How Escape Rooms Work

Spending an hour or so with friends, coworkers or complete strangers solving puzzles to escape a room is some people's idea of a good time.

It's a Friday night and you and a few friends are looking to break out of your normal dinner/board game/movie routine. What about that "escape room" thing you've heard so much about? A quick check of the venue's website shows you can buy tickets in advance. Lucky you — there are still openings for a room at 9 p.m.! You head downtown to an old warehouse that, honestly, doesn't look like much from the outside. But it's what's inside that's about to blow your mind.

The staff leads you, your friends and a several others with 9 p.m. reservations down the hall to a door marked "Castle Room," and after a quick peek inside, the name makes sense. The place looks right out of Camelot. There's a massive stone fireplace, a wrought-iron chandelier, a rough, wooden dining table, and, of course, a suit of armor. A disembodied voice welcomes you in a thick British accent. "Greetings, distinguished guests of the king. The court's traitorous jester has kidnapped His Majesty and locked him in the castle's tower. The fool, with his dark sense of humor, has locked you in this room; the only way out is to decode his devious puzzles and find the key. In one hour you've got to get out and save the king or it's off with his head!"


The door locks behind you and the race is on. Everyone searches frantically through cabinets, under the rug, and inside pewter chalices for your first clue. Behind a painting you find a cryptic drawing of shapes and arrows. After some discussion you, your friends and the people you just met all work together to decipher the meaning and find a key — but the key doesn't open the door. Instead it opens a chest that holds the next clue. Forty-five minutes remaining. Another key, another clue. Fifteen minutes. Frantically you work to solve the riddle. Five minutes. Then, a breakthrough! This time you find the key that unlocks the door with only moments to spare. Sure, there's no king to go save, but the pressure was surprisingly real, you made some new friends and you all had a great time.

This is just one example of how an escape room might be set up. In reality they have all kinds of different themes and puzzles, all based around solving a problem in a certain amount of time. Sound fun? Then read our escape room primer so you'll be ready when that door clicks shut!


The History of Escape Rooms

Kevin Cheng, one of the founders of Mystery Room in New York, prepares the venue for clue-solvers.

Escape rooms seem to be one of those rare instances where a video game morphed into real life — instead of the other way around. The idea probably came from a genre of video games called escape the room, which is exactly what it sounds like: Players interact with a virtual room by clicking on different objects in an effort to escape. Perhaps the best known example of this genre is "Crimson Room," created by Toshimitsu Takagi in 2004 [source: Ouzounian]. Players are trapped in — you guessed it — a crimson-colored bedroom and have to search the place for items that will help them get out. In all, there are 23 steps that ultimately lead players to a screwdriver they can use to open the door.

The leap from virtual world to real world is a little fuzzy. Some sources point to a live-action version that popped up in Silicon Valley, California, in 2006 called "Original Piece"; however, it was a Japanese student who really popularized the concept [sources: Ouzounian, Zorilla]. SCRAP Entertainment's Takao Kato created that country's first escape room in 2007 after watching a classmate playing an escape-the-room game on her computer [source: SCRAP]. These early events were temporary, popping up in clubs and bars where organizers hid objects, codes and clues, and tickets quickly sold out [sources: Corkill, Kato].


Eventually, foresighted entrepreneurs all over the world began opening permanent escape room businesses to take advantage of the game's growing popularity. One of the first to do so, at least in Europe, was Attila Guyrkovics, who founded ParaPark in Hungary in 2011 [source: Escape Games Convention]. Permanent escape game venues then made their way to the United States in 2012, when SCRAP opened room in San Francisco [source: French and Shaw].

Since then, escape rooms have spread across the globe. As of March 2016, the Escape Room Directory lists 3,406 rooms at 1,485 sites in 670 cities across 64 countries. A whopping 1,102 of those rooms are located in the United States, and there's even one aboard Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas cruise ship!


Escape Rooms: Before You Go

Clue-solvers try to think their way out of a Washington, D.C., escape room game.
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

And while escape rooms have spread from Asia to Europe, North America and beyond, the basic concept has remained the same: Teams of players are placed in a room where they have to unravel a series of puzzles in order to solve a problem. Outside of that, though, anything goes. Specifics like cost, the number of players allowed, theme and puzzles vary widely from place to place. Luckily, most escape room venues have websites that can help you plan your visit ahead of time, but just in case, here are a few things to know before you go.

The cost to play an escape room varies based on the venue and how that venue charges its customers. For those where each person pays admission, the average cost worldwide equates to $23.68 [source: Nicholson]. In the United States you can see the range of prices at a place like Escape the Room in New York City, which charges $28 per person, compared to The Room in Hutchinson, Kansas, which only charges $15. Other venues charge per team, and in that case, the average cost goes up to $74.42 [source: Nicholson]. Expect to pay much more at places like EscapeSF in San Francisco, which charges $139 to $149 for a team of two to five players.


Like the cost, the number of players allowed in a room is different depending on where you go. The worldwide average is 4.58, but escape rooms in North and South America tend to allow more players, with an average capacity of 6.07 [source: Nicholson]. Of the examples listed above, EscapeSF boasts the smallest limit, five, followed closely by The Room at six [source: EscapeSF, The Room]. If you go to Escape the Room, though, they'll allow as many as 10 players per room [source: Escape the Room]. Oh, and one other thing: Some venues will give your group an entire room to itself, while others will put groups together until the room is full. If that's the case, be ready to make some new friends — fast.

So if you've got money and friends, the only thing left is to buy the tickets. While some venues allow you to buy tickets at the door, you're probably better off reserving them ahead of time. Most escape room businesses have websites with an online purchasing system, and that's a better way to go than driving all the way to the venue only to find out they're booked!


Escape Room Themes and Narratives

Players search for clues in a military-themed Serbian escape room.

In order to make the experience more real, escape rooms often have some kind of theme and narrative. If you think about it like a book, the theme is like the setting, which places the story in a particular time and place. The narrative is like the plot, which directs the story itself: In this case, it explains why you're solving all these puzzles. In an escape room, the theme is often evident by the way the room is decorated, while the narrative is related through a back-story, told to players when they first enter the room. While not all escape rooms have a theme or a narrative, these elements can really help make players feel immersed in the story.

When it comes to creating a theme, venues can be as imaginative as they want. Most themes however, tend to center around a particular time and place during the past 300 years or so. Escape the Room Arizona, for example, has a room that's a bank in the Old West. Mystery Quests in Colorado has a room set in Italy during World War II. Others are set in more modern times, like Escape the Room Boston's room, The Office. "Everyone's worst nightmare in real life," the description reads, "you're stuck at work and can't leave."


Another popular theme is horror, which combines the escape room concept with the chills and thrills of a haunted house. One of the most well-known examples of this genre is Room Escape Adventure's "Trapped in a Room With a Zombie," a setup with a zombie chained to a wall. You have to solve the puzzles and escape without getting touched by the zombie, but every five minutes its chain is released another foot! Other themes include fantasy, science and laboratory, future and military [source: Nicholson].

So you're holed up in your office. Why? That's where the narrative comes in. The office room is a great example of the most common narrative: escaping a specific, unpleasant place (see also: prison cell or zombie dungeon). Some narratives don't actually involve any escape at all. Investigating a crime, engaging with the supernatural, defusing an explosive device and carrying out a heist are all potential premises for escape rooms [source: Nicholson].


Escape Room Puzzles

A group of party animals in Denver, Colorado, celebrates solving their way out of the "Pikes Peak or Bust" room at Epic Escape Game.
John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images

While the theme and narrative set the mood, the puzzles are really the heart of the game. Some puzzle setups can be as simple as a riddle scrawled on the wall, and others might involve extensive computer programming and elaborate wiring schemes. Some escape rooms are so sophisticated, in fact, that they were designed with the consultation of Disney engineers [source: Melendez].

Simple or complex, the puzzles are designed to work together in different ways. There could be one set of puzzles that players solve to win the game, or several sets of puzzles, any one of which will lead to the final prize. Another option involves several puzzles that each determine a piece of the final puzzle. All these types, or some combination of the three, are used in escape rooms [source: Nicholson].


When it comes to the puzzles themselves, the only limits are the creator's imagination and technical ability. Simple puzzles involve searching for something in the room, team communication, counting, deciphering symbols, finding hidden objects in images, riddles and identifying patterns. Math skills are sometimes needed as well, so be sure to bring a friend who's good at that kind of thing! [source: Nicholson]

Puzzles get more technologically complex when they involve physically manipulating objects that cause something else to happen. Players might pull levers in a certain way to turn on a light or pull a book that opens a secret compartment. Some rooms even have features right out of Hollywood like those laser mazes meant to provide security at places like art museums. While these custom puzzles make for a great escape room, they're also a lot of work: One technician claims he wrote 5,000 lines of computer code and ran thousands of feet of wire just for one particularly complex room [source: Moore].

If you're stuck on a puzzle, sometimes you can get help. Most escape rooms have a game master who monitors the players and provides hints when people start to get frustrated. Some rooms even have employees who are characters in the room and can provide clues if necessary. If you haven't made it out when time is up, don't worry — you aren't alone. The worldwide average success rate is just 41 percent [source: Nicholson].


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Escape Rooms Work

Would I pay $30 to be locked in a room with a bunch of strangers? Not when you put it that way. But that's a pretty cynical way of looking at it. In reality escape rooms are about critical thinking, communication, teamwork and making friends — so pretty much the opposite of what we're doing when we sit on a bus or train mindlessly scrolling on our phones. As far as contemporary fads go, this is a pretty good one!

Related Articles

More Great Links

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