There are few desires more deeply human than the desire to escape whatever reality you’re in. The problem is not the details of any particular life — and the nicer your life is, the more resources you have to escape it — but rather the limits of being a person. You are stuck with you. It is a precondition of existence, like the need to pee.
We have spent the last several millennia coming up with ways to flee our reality, at least temporarily. “What is there in culture,” wonders the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, “that is not a form of escape?” As evidence, he cites glass-tower cities, suburbs, good books, shopping malls, movies, communal feasts, gardens, vacations, and Disneyland. To that you could add: music, theater, video games, podcasts, theme parks, haunted houses, extreme sports, Instagram, pornography, and improv comedy. Also, escape rooms.
They are called escape rooms. They sell an experience. The experience is: escape, both literal and metaphorical. For around $30, you and a handful of friends/colleagues/strangers are “trapped” in some kind of space together and must collaboratively puzzle through a series of challenges to win your freedom. The clock is ticking: You get 45 minutes, or 60, or 90, to escape, although if you fail, they let you out anyway. Usually, the game offers some kind of story to help explain why you’re solving puzzles in a room with a countdown clock. Often, it involves a serial killer.
Escape is big. There are, by the most recent unofficial count, at least 2,300 escape rooms in the United States. They are a new staple of corporate team-building, which puts them in a very elite category of activities you might be required to do with your boss to prove that you are a team player who loves bonding. Brands like HBO and Ford have been creating promotional escape rooms for years now; Red Bull runs a whole Escape Room World Championship (the Slovakian team Brainteaselava holds the current title). Pop culture is so saturated with escape rooms that, this past January, Columbia Pictures released the pulpy horror flick Escape Room, which should not be confused with either of the other two recent horror movies about escape rooms also called Escape Room. There is a sequel planned for 2020. It is called Escape Room 2.
But the room is not the important part. That’s a common misconception, Scott Nicholson, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario and the world’s leading scholar of escape rooms, tells me: “Not all escape rooms are about escaping a room.” The name, he agrees, is a problem, mostly because it does not connote “collaborative adventure!” so much as “claustrophobia!” or “panic!” and that’s just such a limited understanding of what an escape room can be. This bothered him so much that for a while, he tried to get people to call them something else, and when he couldn’t — legal issues — he decided he’d just try to shift the meaning instead. So sure, they’re still escape rooms, but it’s not the room you’re escaping from. It’s reality.
In that sense, they’re just one more stab at the intractable disappointment of living only your own life. We used to have fox-hunting; now we have escape rooms.
This is logical to me, and also seems to ignore one important detail, which is that escape rooms are fundamentally odd. It is weird to gather in a themed room for an hour to unlock combination locks in a high-stakes situation that matters not at all. We didn’t used to trap ourselves in $30 rooms and now we do, and it doesn’t feel like an accident that the rise of escape rooms in the first half of this decade corresponds almost exactly with a seismic shift in how we relate to technology (intimately, all the time). Escape rooms are an antidote: They require you to exist, in real life, with other real-life people, in the same place, at the same time, manipulating tangible objects. But you only have to do it for an hour! High intensity, low commitment. You get the thrill of deep connection, but you don’t have to, like, talk about your feelings. Maybe we talk about feelings too much anyway. Maybe we should just do stuff. But who has time to do stuff? Don’t you have a job?
They are the opposite of first-person video games, and also the next logical step. In an escape room, it isn’t your digital avatar that’s the hero; it’s actually you, in your actual body. You don’t know what the pattern is, but you can rest assured there is one. For one hour, if you think hard enough, you get to live in a world that makes sense.
The history of escape rooms is a little bit dicey. Where do you begin? Is a 17th century hedge maze a proto-escape room? Is geocaching? Letterboxing? LARPing? The 1997 Michael Douglas thriller The Game? The 2011 choose-your-own-adventure Macbeth-adjacent theater experience Sleep No More? You could trace them back for centuries, if you wanted to.
Or you could start in 2007, when Takao Kato debuted what’s generally considered the first modern escape room in Kyoto, Japan. A publisher and amateur puzzle enthusiast, he’d been obsessed with online escape puzzle games like Crimson Room — in which players click around an unremarkable room to find hidden, instruction-less puzzles — and wanted to translate them into the real world. The false promise of childhood, affirmed over and over in books and movies and video games, is that incredible things are going to happen to you, and the slow-burning letdown of adulthood is that, mostly, they don’t. “I thought I could create my own adventure,” he told the Japan Times, “and then invite people to be a part of it.”
At first he held Riaru Dasshutsu Ge-mu, or Real Escape Game, in clubs and bars around Japan, and soon his publishing company, called SCRAP, was an escape room company called SCRAP. In 2012, it opened what would be the first US escape room in San Francisco, “Escape from the Mysterious Room.” That was pretty much the premise. It had no story. One of the puzzles required players to disassemble a chair. Inside the chair was a screwdriver. Tickets sold out immediately, and when they’d add more, those sold out, too.
Meanwhile, across the globe, a man in Budapest named Attila Gyurkovics got an idea: wouldn’t it be cool to bring a digital hidden-object game to life? He opened Europe’s first escape room, ParaPark, in 2011. He’d never heard of SCRAP. A lot of history’s best ideas are products of simultaneous invention: calculus, chloroform, crossbows, color photography, the concept of gravity, escape rooms. Gyurkovics didn’t know it, but he and Kato were working from the same conceptual deck: a love of online puzzles, and a desire to take what’s pretend and make it real.
Victor Blake, then a 31-year-old financial analyst in Manhattan, hadn’t been to either of them. But he’d started futzing around with digital escape games on his iPhone. “I was like, ‘Wait, I have a room. Like, shit, I even have three rooms,” he says. “Like, why don’t they do this in real life?’” In the mobile game, there’s a key hidden under couch cushions. He also had a key! He also had couch cushions! And so, in the fall of 2013, Blake rented out a studio on the weekends for a few hundred bucks, and every Friday he’d construct the room and every Sunday he’d tear it all down. By Valentine’s Day, Victor Blake had opened a permanent Escape the Room in Midtown Manhattan. As of last year, the company was one of the biggest escape operators in the country, with rooms in 19 cities, from Albuquerque to Detroit.
Most people who played the early games enjoyed them, and then went home and returned to their lives being software engineers or actors or plumbers or whatever they did. But some people played and went home and upended their lives.
Victor van Doorn is a guy who loves doing things and making things and making things to do. He is fun in a way few people are fun. For him, fun is not an activity; it’s a lifestyle. “I’ve always been very excited by adventure movies and have been trained to live my life like one,” he tells me. In high school in the Netherlands, he’d organize “heists” to steal upcoming math tests by crawling through the air ducts, not because he was bad at math, though he was, but because you can choose to be like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible or you can be like everybody else.
In 2012, a friend tagged him in a Facebook post about the opening of HintHunt in London. He took a date, but it didn’t work out because he fell in love with escape rooms instead. He tried to block it out. He’d just started a company that customized the backlights of MacBooks, he was supposed to focus on the MacBooks, but he just couldn’t stay away, and in 2014, he and two friends launched Sherlocked in Amsterdam. His only regret is not doing it sooner. “This escape room thing,” he says, with earnest feeling, “is the thing I’ve been the most passionate about in my life.” Escape rooms, they tend to attract obsessives. Van Doorn’s rooms are consistently ranked among the best in the world.
I am supposed to meet David and Lisa Spira at Mission Escape Games in Manhattan’s shrinking garment district — what else to do with all those empty factories? — at 7:45, except that I am late because I can’t find it. I’d heard about escape rooms where the first puzzle was finding them. Was this a puzzle? I gave in and called Lisa. It was not. The intoxicating thing about escape rooms is that they turn you into a conspiracy theorist. What is real? What is a game? All the filters you’ve developed over a lifetime that help you sort out what matters and what doesn’t — the reason you get out of the way of ambulances but don’t seek meaning in sidewalk cracks — are called into question.
Upstairs, Lisa is playing Connect Four with Derek, the owner of Mission Escape.
The Spiras, who are in their early 30s and live in Weehawken, New Jersey, write Room Escape Artist, the blog of record for escape rooms. A few years ago, they began running weekend escape room tours. Professionally, she is a linguist and he is a UX designer. Semi-professionally, they are escape room evangelists.
The Spiras are wry cheerleaders. They are critics. They are escape room ambassadors. It is hard to find an article about escape rooms that does not quote at least one of them. They are a gravitational force at the center of the escape room community, which they also helped build. They have been everywhere. They know everyone. They are the people you contact if you are wondering, for example, whether a particularly terrifying escape room in Toronto — a game that ominously offers no information about itself except that you have to be at least 18 to play and shouldn’t have a heart condition — is too scary for you. Their first date was to an escape room, and their proposal began at an escape room, and their wedding — you see where this is going — also involved a group puzzle hunt to reclaim the “stolen” champagne.
Before we meet, David told me they’d played more than 700 escape rooms since first discovering them on vacation in Budapest. He acknowledges this is not normal: “For someone not in the community, that’s like saying eleventy billion. It’s like, how many cars do you have? 700. Nobody has 700.”
Despite my limitations — I’d played one room before and did not escape it — David assures me he and Lisa “love playing with new people.” So we play The Hydeout, which was set in a Victorian drawing room and had a vague plot having something to do with rescuing Dr. Jekyll from his death. Unless it was our death? Then there were puzzles. There were special effects. There was a taxidermied deer head.
Though we agreed it lacked the gut-punch of a “wow” moment — in the world of escape rooms, “wow” moments are very important — it was deeply satisfying. It was so refreshingly clear; a challenge, a struggle, a resolution. Escape, argues Yi-Fu Tuan, the geographer, isn’t really about fantasy, but clarity. I imagine this is why people climb mountains. It is pure.
The escape room community prides itself on its diversity; it’s not male-dominated, like the rest of gaming, everyone tells me. And while a whole lot of the most visible people in the scene, and the chattiest, seem to be white men — which makes it pretty much the same as every other industry — nobody seems to think that’s representative, either of who designs the games or who plays them. For Nicholson, the escape room scholar, that was part of what drew him in: Creating escape rooms requires a wide-ranging skillset, and so does playing them. “You need to have a diverse team,” he says, not just when it comes to gender, but also race, age, and the way your mind works.
The common thread that ties enthusiasts together is also not a profession nor location, but a maybe-not-entirely mainstream sense of what is fun. “The people who are looking for mentally stimulating things to do in their free time, where they’re the player, not watching someone else have an adventure,” David says. “That’s the kind of people it attracts, and those are the types of people we just loving having in our lives.”
I try to decide if I am that sort of person. I like thinking, I think. I like adventures, as long as they are not especially physical. In college, I majored in theater, which means I have spent years of my adult life standing in circles clapping rhythmically. I am competitive about party games. But until now, I had found the idea of escape rooms gently repellant, like music festivals or camping.
At first, I told people my problem was claustrophobia, and I believed it was true. I was supposed to derive a thrill from being trapped in a cubby with strangers, trying to prevent my own fake death? I thought of the Chilean miners, trapped in that cave, and also the Thai soccer players, trapped in that other cave. I’d been riveted by both stories — trapped in a cave! — but neither struck me as an aspirational experience.
An escape room, it turns out, is nothing like being trapped in a cave. Most escape rooms, for one thing, are quite large, relative to the coffins I’d pictured. (If you would like that experience, though, the Russia-based chain Komnata Quest does run a game where you can have it.) The motivator in escape games, even scary ones, isn’t panic so much as it is the joy of figuring stuff out in a pretend world where there are answers. Also, avoiding the humiliating disappointment of failure.
But I couldn’t get friends — the same competitive party-game friends— to do rooms with me. “Maybe!” they’d say, and immediately suggest that we meet for a drink when I was done, which, in fairness, is also what I would have said. Escape rooms are dangerously unironic. It is unsettling to picture yourself, an adult, pretending to be trapped in a fake submarine, decoding Da Vinci Code-style cryptex with strangers. It requires a certain level of vulnerability to emotionally invest in a series of puzzles, while the Game Master — a professional facilitator of fun — watches you struggle, doling out hints.
It is humiliating, if you think too hard about it: Here is a person who knows the answer, observing not just your behavior but the workings of your mind. You can’t resist this truth, and it’s best if you don’t try. An escape room requires you to surrender to it; to bask in the joy of not knowing. “You have to drive the story forward; you have to discover things,” says van Doorn. “You have urgency. You have causality. If you don’t do stuff, nothing will happen. You feel more empowered than in the undesigned world.” An escape room is a world that has been designed expressly to be navigated. The line between cause and effect is straight and clear.
It’s a relief. So much of real life is taking actions that don’t matter. I recycle but have not stopped global warming. I’ll follow a recipe and then it will turn out to be kind of gross. But in an escape room, it all matters. There is a beautiful elegance to it: You crack the code, it unlocks the lock. “I think that’s what makes you feel alive,” van Doorn tells me. “You’re using your faculties and senses in ways that you’re not accustomed to, and you’re impacting the world around you in ways that are not normal.” They do more than give you a one-hour vacation from your life; they wake you up.
In the beginning, people liked escape rooms. But they weren’t mainstream. You didn’t go into the escape room industry for money; you went into the industry for the love of the games. Then came the MarketWatch article. “The Unbelievably Lucrative Business of Escape Rooms” didn’t exactly say you should open an escape room, but it did suggest that maybe you could open an escape room, and maybe, if you did, it wouldn’t be that hard to get rich quick.
The story began with Nate Martin, the co-founder and CEO of the Seattle-based Puzzle Break, who had started with $7,000 of his own money in 2013 and recouped it within a month. Two years later, he was on track to close out 2015 with a gross over $600,000. “Some months are record-breakingly fantastic,” he said. “Some are only very good.”
The article cautioned the meteoric growth wouldn’t last forever, and four years later, growth hasn’t stalled, but it is finally slowing. It’s true that the big chains are getting bigger. In 2017, only two American companies — Key Quest and Breakout Games — had more than 20 facilities, according to the Spiras’ annual industry report, which is also the only annual industry report that exists. By the middle of 2018, All In Adventures, Escapology, and Victor Blake’s Escape the Room had joined that club. Other chains are vying for global domination: the UK-based Escape Hunt operates nearly 50 in 27 countries; Russian mega-franchise Claustrophobia boasts 109 different rooms with more on the way. At the same time, the bottom-tier is beginning to close up shop.
“A lot of these companies had been open for three or four years and their leases are coming up and they’re saying, you know what? We’re not making enough money and we’re bowing out,” Spira says. “That’s healthy. It’s what we want to see, especially from the companies that just don’t really have a special product.”
To compare the worst rooms with the best rooms is like comparing drinking fountains with Niagara Falls. In a tightening market, there is no room for drinking fountains. Forget the standouts — even average escape rooms are better than they’ve ever been, with increasingly immersive sets and better-integrated puzzles, more compelling narratives and fewer weird Sudokus.
For enthusiasts, it’s an embarrassment of riches; for escape room owners, it’s expensive. “You can’t do what I did anymore,” Martin says. “That’s a definite truth.” When van Doorn and his partners opened the first Sherlocked room, it was 2014, and they did it with approximately $7,500 scraped together from Kickstarter. “We wouldn’t be able to make such a game for that anymore. Now that’s around half of what you’d need.” As the line between immersive theater performance and escape room gets blurrier, more escape rooms are hiring actors, and the trouble with actors is they have to be paid. “Now that it’s more of an industry, people — rightfully so — become a bit more expensive,” he says. There’s competition. The industry is thriving, but the gold rush is over.
There is money, still. Last April, the New York Times reported that there are at least some people earning “close to a half-million dollars a year” in the business. (Getting accurate numbers, the paper points out, is tricky, because the companies are private and don’t release financials.) More typically, a room that sells out most weekends is looking at annual revenue closer to $125,000. And the better it is, the more expensive it is to run. Chris Lattner, the CEO and creative director of Berlin’s The Room, which is among the legends — its latest game includes what I have been told is an arrestingly accurate simulation of being on an elevator, so lifelike that if you were there, you’d swear it’s moving — reports the company brings in $65,000 to $75,000 a month. Of that, $45,000 goes to staffing costs. “After tax, there’s not much left,” he says. “In the end, we do a theater play for five people with two actors, which is not very clever.”
As a general rule, the more singular the experience, the harder it is to scale. Van Doorn and his team tried, franchising a second room in Rotterdam. Within three months, they’d shut it down. “We are too much on the artist side of the spectrum to enjoy that,” he says delicately. Other companies have made the opposite calculation: Don’t just grow. Get huge. More locations. More cities. Expand until you can’t run it all, and then start franchising. This is Komnata Quest’s philosophy. Artem Kramin and his wife Oksana Vasis started Komnata Quest in Kazan, Russia, in 2014; three months later, they signed their first franchise contract. It’s obvious, he says. It doesn’t matter how much people love your room, they’re not going to come back to play it again. It’s over. It’s dead. So what you’ve got to do is make more rooms.
Komnata now has 85 games in 19 cities throughout the US and Europe, according to its website, and is actively working to open more. Do you want to join them? Their franchising brochure lays out the fees ($5,000 for the franchise; $15,000-$25,000 per individual game; 10 percent royalties) as well as what you can expect in return ($2,060 estimated monthly profit; a customized game designed by Komnata’s in-house team; advice and guidance from the company). “In the next 10 years, we are planning to open at least 100 more escape rooms all over the world,” he says.
“By the way,” Kramin adds to the end of one of his emails, “I’m looking now for an investment of $20 million for further development, if your readers have friends with money.”
It is with my new attitude of whimsy and acceptance that I end up meeting immersive designer Peter Droste, a friend and sometime collaborator of van Doorn’s, on 38th Street to play High Speed NYC, the premise of which is that you’re trapped on a driverless New York City subway car careening toward nowhere. I liked the premise of this particular room, because I have also been on trains — every day, I go on trains! — and also, it was open. Many of the city’s escape rooms have closed in recent months, after a fire in Poland killed five teenage girls and inspired regulation efforts around the world.
I’d sent Droste some questions about escape rooms — what was up with them? — a few hours earlier, and now here we were, with a (generous) friend and her (affable) date, collectively decoding locks on a pretend train. It is so much more intense than meeting for drinks. It’s not that the game itself feels exciting, so much as the existence of the game makes the world feel exciting. The world is a place where you can wrangle people you have never met to solve puzzles with you on a simulated train!
“I’m kind of a flow junkie,” Droste says. “If I can reach that excited flow state, that’s what I’m after. That’s the kick.” For him, that’s the thrill of escape rooms. It is a cousin of meditation, he suggests: If meditation is “focus against resistance,” then flow is “entering a heightened state of play by removing resistance.” You are at the mercy of the game now, and for an hour, you only have to think about the puzzles. It’s not only surrender, but communal surrender. To prevent you posting spoilers and keep you immersed in this alternative reality, without intrusions from Twitter or your mom, they make you put away your phone. The photo of your team in goofy hats holding dorky signs (“We escaped!”; “I’m with stupid”) comes later. When it works, you’re consumed by something larger than yourself.
Are we really so desperate for human face-to-face contact that we will pay $30 to spend time in a room with other living, breathing people?
Sure, yes. And is that so wrong? “One consequence of human biological uniqueness is that a person often feels slightly out of step with other persons,” writes Tuan, in a chapter bluntly titled, “People’s Indifference.” But an escape room is built to foster an intense feeling of connection, a hyperdose of concentrated intimacy. “I think the thing that sucked me in,” says Bill Chang, a Sarah Lawrence student who manages the meme-centric Room Escape Problems Facebook group (“connecting escape room players one problem at a time”) and may be the first person to graduate with an academic concentration in escape rooms, “was just being completely in sync with my friends when I play them.” Everyone, for one hour, has exactly the same self-contained mission, and that is magical, and the quest for that magic is not new. What is new is the urgency.
“If I had any thesis about experience design in the 21st century,” Droste declares, “it’s that we spent the second half of the 20th century getting acclimated to a lifestyle that included screens; the screens became more pervasive, and then people figured out how to make those screens addictive. And unconsciously we are crying out for human connection in a way that we did 1 to 2 million years before screens showed up.”
It’s not just escape rooms; it’s rage rooms and axe-throwing bars and underground supper clubs and high-concept branded pop-ups, where online retailers will sell you whatever they sell you but in real life. People are hungry for in-person experiences that have some kind of depth, some level of interaction, a little intimacy, a dose of emotion. You can get it at a LARP. You can get it at Burning Man. You can get it, probably, by doing something, anything, with your friends that you don’t already regularly do. There are a lot of ways to have real-life adventures that are not prepackaged in ticketed, one-hour increments. But the fact that escape rooms are prepackaged and do take place at regular intervals, David Spira points out, is exactly what makes them “affordable and approachable”; you can suggest it at 5 pm on a Wednesday and be playing two hours later. You don’t have to plan anything at all, and you still get a hit of the rewards.
In the last half-decade, escape rooms, once the domain of puzzlers, have morphed into a diverse form of their own. As different people with different backgrounds entered the industry — theater people and amusement park people and haunted house people and video game folks — “escape room” morphed from a thing into a category. “I’m at a point where I can’t even tell you what a puzzle is,” says David. “The line has gotten so blurry for me.” An escape room takes place in a space. There is some kind of story. There are some sort of challenges.
For Haley E.R. Cooper, an actor and director and one half of Houston’s Strange Bird Immersive, a phenomenon in the escape room world, the format became a framework to build immersive theater experiences and make a living at it. Their first production, a game called The Man From Beyond, was what she characterizes as “an immersive theater-escape room sandwich.” Stash House, in LA, follows the general form of an escape room except that there is no escaping anything. The goal instead is to flush the drugs down the toilet before the police break down the door. In Morristown, New Jersey, there is a game called F-5, an escape room/physical obstacle course hybrid designed by CrossFitters.
“The whole industry is kind of on a moving train, where the quality and expectations are regularly getting ratcheted up,” David says. “I don’t know what peak escape room looks like.”
It’s not that escape rooms were ever exactly cool in a conventional sense. But they were new and exciting, a semi-underground secret, a product of nerd counterculture. Escape rooms were and always have been open to the public, but for the first few years, most of the public didn’t care. Now, Victor van Doorn says, about a third of his business comes from corporate groups.
“The future of escape rooms,” says Chris Lattner bluntly, birds chirping, “will be that only the very good escape room companies will survive. And the others will just die out.” Which, from his perspective, is just fine, because he is bored. “I’ve said everything I said and I built everything I could build. The only thing I could do is just make a new storyline and do exactly the same things I did in the past,” which is the opposite of adventure. Instead, Lattner is plotting his next move. Something more like immersive theater. Something outdoors. He wants it to take place across the city, to have players interacting with the out-of-game world so “they won’t know what’s real and what’s not.” It sounds less like a break with escape rooms than a natural evolution of them. It’s The Game, starring Michael Douglas, starring you.
Escape rooms as we know them are going to die, Droste says. Even trends are not immune to the basic laws of nature. “The thing that was special? It dies. It’s going to die. You have to be okay with it dying,” he tells me. “The human impulse is that you don’t want it to. You want it to stay this special thing for you forever. That’s the fantasy. That’s the lie we tell ourselves.” But it’s a mistake to mourn them, now or ever, he advises, as I contemplate the future of escape rooms and also the mortality of everyone I have ever loved. “For me, the temporary nature of these powerful experiences is what makes them so powerful. It’s not gonna last forever. So take it in, you know? Be present. Put your phone down and all that shit.”