A Quick History of Escape Rooms

“Where did escape rooms come from?”

This is a common question that isn’t particularly easy to answer. Escape rooms didn’t simply emerge as a concept; they are part of an evolutionary chain.

Painting of an ancient lockbox with a very old and large padlock.

This is a quick, US-centric, reverse history of escape rooms.

Late 2016 – Heavy proliferation

We are aware of approximately 1,500 escape room facilities in the United States and countless more worldwide. New escape room businesses are opening on a daily basis.

July 2015 – MarketWatch article

MarketWatch pushes an article titled, The unbelievably lucrative business of escape rooms, in which they take a lot of good information and paint an erroneous picture of endless profits for every escape room business.

Suddenly many people believe that opening an escape room business will bring them riches.

Late 2013 – US expansion begins

Puzzle Break & Escape the Room NYC opened their doors, initiating the first wave of US expansion.

Co-founder of Puzzle Break Nate Martin calls his organization “the first contemporary American escape room company.” You can debate the subject with him if you’d like.

2012 – SCRAP opened in the United States

SCRAP, also known as Real Escape Game, also known as REG, opened up in San Francisco, California. This was decidedly the first company in the Americas calling itself an “escape room.”

2007 – SCRAP opened in Japan

SCRAP opened the first documented “escape room” in Kyoto, Japan.

This was the escape room world’s origin moment, its radioactive spider bite, if you will.

Budapest, Hungary is also frequently cited as the birthplace of escape rooms, but I cannot find anything solid to back up that claim. However, it cannot be disputed that Hungary was an early hotbed of escape room proliferation and innovation.

2004 – 5 Wits opened in Massachusetts

Inspired by Indiana Jones, 5 Wits became the early purveyor of real life puzzle adventure. It never branded itself an “escape room” and still doesn’t. Despite this labeling choice, there are a number of striking similarities.

Early 2000s – Escape the room video games

The “escape the room” genre was given a style and name in the early 2000s in the form of Flash point-and-click puzzle games. MOTAS (2001) and Crimson Room (2004), among many others, have kept players pixel hunting for well over a decade.

There are still tons of free Flash-based escape the room games of variable quality being released on a regular basis. Both players and producers of these games fear the inevitable death of Flash.

Early 1990s – Adventure puzzle video games

Some of the earliest hit 3D video games were escape room-esque puzzle games.

Myst (1993) & The 7th Guest (1993) remain classic games and key moments in the progression towards real life escape games (and my childhood).

1980s & 1990s – UK game shows

In the 1980s and 1990s, television stations in the UK ran The Adventure Game (1980) and The Crystal Maze (1990). These shows offered challenges that looked a lot like escape rooms.

The Crystal Maze has since been reborn as an actual, open-to-the-public escape game.

Other branches

Escape rooms have close evolutionary ties to interactive theater, haunted houses, live-action roleplaying, puzzle hunts, scavenger hunts, and a variety of television shows, books, video games, and movies.

The history of this form of entertainment is inseparable from most other forms of entertainment.

For more information

The history of escape rooms is convoluted and not particularly well documented.

If you’d like to learn more, Scott Nicholson’s 2015 paper Peeking Behind the Locked Door: A Survey of Escape Room Facilities offers a more detailed look into the historical origins of escape rooms.

Thank you to Errol of the Room Escape Divas Podcast for lending his eyes and brain to this post.

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