The History of Escape Games

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If you’re just now hearing about real life escape games, you’re the norm. Escape games have actually been around for nearly a decade, but they’re just now gaining mainstream popularity. Starting in Japan, the real life escape game industry has spread worldwide and has appealed to people wanting to experience their entertainment, not just watch it. The industry really only began to explode in 2014, and there’s no end in sight to the growing popularity of this fun and engaging activity.

Escape Game Inspiration 
Before discussing the first real life escape game, we must understand its inspirations and how it came to be. As video games became increasingly popular in the 1970s, people were searching for new ways to allow humans to interact with the games they play. Video games initially relied on text based commands to control the play of the game. However, this began phasing out in order for gameplay to rely on visual human perception. In turn, this gave way to point-and-click adventure games — the grandfather of escape games. These games were mainly played via computers and relied on the player to utilize the cursor in order to interact with objects within the game. The earliest example is the little-known Planet Mephius, authored by Eiji Yokoyama and published by T&E Soft only available in Japan in July of 1983. All of this eventually led to “escape the room” video games.

The basic gameplay mechanism of having the player trapped in a single location dates back at least to John Wilson’s 1988 text adventure Behind Closed Doors, in which the player is trapped inside a toilet. Over the next decade and a half, the escape games began adopting the point-and-click style of gameplay. The genre of “escape the room” games became popular with the release of Crimson Room, a game by Toshimitsu Takagi of Japan. (You may see the genre Takagism associated with escape games due to his name.)

Crimson Room spread through the internet and can be found here. This game is a great example of many of the “escape the room” video games. Like Crimson Room, most start with a short text intro (sometimes confusing when translated to English since most games are Japanese) and involve a first-person perspective. There’s a sense of isolation due to ambient music, minimalistic interface, and no other “characters” involved. The player must “search” the room by clicking objects and hovering the mouse over certain locations. Although not always, these games most often take place in a single room and the ultimate goal is to escape through a door. The popularity of these video games became the inspiration for real life escape room adventures.

Real-Life Escape Rooms
Real-life escape rooms take many of the elements seen in “escape the room” video games, such as being trapped in a room with one exit and needing to find clues. But due to its physical nature, real-life escape rooms were able to add other elements, such as puzzle solving and setting a time limit. In order to escape the room the player must be observant of his/her surroundings and use their critical thinking skills as well as elements in the room to aid in their escape.

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The first ever real-life escape game was created by Takao Kato of Kyoto, Japan in 2007. Kato took inspiration from the “escape the room” video games and it’s new popularity in the 2000s.

“I was thinking about doing some kind of new event, and the girl sitting next to me said she was hooked on online escape games, so I just tried to make one,” said Kato.

He also tapped into his childhood need for adventure to motivate him to build the concept.

“I wondered why interesting things didn’t happen in my life, like they did in books,” he said. “I thought I could create my own adventure — a story — and then invite people to be a part of it.”

Originally, games were played at various bars and clubs in Japan. Soon, more permanent locations were being built throughout Asia and Europe over the next five years. Some notable locations during this time include: Budapest, Bern and Australia — as well as many other places. The concept hit the United States between the years of 2012 and 2014, with a few companies slowly building traction in San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, New York City and Nashville.

In the middle to late months of 2014, the industry began to see an explosion of real-life escape game businesses. Currently, there are escape games in over 50 countries and over 280 cities across the globe. One theory behind the popularity (besides it being amazingly fun) is the rise in “experiential entertainment.” No longer do people only want to sit and watch, but they want to do! This can be seen in the rise of virtual reality, music festivals, genre-based conferences and “haunted” adventures.

The best part of real escape games is that the player is the main character instead of just watching a character. And due to the rise in all of these businesses, each one brings its own unique experience, forcing “game makers” to be diverse with their themes and puzzles. One notable characteristic of the game is the puzzle vs. story difference. Some games can be all about solving hard puzzles and math problems, while others can be theatrical and focus on how the player must escape from a “situation” (and is mainly more observationally based). The better games are the ones that are able to intertwine the two aspects to create a truly distinct experience.

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