‘Escape rooms’ the latest thing in digital gaming
One of the most interesting fusions of digital culture with an older form — in this case, theater — is the escape room, which locks people behind a closed door and asks them to find a way out.
The New York Times
NEW YORK — Everything is interactive these days, thanks to video games and the Internet, even Neil Patrick Harris’ forthcoming autobiography, which is being written in the style of a 1980s Choose Your Own Adventure book. One of the most interesting fusions of digital culture with an older form — in this case, theater — is the escape room, which locks people behind a closed door and asks them to find a way out.
In these live-action games — the creators insist that they are games first, rather than immersive theater — there are no Houdini-style bindings for the friends or strangers who agree to be trapped together, just puzzles to solve and codes to crack. And the door is opened after an hour even if the players are stumped.
But you’re apt to find yourself racing the clock anyway, trying to decipher clues to reveal the combination of a lock that opens a chest that hides photographs that contain hints on how to read a map that leads to another mystery within another mystery within another mystery.
After years of popularity in Asia and, more recently, on the West Coast, escape rooms have arrived in New York with increasing frequency. “Escape the Room NYC” began an open-ended run in February not far from the Empire State Building. The “Real Escape Game,” which says that it invented the phenomenon in 2007 in Japan, came to Webster Hall in the East Village over the weekend and has plans to return this year. “Trapped NYC” is scheduled to open on the Lower East Side on the same weekend this month that “The Purge: Breakout,” a promotion for the horror film “The Purge: Anarchy,” heads to Coney Island.
We usually think of the digital realm as an imitation of the physical. Many early video games, for example, were crude translations of existing physical games; table tennis was an especially popular choice. But escape rooms are an example of the reverse: The physical world mimicking the virtual one.
They were inspired directly by web browser games like “Crimson Room” and iPhone apps like Doors and Rooms. The makers of these games are unapologetically trying to bring the pleasures of video games to life.
“Video games are very much about finding clues and recognizing the things in your location that you’re supposed to destroy or reveal in some way,” said Timothy Haskell, who designed two escape rooms for “Trapped NYC.”
Video games, like escape rooms, are about being at the center of a drama rather than the periphery. “All players can be the main character in the story, not watching the character,” said Kazuya Iwata, who adapts the Japanese-created puzzles in the “Real Escape Game” for American audiences.
Theater and video games were cousins of a sort even before escape rooms came along. Some video game designers say that of the canonical arts, theater most closely resembles their craft. At least, the creative challenges of staging a play are the closest analogue to what it’s like to make a game.
“They have the most similar problem set,” Ken Levine, the writer and creative director of the video game “BioShock,” once told me. He was referring specifically to the artists at Punchdrunk, the British theater company behind immersive productions like “Sleep No More” and “The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable.”
Like a theatrical director, a game designer doesn’t entirely control what the viewer or player is looking at and so must draw attention with tricks of lighting and set design.
The artistic director of Punchdrunk, Felix Barrett, recently told The Guardian that going to see “The Drowned Man” is like experiencing the role-playing video game “Skyrim” or the indie sensation “Gone Home.”
Compared with “Sleep No More” or a well-made video game, escape rooms can feel primitive. Early video games were mainly about the joy of a particular in-game action, whether it was shooting or jumping or solving puzzles. But they often struggled to connect those actions to a coherent story.
The two rooms I experienced at “Escape Game NYC” were fun to puzzle through; still, the fiction wasn’t deeply integrated. There was no explanation for why I (along with a couple of families from New York and a bachelor party) was locked in a room, nor was any attempt made to suggest why it might be important to get out within an hour.
“Escape From the Werewolf Village,” which the “Real Escape Game” brought to Webster Hall, did a better job of explaining the stakes: Solve these puzzles, or the villagers will be eaten by lycanthropes. In some ways it was more theatrical, with a host in a black dress and red heels who spoke while spotlighted on a stage to an audience of about 60.
But it was less physically involving than the rooms at “Escape Game NYC,” one of which involved finding a battery to play a message on a voice recorder and a flash drive that was later inserted into a computer — but where’s the mouse? — that played a video that led to ... more clues. (One well-disguised piece of electronics gets ripped off a wall “every other day,” said Victor Blake, the creator of “Escape Game NYC.”)
In contrast, most of “Escape From the Werewolf Village” was played at a table that was set with sharpened pencils, clipboards, a sealed envelope and a small chest with a four-number lock attached to it. We were tasked with solving a maze, a math problem, a crosswordlike puzzle, a logic game involving colors, several letter-based codes and more.
“We are coming from the puzzle side,” Iwata said of the comparison with Punchdrunk. “They are coming from the theater. The cross point would be our goal.”
Even in their nascent form, escape rooms do have one advantage over “Sleep No More” and other immersive theatrical productions. They give players a charge from having direct influence over the actual outcome of the drama, not merely what to look at, where to go, when to change directions.
And unlike a video game, all five senses are involved. In one room at “Escape Game NYC” sits a box containing vials marked “evidence.” Without giving too much away, one vial emits a familiar odor.
“I liked the idea of a smelly clue,” Blake said.