We’re fast approaching out Escape Room Grand Opening event (this Saturday! Get your tickets now!), so we thought this would be the perfect time to take a look at how we got here. Not specifically how Enter the Bunker got here – although maybe we’ll cover that someday. I’m talking about the origins of Escape Rooms.
More Popular than Frozen Yogurt
It seems like Escape Rooms have popped up everywhere in the past few years. It’s almost like they’re the new froyo. Only, you know, more successful. (Remember when there were, like, five froyo places in downtown Halifax? All gone now. You have to travel to Truro for froyo. Take that, Halifax!) These immersive experiences are one part video game, one part classic puzzle, one part Dungeons and Dragons, and one part Disney World. They come in more flavours than froyo could ever hope for:
- You’ve got your horror,
- Your heists,
- Your cops-and-robbers,
- Your time travel,
- Your dungeon fantasy,
- Your bunkers,
- Your zombies,
- Your local culture,
- Your competitive Cold War alternate-history rooms (here in Debert! Opening Saturday!)
And more! The limit is the imagination of the designers – which is pretty limitless.
I did my first escape room in Toronto in 2016 for a friend’s birthday. We time travelled from lab to lab to change the present from the past. It was super fun. Immersive. Innovative. Engaging. Satisfying. I solved a lot of puzzles. I immediately wanted to make one.
And now that I’ve been part of making one, I had to wonder, where did this all come from?
And I also thought to myself, gee, this seems familiar. It’s like I just played through the Crimson Room.
The Crimson Room
Remember Crimson Room? It was all the rage in the mid-2000s era of Newgrounds and Flash-based indie browser video games, Flash cartoons, and WASSUUUUUUUP. You know, the good old days.
Made in 2004 by Toshimitsu Takagi, Crimson Room is a fairly simple game and concept. The player, who “drank too much” the night before, awakens in a mysterious crimson room (I see what you did there…) and has to search the room and locate items to solve puzzles and escape. It’s a fairly plain 3d-rendered room, played in point-and-click style, but it’s still a remarkably engaging game. You can still play it online (it would make great practice before testing your wits in War Games, jussayin’), or purchase the newer, high-res remaster: Crimson Room Decade.
This simple, but wildly and internationally popular, point-and-click Flash video game is widely considered the origin of the modern escape room. So it makes sense that the first real-life escape rooms popped up in Japan.
Real Escape Games
The first real escape games – known as, uh, Real Escape Game – were created by Takao Kato in 2008. He designed his games based on situations common in Japanese anime and manga (cartoons and comic books). Takao claimed he was envious of the exciting and interesting situations characters often encountered in manga, and wanted to experience something like that himself. So he went out there and made the thing.
These first escape rooms were mobile, set up in clubs and bars for patrons to experience as a group. Kind of like today’s “pop-up” escape rooms played at festivals and events. Although not as immersive as a stationary room, Kato’s games were a hit, and within less than a decade, by 2017, the number of escape rooms around the world exceeded 8000.
Although Crimson Room is a definite precursor of the “live-action” escape game, there are plenty of other roots to this phenomenon. The immersive qualities of Disney and other theme parks plays a part. The object-focus and storytelling-in-space qualities of museums. Interactive fiction – like the choose-your-own-adventure books – and theatre play roles. As does the similarly-adventuresome treasure-hunting hobby of geocaching. Video games in general, as well as televised game shows, played a part. Obviously murder mystery parties were influential in the development of real-life mystery entertainment. And people have been puzzling and escaping for centuries: board and strategy games as well as the humble maze could be cited as influences on escape room design.
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, educational psychology prompted the development of escape room games in Hungary, independent of Kato’s and Toshimitsu’s games. Attila Gyurkovics, a Hungarian supervisor, claimed to have invented the escape room in 2011. And by all accounts, he did. Just… 4 years after Kato did. Sort of?
Gyurkovics’ version of the escape room game is a bit different from Kato’s. Kato’s version was more social, involving large groups of 20 or more people competing to solve the puzzle. They were mobile, appropriate for bars and clubs, or even large companies. Gyurkovics’ version, on the other hand, was smaller, confined to a room for 4-8 people, more immersive with a single location and a highly decorated room. Two people invented almost the same thing at almost the same time – and this happens a lot. It’s called simultaneous invention.
Gyurkovics says his idea for escape rooms came from a combination of his skills and experience as a professional in a supervisory role, and Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s groundbreaking concept of Flow.
Flow is the state of being so wrapped up in a task that the world fades away. It’s when you’re working on something that pushes your skills to a point where you feel challenged without causing frustration, where you are enjoying something, so immersed in something, that other sensations or distractions simply fade away. Like reading a good book, or getting involved in a really good episode of Doctor Who.
The puzzles of an Escape Room in Gyurkovics’ view are designed to encourage a state of engagement that allows the players to truly immerse themselves in the activity. It’s part of the joy of escape games. Your skills are tested, but not your knowledge. Anyone with only the materials available in the room can solve the puzzle just by looking at things differently, by exploring, and by trying things.
The fact that Escape Rooms were invented just four years apart on opposite sides of the world means we were ready for this. All the influences were there. There was some kind of need in the population, some need for escapism, literally and figuratively. A strong desire to be immersed in something exciting, to leave the screens behind and get into the real world – while also escaping the real world.
The academic in me wants to explore the connection between computers taking over “real life” and our new need to “escape” – not through a screen or the page of a book – but into an imaginary physical world. But that’s probably going to get real boring and technical… so I won’t.
If you’re feeling like you need a break from real-world screen time, why don’t you come out to the bunker and try out our escape rooms for yourself? Take a break from the digital world, and travel back in time to 1969. Save the world – or don’t – and make some memories.
I’ll see you at the Grand Opening!