I’ve written this on November 18, 2020, and scheduled it for this specific date, because as of today, Hulu is streaming the movie version of In & Of Itself… and you must watch it.
Back in April of 2017, Lisa and I attended a live performance of In & Of Itself. It was magnificent. At the time, I remember thinking it was a masterpiece of storytelling.
I wrote a review of it. That was the review that made us define the line that we use to decide if an experience provides enough agency to a participant that we would write about it on Room Escape Artist. In & Of Itself was right on the line, and even today, I’m not sure which side of the line it actually sits on, but I didn’t care. I needed to tell as many people about it as I could.
And I still don’t care. I need you to know about it.
Flash Forward to Today November 2020
Last night we watched the early release of the In & Of Itself movie and it was just as powerful as I remembered it… maybe even more powerful than I’d recalled.
I can’t tell you if it was the knowledge of where the show was headed that revealed extra layers of meaning, or if the closeups of Derek DelGaudio’s expressive face added details that I hadn’t been able to see from my near back-row seat. Maybe it was the stellar editing of the audience-driven portions. Whatever it was, for 90 minutes I was back in that theater, and it felt so damn good.
I don’t think that I’d fully appreciated how much I needed an experience like In & Of Itself.
Various magic acts have been around since before recorded history, but without the emotional through line, they are just illusions. Any sufficiently talented stage magician can perform most any magical act… only Derek DelGaudio can perform In & Of Itself.
Today Adobe Flash is officially dead, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to celebrate what Flash meant in the history of escape games.
As a community, we often recognize the television shows like Legends of the Hidden Temple and The Crystal Maze as well as the early 1990s video games such as Myst, The 7th Guest, or the catalogue of material put out by companies like LucasArts and Sierra Entertainment, that paved the way for escape rooms. However, there was a massive chapter in between all of those and what we came to recognize as real-life escape games.
A Little History
In the pre-iPhone days, Adobe Flash was the go-to toolkit for amateur game designers. It was easy to learn, well supported, and you could make everything from animations to actual games.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Flash was the beating heart of the indie game scene (not that I can recall anyone calling it that). Flash became this weird behemoth of a platform that was serving enterprise needs and independent creators. It was resource intensive, but it was what we had.
One game genre that was relatively easy to get started in was the point-and-click adventure genre. Images and animations were generally static, and the interactions were straightforward. Creators told all sorts of stories, but over time one sub-genre that emerged was known as “escape the room,” a term that originated with Mystery Of Time And Space (MOTAS).
Before escape rooms were escape rooms, they were Flash video games.
Flash has been on life support for a long time. Steve Jobs effectively killed it when he disallowed it on the iPhone, but by that point it was on borrowed time. Honestly, it borrowed a lot more time than I ever expected it would.
Flash had a good run. I wish that Adobe would have open-sourced it back in 2011. Maybe it would have had a fighting chance if a community that understood it could have improved upon it.
Tragically, with Flash dying out, we lose a lot of escape the room games. Most of them might not have been special, but some truly were, and they are all part of the history escape rooms. A history that will be largely forgotten.
If you have a favorite, please share it in the comments, or better yet, a video of a playthrough if you can find it.
Before diving in, I’ll remind you that Lisa and I share a vote on the TERPECA board. This isn’t our project, but we do contribute to it and do our best to help guide it.
Top Tip For Using TERPECA Results
In my opinion, the absolute ranking of TERPECA is a bit of a distraction from the project’s true value.
Numbered lists are eye-catching. The internet loves them. People love to see their opinions validated… or they love being righteously angry over what is clearly a wrong list. Lists spark conversation and they are good for marketing. For us, however, that’s not the point.
This list will never be perfect because these experiences are subjective.
For Lisa and me, the real action is the easily overlooked “Phase 2 Room Results” data. This is a listing of 279 really great escape games that are geographically dispersed. Let me explain why.
Figure Out Your TERPECA Use Case
Think about your own personal use case. Here are what I surmise are the two most common ones:
Selecting a travel destination
Picking games within a region you are in or will travel to
Let’s look at these individually.
Selecting a Travel Destination
If you are an escape room tourist looking to pick a place to visit based purely on density of amazing games, the top 50 list ain’t a bad place to look.
It’s easy to come to the conclusion that you’ll enjoy visiting Greece, Spain, or the Netherlands. Having visited 2 of those 3 destinations, I can say with confidence that they are amazing places to play escape rooms.
Is The Dome truly the best escape room in the world? Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. Is The Bookstore the second best escape room in the world? Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. Will you have a good time playing in the Amsterdam or Athens regions? I’d be shocked if an escape room fan walked away from either destination disappointed.
Picking Games Within a Region
Most of our travel is determined by happenstance. Work and friends’ weddings tend to select where we visit. We truly choose our long-distance travel destinations infrequently.
Instead, we use TERPECA’s Phase 2 Room Results because it is a big list with few duds. If you exclude a few quality-dense regions, most of this list is massively dispersed. Most cities and regions have but a few games on the list.
For example, our home state of New Jersey has only 1 game on the entire TERPECA Phase 2 Room Results. It’s The Grand Parlor at 13th Hour Escape Rooms. If you’re visiting New Jersey, go play this game. It doesn’t matter that it ranked 75th on the list. It’s a phenomenal game. And while it didn’t win TERPECA in 2020, it received a Golden Lock Award from us in 2018.
The bottom of TERPECA Phase 2 Room Results contains so many gems… even only judging by the ones that I’ve personally played.
If you live near one of these games, or you’ll be traveling near one, you should probably just check it out.
You can find the winners and more information about the Top Escape Rooms Project Enthusiast Choice Awards on the TERPECA website. It’s impressive in so many ways. Not just the games, but also the broad participation, the checks in the process, and, of course, the math.
If you’re a community outsider, TERPECA is a novelty, and rightly so. If you’re a habitual escape room player, however, TERPECA is a useful tool. You just need to know how to use it.
While our play count doesn’t come close to that of past years (which peaked at 258 in 2017), we found some incredible gems on our two international trips, and in our own home market. We’re excited to announce these winners, which would haven been strong contenders in past years as well, and deserve the recognition.
In addition, in 2020 we played many digital and remote escape games. For the first time this year, we’ll recognize our favorites in this category too, out of the more than 50 we played.
We established no arbitrary minimum or maximum number of rooms that could win the award.
A company could only win once for the year.
We (either of us) had to play the room during 2020.
To be eligible for the “Online” category, games had to be playable from home, without any shipped components.
To be eligible for the “Real-Life” category, we had to visit the venue in person to play the game.
There is no such thing as the perfect escape room, but these are the ones that we wish we could play again. Here are our 17 favorite escape rooms (9 online, 8 real-life) of 2020.
2020 Golden Lock Winners
Listed chronologically in the order that we played them (which is not necessarily chronologically equivalent to when we published the REA Hivemind review):
CU Adventures in Time & Space – Urbana, Illinois, USA
In The Lost Temple, CU Adventures in Time & Space integrated crafty printable puzzles with an inviting and well-organized digital interface, such that playing this style hybrid felt entirely seamless. It was an impressive and innovative take on escape room gameplay.
With its custom interface, The Truth About Edith required a team of 4 players to coordinate individual actions to collaboratively complete a mission. Mad Genius Escape Co.’s worldbuilding added tons of energy and personality to this quirky game.
Pursuit of the Assassin Artist took advantage of the online format with scenes that wouldn’t work in real-life escape gaming. Omescape’s elegant execution of a time loop mechanic, combined with amusing actor interactions, ushered in what we expect to be a jumping off point for future creativity in escape rooms.
60out’s edgy blend of over-the-top character interactions with traditional escape room gameplay in an absurd setting worked brilliantly in its avatar-led online adaptation. Miss Jezebel was uproariously funny with outstanding acting – perfect for any adult audience comfortable participating in raunchy humor.
Project Avatar was a groundbreaking hybrid of video game and avatar escape game. Their silent avatars imbued the role with personality, while also acting as stuntmen. Avatar Stalker was an absurd scavenger hunt/ choose-your-own-adventure game with a bonkers story and hilarious cutscenes.
The Hot Chocolate Incident was serious about being adorable. With their family-friendly holiday game, Improbable Escapes designed a staging specifically for online play, with streamlined searching and inputting, and the illusion of tech, enabling their bumbling, excitable elven avatar to focus on holiday cheer.
For its 1943 installment, this annual Christmas spectacle was reimagined as a radio show, complete with music, character interactions, branching narrative, and mailed (or printed) puzzles. Club Drosselmeyer 1943 created the frenzied energy of the real-life event through an impressive modern back end that orchestrated a digital experience which felt true to the period of the narrative.
Emergency Exit reinvented their real-life games into an extraordinary online adventure in The Beast. The narrative foundation, cinematography, and in-game audiovisual trickery, combined with a skilled avatar – plus cameraman – afforded this game new opportunities to shock.
Trapped Puzzle Rooms used the audio medium to its fullest for clever situational puzzles. The magic of Super Squad was a fantastical world where we could try anything, however ridiculous, and it just might work, because the gamemaster embraced creative off-the-wall solutions and rewarded us with rich, improvised responses.
Listed chronologically in the order that we played them:
In Wigwam Escape, every design decision had purpose. Solving through a day in 1518, we learned through gameplay, and marveled at novel interactions that surprised and excited us. There was a ton of innovation crammed into Wigwam Escape.
Escaparium’s blockbuster escape room took place aboard a ship with a breathtakingly detailed set. The Lost Island of the Voodoo Queen induced a child-like urge to explore and discover, and solves were rewarded with outrageous effects and dramatic moments.
The Reflection of Madness captured the epic feeling of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. It wasn’t a particularly scary game; it played with the boundaries of human perception and expectation. While Codex was one of the victims of 2020, this game remains eligible for a Golden Lock because it was purchased and will live on.
The Grand Immersia Hotel was a narrative-driven, blood-pumping adventure through a set that became increasingly compelling around each bend. Immersia built tension, excitement, and momentum with each discovery and solve.
Lockhill’s The Sanatorium (2.5 hours on Midnight Mode) was an enormous, beautiful, menacing experience with surprises around every corner. Traversing the environment and interacting with the actors felt like living a survival horror video game.
In El Exorcista, with each transition we were terrified, shocked, awed, and delighted… and this repeated on loop for the 90-minute theatrical escape room. No Exit Escape Rooms’ talented actors made this exorcism story come alive.
Paradox Project’s epic second adventure (at 200 minutes!) took inspiration from classic escape room sets and gameplay, but opened up in unexpected ways. Although grand in scale, The Bookstore was composed of intimate scenes connected by outstanding reveals and exciting transitions.
In Ghost Light the lighting was beautiful, but also elegantly designed to focus our attention on the elements that mattered and deprioritize everything else. It was subtle, but genius. With strong puzzle design realized through classic escape room gameplay, Myss Tic reminded us why we love escape rooms.
Congratulations to the 2020 Golden Lock Award Winners!