From live-action role-playing to treasure hunts to themed entertainment, there are numerous precursors that all lead to the existence of modern-day escape rooms in one way or another. Let’s take a look:
Electronic role-playing games, such as “Dungeons and Dragons,” have been around for many decades. As the popularity of these types of games grew, though, gamers found themselves wanting to experience the games and fantasies in real life. In the 1980s, several national organizations, including the International Fantasy Gaming Society (IFGS) and the New England Role-playing Organization (NERO), made this possible. They provided scenarios and guidelines for players to dress up in costume, arm themselves with foam-covered weapons, and put themselves in these scenarios that allowed them to combine role-playing, puzzle-solving, and combat.
Some of the live-action role-playing precursors to escape rooms even had players solving puzzles and searching for clues to escape from locked rooms made of tarp-covered frames out in the middle of the woods. In 2003, Gen Con held an event created by True Dungeon in which players had to work through various rooms solving puzzles under a time limit. There was no live-action combat this time, but each player had a character and had to fight monsters through a shuffleboard system. The focus in this case was on mental skills and abilities, rather than role-playing. Still to this day, this activity continues to be one of the most popular events at Gen Con.
Point-and-Click Adventure Games & Escape-The-Room Digital Games
Point-and-click adventure games is another game genre in which escape room games have their roots. Most popular in the 1980s and 1990s, these two-dimensional, fictional, interactive computer games required players to explore various locations to find items, combine these items in unusual ways to solve puzzles and overcome barriers, and occasionally engage in some small sword-fighting in order to move onto the next fictional world. One of the most popular puzzle-based computer games from a few decades ago is “Myst,” which took these two-dimensional computer games into an incredible three-dimensional space. To this day, some people even describe escape rooms as a “live-action Myst.”
Following the computer game era, came the web-based games, and now the mobile apps, where players are trapped in a room and must discover and combine items and clues to solve puzzles and escape the room. These games are referred to as Escape-The-Room games, which have been the inspiration for some of today’s live, physical escape rooms.
Puzzle Hunts and Treasure Hunts
The puzzle hunt genre has been around for decades. In puzzle hunts, the puzzles can be paper-based or digitized. Either way, players work in teams to solve a series of puzzles, which then lead to other puzzles, with an end goal of solving a meta-puzzle that all of the previous puzzles feed into. One of the best-known puzzle hunts is the “MIT Mystery Hunt” in which the prize for winning the “Mystery Hunt” is the privilege of creating the hunt for next year.
Over the years, some puzzle hunts have grown to center around pubs and other social experiences, while others continue to simply provide very challenging and complex puzzles. Most of the puzzles in escape rooms are much more simple than those found in puzzle hunts, but the team-based aspect is very similar. In addition, many escape rooms are structured in a similar way to puzzle hunts, but with more of a focus on physical puzzles in a limited space and for a single team.
The treasure hunt genre is another area in which escape rooms have their roots. With these games, players must work together to follow a series of clues, puzzles, and riddles in order to overcome challenges, discover a “hidden” treasure, and win the game. One modern-day version of treasure hunt games is geocaching. When geocaching, players are either given GPS coordinates or must solve puzzles to get coordinates, and once they are at the location, they must search for a hidden “treasure” box. Letterboxing is another modern-day version of treasure hunting. Letterboxing is similar to geocaching, but starts with textual or multimedia clues instead of coordinates. These two activities are similar to escape rooms, as the combination of hunting and puzzle-solving is the same; the difference is that escape rooms are in a confined space and with a team of players.
Interactive Theater and Haunted Houses
The growth of interactive theater and the growth of escape rooms appear to actually run parallel to each other. In both cases, players/participants are encouraged to engage and interact with their environments in order to take an active role in their own entertainment. Furthermore, some escape room creators say that interactive theater experiences, such as “Sleep No More” and “Then She Fell,” two interactive theater experiences in New York City, have served as inspirations for their escape rooms.
Haunted houses, which are very similar to interactive theater experiences, allow small groups of people to explore a scene, engaging with actors along the way. Horror-themed escape rooms combine many elements of haunted houses and puzzle hunts, as they feature players trapped in a dark room, taunted by zombies or monsters chained-up or shackled.
Adventure Game Shows, Reality Shows, and Movies
There are tons of television game shows and reality shows that put players in situations in which they must work in teams to solve puzzles and escape a situation. One of the earliest of these types of shows was called “The Adventure Game,” which aired in the UK in the 1980s. “The Adventure Game” featured small teams performing a series of physical puzzle-based tasks to escape rooms. Interestingly, the rooms used in “The Adventure Game” would be perfectly suited for today’s escape room games. Another 1980s UK series known as “Knightmare,” featured teams of children instead of adults. One player on the team wore a helmet and wandered around in front of a blue screen, interacting with props and actors, while his or her teammates watched and provided tips and advice.
Two other team-based television game shows, “Fort Boyard” and “The Crystal Maze,” both aired in the 1990s. While these two shows combined physical prowess and mental agility, they did not contain the narrative that the earlier game shows relied upon. In turn, they acted as a precursor to the reality television shows that followed, beginning with “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race.” These reality shows had more large-scale games and puzzles that players had to work together to solve, which provided inspiration for escape room creators.
There are also many movies, such as Indiana Jones and Saw, that have acted as inspiration for escape room creators. In these movie-based escape rooms, the players are given the chance to live the movie-like adventure, as they are trapped in a space and must rely upon their wits to escape.
Themed Entertainment Industry
Along with computer games, television shows, and movies, there are also other commercial enterprises that are built around live-action puzzles. One of these escape room-like precursor businesses is “Entros,” a restaurant founded in 1993 in Seattle, where diners participated in mystery games that took them throughout the restaurant to solve physical puzzles while others continued to dine around them.
Modern-Day Escape Rooms
Over the years, escape rooms have grown rapidly, all across the world. The earliest, well-documented activity to call itself an escape game is known as the “Real Escape Game.” “Real Escape Game” was published by SCRAP and run in Kyoto, Japan in July 2007 as a single-room game for teams of 5-6 players. Since then, escape rooms have grown and developed dramatically and have popped up all over the world.
As you can see, while most escape rooms were inspired by other escape rooms, many creators were also inspired by one or more different gaming genres and/or experiences instead. No matter what the origin, it is important to recognize that there was not actually one single escape room that began the entire phenomenon. Rather, inspiration from a wide range of gaming and entertainment genres such as live-action role-playing, point-and-click adventure games, puzzle and treasure hunts, interactive theater and haunted houses, and movies and television shows is what created the mental spark for many escape room creators.