We’re trapped. All the doors are locked, and the only way out is to explore the room and solve the chain of riddles hidden within so we have a chance of working out the combination for the locked door. After fifteen minutes of co-operative play, we’ve pieced together the four-digit code and the door to the next room opens…
After completing this task, I half expect to hear a victory chime and to see the phrase “DOOR UNLOCKED” flashing before my eyes. But this isn’t a game, this is real life.
A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a live-action escape game in London in which me, my boyfriend and friend paid to be locked in a room. That’s right- we paid money to be trapped. What’s more, in order to successfully escape we had to complete a series of puzzles within a time limit. Though it might sound strange, that one hour of frenzied problem-solving was the most engaging slice of time I’ve spent in a while.
Escape games are prolific in Britain’s capital, but that’s not where they germinated. The invention of the concept is ascribed to a company in Japan called SCRAP Entertainment which launched REAL ESCAPE GAME in 2007. Since then, escape games have flourished across the world and have proved to be a lucrative business. The attraction for potential players is obvious: the gamification of reality.
A lot of ‘escape gamers’ will have been trapped in strange rooms before, just not in the physical world. The trope of the locked door will be more than familiar to anyone who is well-acquainted with the myriad digital domains offered by video games. In Peeking Behind the Locked Door: A Survey of Escape Room Facilities, Scott Nicholson surveyed 175 Escape Room proprietors and found that, unsurprisingly, one of the influences on escape game creation has been point-and-click adventure games such as Myst (2015: 4). Other major influences cited, such as role-playing games, treasure hunts and interactive theatre (Ibid) all involve gamification in physically embodied contexts, whilst they in turn have also inspired and been inspired by video game design.
In his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde famously commented, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” (94) This idea seems particularly applicable to the development of escape games. As pre-ordained scenarios in which the threat of being locked in is only illusory, escape games provide a safe space for tackling problems without real-world consequences. The tightly controlled environment, alongside a fictional narrative which provides an explanation for the existence of the puzzles and tasks to be completed is heavily influenced by the internal logic of video game worlds.
Escape games allow us to escape in more ways than one: not just though fastened doors but our everyday selves. For sixty minutes we can be the hero in our own adventure, and we can share this experience with others who heighten the sense of urgency and discovery. Consider the corporate team-building visit in which an intern gets the chance to outshine the management through their sharp eye in the escape room. Yes, that’s just another fantasy, but the possibility of emancipating quotidian routine in such a direct way is thrilling.
The escapism offered by video games themselves is arguably an integral part of their appeal. In her TED talk Gaming can make a better world game designer Jane McGonigal pointed out that gamers “get better feedback and feel more rewarded than they can in real life” therefore we “have to start making the real world more like a game” (2010) In a sense, escape games are an example of attempting to make live action leisure activities more like games, with the repeated positive feedback of completing a series of interconnected tasks and the opportunity to collaborate directly with others in a discrete fictional setting. The appeal of the full embodied experience of escape games can be attributed to the fact that “players eager to look at something other than a glowing screen are flocking to games in the physical world for face to face engagement opportunities” (Nicholson, 2015: 2). In which case, although perhaps there is a desire to ‘gamify’ some aspects of reality, the real draw of escape games is that they provide the best of both worlds-personal gratification through completing puzzles in a limited time frame to achieve a clear goal, whilst also being freed from the artificial interfaces of mobile, console and computer gaming. Escape games demand full immersion as mobile phones must be left outside in order to prevent cheating and spoiling the puzzles for others. Furthermore, with the standard time frame for each game being only sixty minutes, a player can’t afford to be distracted. This is in stark contract to the experience an individual might have playing a mobile game which facilitates “co-attentiveness” (Koegh, 2016: 36) with both the artificial game world and real life demands flexibly attended to by the player.
Escape games and archaeology
I played an escape room with some subtle steampunk references hosted by Escape Land, but the narratives escape games can follow are highly varied. Inevitably, some explicitly reference archaeology and the ancient world. The Time Run escape game in London, for example, involves time travel and the search for a “long-forgotten relic” (Time Run, 2016). In New York there’s an escape room entitled The Mystery of Archaeology in which you must come to the aid of your archaeology professor trapped in a collapsed tomb.
Personally, I would love to see an escape game situated within a museum or similar heritage institution, perhaps as a pop-up temporary attraction. The narrative of the escape game could reference the history of the museum itself or perhaps a particular exhibition. With the possibility of 3D scanning and printing artefacts, replicas of objects housed in a museum collection could be incorporated into the puzzles of the escape game, thus offering the opportunity to interact with archaeological remains in a way that breaks free of the traditional exhibition dynamic. Just as its liberating to not have to play escape games through a screen, it would be exciting for a museum visitor to access the rich narratives of archaeology without having to peer at artefacts through panes of glass. In this way, we might all benefit from allowing the everyday museum experience to be transformed by playfully imitating the art of video games.