The Origin of Escape Rooms

Escape Rooms were Live Clubs

Our current digital age has left the information-overloaded population to once again seek out adventure in the physical world. The phenomena led to the success of escape rooms, and this is evidenced by a closer examination of their roots. Scrap Inc. in Japan was the first documented example where the concept of the digital escape room was transferred to a “lets do this in the real world” counterpart. Scrap Entertainment Inc. is a Kyoto-based event company managed by Takao Kato. The thirty-five-year-old entrepreneur opened Real Escape Game (Riaru Dasshutsu Ge-mu) in July 2007 for teams of 5-6 players. “I thought I could create my own adventure, a story, and then invite people to be a part of it,” said Kato. The entrepreneur credits his inspiration for the concept after witnessing a classmate play an online version of an escape-the-room. Originally, Real Escape Room events were hosted live in clubs or bars equipped with clues. One would have to purchase tickets immediately as these live events sold out quickly.

The Explosion in Popularity for Escape Rooms

It was not until 2011 that physical escape rooms began to exponentially explode in popularity, starting in Budapest and Eastern Europe. Rooms began spreading across Europe, Canada, Australia, and then moving into North America by about 2012. As the history of escape rooms is convoluted and difficult to accurately trace, a better approach would be to explore some of the interactive media that served as direct inspiration. These include role-playing games, escape-the-room games, and puzzle hunts.

Live Role-playing Games in Escape Rooms

Role-playing games, more prominently live-action role-playing games, revealed gamers’ wishes for a further immersive setting than their tabletop narratives. A notable amount of national organizations in the 1980s like NERO (New England Role Playing Organization) and IFGS (International Fantasy Gaming Society) created a precursor to escape rooms. They provided scenarios and rulesets for players to equip themselves with foam weapons and corresponding costumes to engage in puzzle solving and combat. A few of the scenarios even included timed escape from tarp-covered locked rooms in the woods.

1980’s Escape Game Influences

The next important precursor is the point-and-click adventure games and escape-the-room digital games. In the 1980s, interactive 2D text-based fiction games required gamers to locate and combine items and solve riddles by typing computer commands. This morphed into point-and-click adventures as computer and mice graphics advanced and became the norm. The most popular digital game that evolved from this 2D world to 3D world was Myst, a quintessential escape-the-room type game full of strategy-based barriers and appeals to exploration.

Puzzle Hunts in Escape Rooms

Lastly, puzzle hunts were a pivotal precursor to escape rooms. In puzzle hunts, digitized or paper-based puzzles lead to a chain of increasingly difficult puzzles, with the ultimate goal of solving a related meta-puzzle. The game is not solitary, and players once again work in teams to solve the intricately connected riddles. Puzzle hunts vary with focus on either the problem-solving aspect of the game or the social experience, MIT Mystery Hunt is an iconic example of the genre and remains a long-lasting annual tradition to this day.