Escape Room Kink: Q&A On Physical Restraints

It’s reader question day… This is a long one, but it’s fun.

Hey, can I ask you a question on something that is near and dear to my heart? Restraints in Escape Rooms? How common are they?

Restraints are less common than they used to be. I ran some numbers on our own experiences in escape rooms. Of the 360 escape rooms that we have played as of the date that I drafted this (July 4, 2017), 25 of them (6.9%) physically restrained at least one player.

Our experience of being restrained in escape rooms has decreased over time:

  • 2014 – 0% of games used restraints
  • 2015 – 12.12% of games used restraints
  • 2016 – 7.24% of games used restraints
  • 2017 (first half) – 4.6% of games used restraints

The type of restraint breaks down as follows:

  • 13 games handcuffed us, either by handcuffing both a player’s hands together or by handcuffing players to one another
  • 9 games handcuffed us to a wall or some other inanimate object
  • 5 games locked someone in a cell by themselves, without any method of freeing themselves

Eagle-eyed readers will note that those numbers total 27, not 25, because one escape room did all of the above.

This is a decidedly non-scientific dataset because it’s nowhere near random. Given a choice, we generally skip “prison break” games, which seem to physically restrain players more often than other themes do. One can only reach down a steel toilet so many times before that act loses its luster.

Harry Houdini bound by his wrists, ankles forearms, and neck in chains and many locks.
Harry Houdini, 1899

Do they always have safety releases?

No… and that terrifies me.

Of the 25 games that have restrained us, only 5 of them had some sort of safety release. “Some sort” is a broad definition including (1) the restraint was so flimsy that any functional adult could physically break out and (2) the restraint was held by a maglock that would open if power were to be cut.

Only 2 of these instances had deliberately designed safety release mechanisms. In both of these instances, the releases were added specifically because the local fire marshals insisted upon it. Good on those public officials for being engaged and having some foresight.

When I enter an escape room, I don’t really worry about my own safety. I do worry, however, that with about 1900 escape room facilities in the United States operating between 1 and 10 escape rooms, 12 hours a day, 7 days per week, sometime, somewhere, there will be a fire or other disaster while players are in escape rooms. I hope that when that happens, those escape rooms are designed so that everyone can free themselves. I am confident that not every gamemaster would be a hero.

There have already been two escape room facilities in the US that have had to shut down due to fires during off-hours: one in New York City and one in Framingham, MA. This isn’t some imaginary threat. It has happened off-hours and one day it will happen during hours of operation.

Are they (restraints) always clearly mentioned on the websites?

Some are and some aren’t. Some escape room owners don’t grasp the concept of consent. Many companies that use restraint like the shock value of it.

A heart made of red rope tying two old lever lock keys together.

Are there regional differences, like in Europe or Asia?

I didn’t have good answers for these regional questions, so I asked a few friends. Their insights are both illuminating and surprisingly different from one another.

Yolanda Chiou, Taiwan, Asia.Escape Game

“It was quite common 3-4 years ago in Taiwan and China. There were several interesting designs of physical constraints. Room design is more “automatic” now, which means more electric devices instead of padlocks. Since handcuffs and shackles are usually designed with padlocks, it’s not that common now in the industry.”

“These design usually require more game masters. Since the players need to be handcuffed before the game starts, at least 2 game masters are required at the beginning of the game to make the process more fluid. (The players will wear eye masks as well.)”

“I guess that’s why it’s less seen now in the room design: labour cost is high and automatic design is better.”

Ken Ferguson, United Kingdom, The Logic Escapes Me

Based on what Ken has seen of the European market, physical restraint is not very common. He’s crazy like us, so he also ran the stats on all the escape rooms he has played:

  • United Kingdom: 12 of 247 (4.9%)
  • Budapest: 0 of 43 (0%)
  • Vienna: 2 of 26 (7.7%)
  • Prague: 1 of 25 (4%)
  • Netherlands: 3 of 21 (14.3%)
  • Brussels: 0 of 12 (0%)
  • Spain: 0 of 7 (0%)

Ken describes the restraints as “Mainly standard handcuffs. One proper safety release in a UK game. Three or four where we’ve been told where the safety key is. A couple of times we’ve been shacked by the ankle.”

Alexander Knyazev, Russia, Conundroom

“I could say for Russia that it’s ‘anything goes’. There are no laws that I know that would restrict companies in terms of physical restraints of customers. As long as it’s consensual and nobody is hurt, it’s legal. Scary escape rooms have become largely popular and have become a category of their own. There’s a lot of people now who would only go to a horror escape room where there are usually handcuffs, torture apparatus and such. I’ve seen all sorts of restrains used.”

“It’s largely unregulated and there have been incidents that I can’t imagine can happen in US.”

“Like this spring in one of those scary escape rooms in Moscow an actor ‘psychopath’ accidentally sliced an ear of one of players with an axe. It was a room where players could choose ‘scare level’ with a ‘hardcore’ option where the actor was allowed to physically interact with players. There was some media coverage, but no major consequences to the company.” (Source, be warned, there’s a photo, and you’ll have to Google Translate it if you don’t speak Russian.)

“So here you can basically do whatever as long as it’s safe.” (David: ears notwithstanding).

“I’m sure that if one were to research fire code norms, they would find that they are violated by physical restraints, but in Russia no one cares.”

Pa & Trapspringer, Australia (and Brazil), Lock Me If You Can

“We’ve been handcuffed many times in Australia, but usually we are attached to a wall. In almost every game, they tell you how to free yourself in case of emergency (a carabiner that detaches you from the wall or a button that opens the cuff without the keys).  I don’t remember ever being shackled/cuffed with freedom of movement around the room.”

“In Brazil, handcuffs are not as common in games. While every room has an emergency button that unlocks the door, I don’t remember seeing any tricks to unlock the cuffs. Anyway, they were all of the cheap type of handcuffs and could be snapped with almost minimal force in an emergency, I suppose. I’ve never seen anything really restrictive there.”

How have restraints changed in the past few years?

Over time, we’ve seen fewer handcuffs and other restrains. This probably has to do with companies wising up to liability and local officials saying “hell no.”

There are also market forces in effect: restraints are problematic from a marketing standpoint because new players are frequently jittery to begin with and restraints confirm their worst fears about escape rooms.

Russian companies, as I understand it, do not operate with business insurance. US-based insurers and legislators will not abide significant injuries or deaths.

The restraints that we do see from higher-end companies are usually more interesting than “put out your hands; we’re cuffing them together.” There are interesting and safe ways to restrain and confine people if you’re willing to put in the work to dream them up and build them correctly.

There are absolutely players who are drawn to more intense experiences, and that is one avenue for the future of escape games to develop. It’s clear that this has happened in Russia. My hope is that companies looking to build more intense experiences in the States pay a great deal of attention to disclosure, consent, and safety. Insurers and legislators will make business into a nightmare if escape games produce significant or newsworthy injuries.

What are the craziest things you’ve come across?  Are there puzzles where you have to only act with your voice first because your hands and feet have been taken totally out of the equation? I can only speak for myself and my femme girl, but *that* would be intriguing 🙂

I haven’t encountered something like this, but the concept seems ripe for exploration. I would probably enjoy this if it were done well, but I don’t know how big the market would be.

The craziest thing we’ve done thus far was Komnata Quest’s Boxed Up in New York City. And yes, we had some serious safety concerns about that escape room.

The craziest escape room restraint scenario that I’ve seen (but didn’t get a chance to play) was Sinister Sensorium at Mystery Manila in the Philippines. The description:

“You and your friends have been held captive by the psychopathic killer named Enigma. He has taken away one sense from each of you. It could be your sense of hearing, speaking, or sight.” They explained to me that some players are blindfolded, some gagged, and some wear noise cancelling headphones.

I have no idea if Sinister Sensorium is any good because I could not convince my travel companions to play it with me. They were too afraid.

6 thoughts on “Escape Room Kink: Q&A On Physical Restraints

  1. Great article (as always). FYI, your ‘Boxed Up’ link has a couple %20 in it that prevent it from working correct. And since I can’t resist a dumb joke: I’d like that link to be 20% off.

  2. Great report! I wished there was more experimentation in this field in the EU and US! If you create something unique here, my friends will definitely honor your room with a visit. The mentioned idea with the voice sounds excellent, hope somebody tries that out as some point! 😀

  3. This is a topic that is super exciting to us as well, thanks for writing about it, David and Lisa! We love your blog! 🙂

    As far as we know, in the rooms that exist so far, if you’re tied up, you’re always tied up at the beginning before things start, which makes sense with the whole “escape” idea of course, but couldn’t it also be somewhere around the midpoint of the hour-long game? Like, hear me out:

    With escape rooms you of course get to test and overcome various challenges, like exploration, analytical thinking, teamwork, dexterity, strength and staying-level-headed, but there exists another one of these elements that fits right in there – “overcoming one’s own reluctance” / “overcoming one’s own instincts”. Basically, if you battle yourself, you feel like a boss at the end 🙂 And this is still a big empty field, not a lot is happening in this space yet, as far as we know.

    So imagine a puzzle where the solution involves the players having to tie up one of their own to act as a bait (like bait for a NPC actor monster to distract it from what the others are doing).

    Or a puzzle where the NPC actor priest demands a human sacrifice to be placed in front of her on a post to let the others proceed.

    There could be many other puzzles as well, of course.

    These scenarios would end up with a lot of very interesting, exciting group dynamics: realization what is asked (“oh no!”), then who’s going to do it (everybody: “not me!”), each getting defensive and explaining why they’re still needed later, all trying to figure out how to decide who’s giving in for the group (maybe drawing straws?), and then once they succeed, a big rush of positive vibes for having overcome quite the challenge.

    As a designer, you want your players to feel pumped, to experience high emotions. If you throw this general aspect of “overcoming one’s own reluctance” in the mix, you get excited happy players right there, on a silver platter 🙂

    And note that I’ve deliberately skipped over the whole additional set of emotions that happen while you actually do tie up one of your own group member – emotions inside the bound, the binding and the others (“this could have been me”) :-O

    We’d LOOOOOOVE to see more happen in this space!
    Cheers! 🙂

    1. There are a handful of games that involve some for of restraint or capture of one or two players in the middle of a game. I don’t want to spoil them, but if you submit through the contact page or DM on Twitter / Facebook, I’ll fill you in on which games do things like this.

      I think that there’s good opportunity for a company to artfully play in this space, and you make a compelling case. My number one priority will remain that the company has consent, makes it safe, and if actors are involved that they are safe as well.

  4. Very nice article, David! You know what? Safety is very important, yes, but marketing wise, I _don’t_ think that restraints are problematic at all. Very much the contrary, I think it’s a very exciting element! Your travel companions are not like me or any of my friends in the least. Everybody that I know would have absolutely _jumped_ at the chance to play something like Sinister Sensorium! In my circle of friends (300+ people), there would have been maybe 2 that would have some worries, and that is totally fine and we don’t press them to do anything and we love them dearly for who they are, but once we got excited these 2 would likely drop everything and join in as well. Because everybody would have been basically like – “The world is here to be experienced! If don’t each day do something that you’re afraid, you have not lived!” Just a different outlook from a different group of people, I guess! 🙂 Eagerly looking forward to your next room design article!

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