Hours after sunset, our team had finally decrypted the poems and exposed the nine oracles. With the traitor in our midst unmasked and the guardian revealed, the portal to the library began to open.
Then my computer crashed, and I missed the climactic moments of the Secret Library, an online escape-room-style experience poised at the intersection of gaming and immersive theater.
The Secret Library is one of dozens, maybe hundreds, of new events prompted by pandemic-related closures. More than 2,000 physical escape-room facilities operate in the United States, or at least they did back in March, before lockdown hit. Some have since reopened, though patrons remain wary of spending an hour or two in an enclosed and imprecisely ventilated space. Others have closed entirely.
To create a revenue stream, to keep employees on the books, to buck up brand awareness and to keep from going completely stir crazy, many escape-room owners — and people in adjacent trades, like theater — have entered a period of frenetic innovation. In search of pandemic-friendly entertainment, they have created and adapted games to make them available for live remote play, asynchronous point-and-click play, print-and-play, and play by telephone and mail.
“These folks are deeply creative, and they’re scrappy,” said David Spira, who, with his wife, Lisa, founded Room Escape Artist, a review-focused website that also hosts an annual industry conference.
Taken together, these new games constitute a wholesale rethinking of immersion and experience design. Which is to say that escape rooms have, by and large, escaped the room itself.
Escape rooms began in the mid-2000s, most likely in Japan, though the origins remain contested in a depends-on-how-you-define-it kind of way. In most rooms, which can be basic Ikea hacks or triumphs of scenography and product design, a team competes to solve a variety of puzzles and “break out” of the room. (Following an escape-room fire in Poland in 2019, most owners leave doors unlocked throughout facilities, so the breaking is theoretical.)
Though less risky than many forms of live entertainment — the business model caters to small groups and private bookings, and environments can be thoroughly disinfected between games — the pandemic has threatened the future of nearly all escape rooms in the United States.
“The business model is built on being together,” said Haley E.R. Cooper, the artistic director of Strange Bird Immersive, a Houston escape room. “We’re all just completely devastated by this.”
In the spring, a few enterprising rooms shifted to remote play by having a camera-strapped employee enter the space and do a Zoom audience’s bidding. That didn’t work especially well. It takes a lot longer to order someone to manipulate an object than to manipulate it yourself, for one thing, and certain puzzles that delight in-person — guiding a marble through a maze, say — lose a lot in video translation.
“Watching the avatar do it for you? Not fun,” Lisa Spira said.
But as spring turned into summer, the games improved. (Or as David Spira put it, “They went from total trash to some really spectacular stuff.”) Some places, like Mad Genius Escape Rooms, in Portland, Ore., built whole new games around existing rooms. In this case, the Truth About Edith, a fresh narrative inspired by a crazy cat-lady room.
Omescape, which owns three facilities in the Bay Area, figured out how to turn mute avatars into distinct characters. Last month, I watched a group of giddy teenagers play through Omescape’s online game, Pursuit of the Assassin Artist. Their eyes and ears? An actor cast as a feckless secret agent. He obeyed their commands — except when they asked him to sing Cardi B’s “WAP” — and offered subtle and not so subtle hints (“Google it”) when a puzzle stumped them.
Other venues have put puzzling aside. To create work for its employees, Strange Bird dreamed up “The Strange Secret of Adrian Rook,” an online theater piece that put their regular workers and some of their old sets to remote use. Usually it takes the company over a year to create a new room. This experience, it built in two weeks. “We wanted to give people an event, real entertainment,” Cooper said.
Real entertainment doesn’t necessarily rely on live actors. In early March, the Kauai Escape Room closed its doors before Hawaii began its lockdown. “We started feeling gross just being around people in small enclosed spaces,” Yacine Merzouk, a co-owner, said.
So he and his partner, Michelle Rundbaken, created the Society of Curiosities, which so far includes a digital adventure, Mysterious Map Heist, and a monthly game-in-a-box subscription. Similarly, C.U. Adventures in Time and Space, a business in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., took one of its retired games, “The Lost Temple,” and reformatted it as a print-and-play game with a companion website. I tried it with some college and grad-school friends, we managed to save the world, barely. The company has since added a Halloween game, set in a haunted office. “Because what’s scarier than going back to an office?” Anne Lukeman, a co-owner, said.
Can these games equal the excitement of rushing around an actual room as a ticking clock counts down? Not exactly. There are interventions, like visible timers and suspenseful music, that help. “It is different,” David Spira said. But in successful games — he and his wife play two or three each week — adrenaline still rushes. And some games really only work online.
Speaking of “Adrian Rook,” Cooper said: “This show couldn’t happen in person. This is a new artistic frontier.”
It’s also a comparatively inexpensive one. To host an in-person escape room requires a space, rented or owned, and time and money to build out and decorate that space. Strange Bird’s terrestrial escape room, the Man from Beyond, cost about $30,000 to build. “Adrian Rook” cost about $300. “I can stick some sticker brick vinyl on a wall and call it a bar, if I position the camera correctly,” Cooper said.
A lower financial bar means more games and more innovation. Katie Lewis, of Mad Genius, had felt that she had already pushed the boundaries of what an in-person room could be. “This is a whole new world,” she said. “You can add interactive theater, you can add dramatic video sequences, you can animate things happening that you’d never be able to build.”
Online rooms and boxed games have another advantage — nearly anyone can play them, from nearly anywhere, with location and physical ability no longer an obstacle. Sarah Zhang of Omescape said she has seen reservations from people in England, Germany and Australia. “It’s really funny,” she said. “Our goal in the beginning was to bring people out from computers or TVs and into actual rooms. But now our goal is, ‘OK, let’s bring everything online.’”
It’s ironic, perhaps, that escape room games have proliferated when escape from our own homes — depending on where in the country you live and how — feels both so desirable and so risky. At least one industry is meeting the moment with freshly imagined anagrams, substitution ciphers and alphanumeric codes.
In the early days of the pandemic, Cooper saw a sign in her Houston neighborhood — the English World War II motto, Keep Calm and Carry On. It made her angry. “This isn’t a ‘carry on’ situation,” she said. “This is insanity.” Instead she proposed a new motto: Keep Calm and Get Creative. “We can’t go back to our old ways,” she said. “We need to do new things.”