The blindfold comes off. The first thing you see are the others, wiping their eyes and squinting at the new light. The room comes into focus. No one that's there has ever been inside of it before. There's a door with a lock on it, and a timer begins counting down. What do you do? The first move, perhaps, is wondering why you've decided to pay somewhere between $30-$40 for the pleasure of being locked in a room. The second, obviously, is getting the hell out of there.
These “Escape Room Experiences” are popping up everywhere, in strips malls and converted warehouse spaces, from New York to San Francisco. They're in Japan, China, and all throughout Europe. There are tons in Los Angeles. Each one is different, not only in terms of the puzzles that need to be solved for escape—from finding clues embedded in graffiti, to cracking locker combinations—but also in the differing stories of why your team is locked inside, and why they need to get out quickly. In Chicago, you're trapped inside with a hungry zombie. In Sydney's Enigma Room, you're on a team of doctors trying to end a woman's coma by unlocking secrets from her subconscious. In L.A., aliens are on their way in.
“The person who enters the room may not be the person who emerges once the door is locked. People who think they are leaders quickly end up being followers.”
This is the brave new world of real-life escape room games, and they may be the next generation of entertainment.
While the battle over who can claim origin over the trend leaves no clear winner—most point toward the Kyoto-based company SCRAP, while others mention an Agatha Christie-inspired room in Silicon Valley—they began popping up between 2006 and 2007. They lingered and simmered, spreading by word of mouth, until, finally, they became a trend. And now they've taken that final, inevitable step toward popular consciousness and an impending saturation bubble burst: Escape rooms are coming to television.
In July, the Science Channel is premiering Race to Escape, an escape room-themed game show hosted by comedian Jimmy Pardo. The show tweaks the standard formula in three distinct ways: changing the nudge toward speedy resolution (and, therefore, higher levels of stress) from fictional set-up about such-and-such happening after an hour's time, to an actual monetary incentive ($25,000, specifically); adding a competitive element, wherein a second set of people in an identical room simultaneously try to escape, with the winning team claiming the winnings; and introducing a grand social experiment by filling the rooms with complete strangers. It's this third element that the show's creator, Riaz Patel, is the most excited about.
“We had a guy who said his whole life was puzzles, he was so assertive about that. But he could not see the most obvious things in the room, and led his team to a fairly catastrophic failure.”
“We have this very elaborate way we bring them into the studio, they never hear or see each other,” Patel says.
While filming the first season run—six hour-long episodes, each featuring a brand-new, meticulously designed room—Patel was fascinated by the dynamics at play when putting strangers in heightened group situations, particularly by the difference between a contestant's self-perception before entering the room and how they acted once inside. “The person who enters the room may not be the person who emerges once the door is locked,” he says. “People who think they are leaders quickly end up being followers.”
In pre-interviews, contestants detail how they'll help their team win. They'll use their math skills, they're great at delineating tasks, etc. But once they enter a room of strangers, they're in a social position they rarely encounter during everyday life—if you enter a room with your friends, everyone quickly fits into the pre-established order; defer to your older sister outside the room, you'll do the same inside—and that occasionally leads to unexpected outcomes.
“We had a guy who said his whole life was puzzles, he was so assertive about that,” Patel says. “But he could not see the most obvious things in the room, and led his team to a fairly catastrophic failure.”
Patel's focus on this psychological thread isn't surprising, seeing as the show's origin story has more to do with stranger interaction than simply escaping a room. Despite the show seeming to come on the heels of a trend, Patel actually first conceived of the idea before the rooms were even a thing, back in 2003, during the New York City blackout.
When the lights went out, Patel was in an unfamiliar office building. “I wasn't with people I knew, so we had to figure out what stairwell do we go down,” Patel says. “All these complete strangers had to rely on each other, and communicate, to get the simplest things done. I was fascinated by that dynamic.”
John Hennessy, creator of Escape Room L.A., has also examined these stranger dynamics, albeit through happenstance. While most people willingly lock themselves with their team members into the company's two themed rooms—The Detective, wherein groups have to find a way out of the private eye's office, and The Cavern, wherein the group is underground and quickly “running out of oxygen”—every now and then, there will be one composed of mostly strangers. This all-stranger dynamic may actually do more harm than good for reasons other than over-confidence.
“People are more polite when they don't know each other,” Hennessy says. “When people know each other, they're less inhibited and not afraid to say, no, you suck as that, do this instead. Whereas with strangers, you may not know what their weaknesses and skills are.”
This strange trend could reasonably symbolize all sorts of things about our modern lives, depending on what lens you use to process it. Tired of staring at computer screens all day? This could be interpreted as evidence that our tech-driven culture is leading to the new tradable currency of actual real-life experiences. Sick of the urban landscape in which you reside, or the clutter of your own mind? These escape rooms could allow you to escape your life, man. Or, maybe, these are just the next step in the never-ending evolution of entertainment.
"People are more polite when they don't know each other. When people know each other, they're less inhibited and not afraid to say, no, you suck as that, do this instead."
“The bar is getting higher and higher for entertainment,” Patel says. “You had traditional movies and television, then you had 3-D and video games. This is the next step, a physically immersive experience that you are 360 degrees in.” Instead of trying to simulate reality with graphics and advanced extrasensory simulation, these rooms are using ... reality. “There's something about physically being there that will never be matched,” Patel says. “I guess it's one of the reasons that people still like live theater, even though they could watch it at home in their pajamas.”
When Patel sent his show into the television sphere awhile back, no one was into it. Perhaps it just wasn't the right fit for other networks, but also perhaps it was a little ahead of its time. A decade ago, all of our entertainment-minded mental energy was being spent on ways to create technology that would substitute aspects of our everyday life. Frankly, most of the creative mental energy is still being siphoned in that direction. But now, at least, there's some small portion being expended on these experience entertainments as counter-programming of a sort.
Or not. Maybe this is just taking us full circle, a “real-life experience” that isn't trying to mimic reality, but rather, trying to mimic attempts at mimicking reality. “Video games [have] been a lot of the inspiration for these,” Hennessy says. “It's like being in a real-life video game.”