intricate paths while reciting prayers. Basically, since very early days, we’ve been creating elaborate ways to get lost—and challenging ourselves to escape again.

The hedge or turf maze as entertainment

While stone labyrinths were designed to entrap spirits, hedge or turf mazes were designed for fun. This is one of the earliest examples of people escaping a physical space for pure entertainment. From the 16th century onward, elaborate English gardens were a sign of wealth and hedge mazes were popular with royalty—the most famous today probably being the Hampton Court Maze which is open to visitors. These hedge mazes were meant for pleasure rather than having any religious or mythical connotations. Hedge mazes are now part of popular culture and appear in everything from Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter to The Shining. Author Carol Shields even wrote an award-winning novel about them. Check out some of the world’s coolest mazes here. Other modern examples of these kinds of mazes are the corn mazes popular in the U.S. and Canada around Halloween or the fun houses you find at local fairs. Labyrinths and mazes eventually moved online in the form of early video games. (Pac Man is probably the most well-known of these.) This leads us full circle back to the online origins of escape rooms.

black and white photo of hedge maze

From online to real life: the first escape rooms

In a world of digital overload the prospect of engaging in a real-life physical adventure has proven incredibly popular. Which may be why escape rooms went from video games to real life more than ten years ago with such success. The world’s first real-life escape room is credited to Takao Kato who opened Real Escape Game (Riaru Dasshutsu Ge-mu) in Japan in 2007. The 35-year old entrepreneur who now runs the Kyoto-based event company Scrap Entertainment Inc., says he decided to create a real-life escape room after watching a classmate playing an online version. “I thought I could create my own adventure, a story, and then invite people to be a part of it,” he said. Real Escape Room events were originally held in bars or clubs outfitted with clues—and tickets for the live events sold out quickly. These events proved a popular concept and the company now

has locations across the globe. From Japan, escape rooms spread to Singapore in 2011 and then to San Francisco in 2012. Early escape room companies also appeared in Romania, Hungary, and Switzerland around this time. The first American escape room company appeared in 2013 with Seattle-based Puzzle Break, co-founded by Microsoft alum Nate Martin. (As of 2017 there are even escape room locations on several Royal Caribbean cruise ships!) Many U.S. cities now have a number of escape room locations to choose from and within those locations are often seven or eight themed rooms of varying difficulty—which means players can return over and over again for new challenges (much like the different levels in a video game).

Escape Rooms Today

There are now about 2,800 escape rooms worldwide—and the number keeps growing. According to Market Watch, escape rooms are an incredibly lucrative business (that can see 800% revenue growth within a year) and there’s no sign of things slowing down. Part of the continued industry growth is from the corporate sector that utilizes escape rooms as team building exercises.

typewriter carriage with the words 'top secret'

The history of civilization is packed with examples of man-made mazes, labyrinths, and puzzles. Our desire to solve clues and “escape,” whether it’s from an escape room or an elaborate hedge maze, appears to be age-old and universal. So don’t fight it! Book your next escape room experience today!