Meet us at “Up The Game” in The Netherlands

May 9, 2017, we’ll have the honor of speaking to the audience at Up The Game, the International Escape Room & Real life Gaming conference in Breda, The Netherlands.

Up The Game 2017

Hosted in The Prison Dome Breda, an actual former prison, I can’t really think of a more interesting conference venue. Plus… it looks awesome. I will be bringing my good camera.

We’ll be speaking on The Player Experience (a greatly updated version of our talk from the 2016 Room Escape Conference in Chicago), and likely participating in a panel discussion.

The exciting speaker list for Up The Game includes Scott Nicholson and the folks from Punchdrunk (Sleep No More). I am particularly excited to hear Nataša Potočnik’s talk on historical escape rooms, among so many others.

Come meet us!

It will be a long flight, but it looks worth it. Grab your passport and join us across the ocean for some international escapes and an exchange of ideas.

Keen observers will also note that Up The Game is taking place one week after the Buffalo / Niagara Room Escape Conference. We will be attending both and delivering completely different talks at each. If a prison in The Netherlands is a bit too extreme, we certainly hope to meet in my former home of Buffalo, New York.

See you in prison.

Solve this crossword in less than 12 minutes and you could have been a WWII codebreaker

The famed British codebreakers of Bletchley Park placed a challenging crossword puzzle in the Daily Telegraph newspaper on January 13, 1942. Anyone (man or woman) who could solve it in under 12 minutes was asked to write in.

Those who claimed they succeeded were brought in and given a second one to solve in person.

The few who accomplished the task were recruited to serve King and Country.

This story and many more incredible tales of code making and breaking are told in Simon Singh’s The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography. It’s an exceptional read that I highly recommend.

Give the infamous crossword a try

Remember, you have only 12 minutes and you may not use the internet or any other cheats.

I couldn’t even come close to solving it. Godspeed.

crossword-puzzle_3068166c

(Via the Daily Telegraph)

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale).

Room Escape Artist talks about hype on the REDivas Podcast!

REDivas (Room Escape Divas), hosted by Torontonian enthusiasts Mike, Ruby, Manda, and Errol, is a weekly escape room podcast.

Enthusiasts love to talk about escape rooms… and the more we talk about specific ones, the more we build up these games for each other. In this podcast episode, we chatted with the Divas about hyped games.

Room Escape Divas Logo, a cartoon representation of the four hosts.

Escape room hype

Our conversation covers both specific companies and general concepts.

Thank you

We thank the Divas for the opportunity to continue to converse on their podcast. It’s always a blast.

We also thank my aunt, Naomi Lewin, for her superb editing skills that make us sound so much better than we do in real life.

Give it a listen!

Genocides, Serial Killers, Tragedies, & Edgy Escape Room PR Nightmares

This week a Czech escape room company made international news when they opened – and then had to shut down – their Auschwitz-themed escape room due to relentless bad press.

Similarly, a company opened and promptly closed an Anne Frank-themed escape room in the Netherlands back in March of 2016.

And a Turkish company briefly operated a concentration camp-themed game in July of 2015.

A star of David built into a gate that looks like it is made of barbed wire.
Gates of the Jewish Memorial at Dachau

With so many edgy, dark, and disturbing escape rooms, I can understand why some companies occasionally find themselves in a public relations disaster.

These are a few loose theming guidelines to avoid a PR catastrophe:

Recency

An escape room themed on a recent tragedy will cause a problem.

For example, Columbine happened in 1999. That is still recent. So are the other mass shootings that have happened since. Escape from the school shooter is a horrible idea. It hits too close to home.

Similarly, don’t theme an escape room on disasters such as 9/11, the London Tube bombings, or refugees trying to escape the TSA.

These might seem like extreme examples, but that’s the point.

A serial killer from a hundred years ago like H.H. Holmes or Jack the Ripper feels almost fictional. If you read what those guys actually did… they were living, breathing, nightmares. Had this form of entertainment been around in 1890-something, I am betting that a lot of folks would have been horrified at a Jack the Ripper escape room.

Political relevance

Some events happened long ago, but their relevance hasn’t faded. Genocides and enslavement are the kinds of things that aren’t quickly forgotten.

It’s not a good idea to build a game around the German concentration camps, Japanese internment, the Armenian genocide, the Japanese occupation of China, the current situation in the Sudan, or any of the countless crimes against humanity of past or present.

Striving for meaningful art

There are a few escape room designers striving to use the medium to tell a deeper story about humanity and to educate their players about the world that they live in. These designers desperately believe that with enough research, attention to detail, and respect for the subject matter, they can make a game that will shine a light on an atrocity and help people better understand it.

I haven’t seen anyone pull this off yet, but I believe that someone will accomplish it. As this medium of entertainment grows, evolves, and expands, someone will start making games that move people to tears, and to action.

However, I bet that these designers will find their early success in topics that have far less political relevance.

Someone, someday will make a masterpiece Schindler’s List of escape rooms. I am certain that there is a brilliant, educational, and compelling escape room in the Underground Railroad. These concepts are ripe for storytelling, but escape rooms aren’t there yet. Our ability to tell stories isn’t strong enough and the medium hasn’t grown enough in the public’s eye to be anything more than a game designed to amuse.

If enough designers continue to push themselves, we will get there. But we are not even close at this moment.

Ask yourself these questions

To steer clear of trouble, reflect on these questions before investing in a buildout for an especially dark game:

  • Is it based on something that really happened?
  • Did it happen recently?
  • Is it politically relevant?
  • Did a lot of people die?
  • Are the victims still alive?
  • Are the children of the victims still alive?
  • Are there people or governments actively denying that the event happened?

If you have answered “yes” to any of these, think long and hard about what you’re building before you commit your blood, sweat, tears, and cash to the concept.

When in doubt, feel free to drop us a message. We’ll happily talk it out with you. You wouldn’t be the first.

(Image via BoingBoing)

President Obama Escapes: Interview with Breakout Waikiki

President Obama and his family escaped a room at Breakout Waikiki during their winter vacation to Hawaii. We recently interviewed MacGregor Greenlee, General Manager of Hawaiian Operations at Breakout Waikiki about his experience hosting the Obamas.

Manoa Market in game image of the game played by the Obama's.

Room Escape Artist: When did you first find out that President Obama and his family were coming to play one of your room escapes?

Greenlee: We didn’t find out about the impending visit from POTUS until about an hour before he arrived. Initially it was only the Secret Service who showed up to sweep the place, do background checks on the employees, and open every single door, drawer, nook and cranny within all of our escape rooms to make sure it was safe. As you can imagine, that part took the longest.

How did the Obamas’ visit come about? What’s the backstory?

I can’t speak with any certainty how they came to visit us, but it may have something to do with a one year old tweet that was sent from the Breakout account. A year prior to President Obama’s actual visit, I found out that he and his family were coming to Hawaii for Christmas and I quickly wrote up a tweet and sent it out, assuming nothing would come of it. At the time, nothing did come of it, no response, no retweet, nothing. But fast forward a year and President Obama walks in our door to do an escape room at our facility. Whether he saw the tweet or his vacation planner did, something caught their eye and drew them to Breakout. Of course, I think it goes without saying that the Breakout ownership has set up a top class business which is reflected in our reviews online. I’m happy to think that some of our customers’ experiences helped inform the President’s decision to drop by.

What was it like interacting with the Secret Service? Did they make you change anything about your operations or your game?

The Secret Service were all about taking care of business just like you would imagine, but they were also very patient and understanding with the employees at Breakout who were no doubt shaking at the thought of running a room for the President. It wasn’t clear which room President Obama was going to do because they had a party of about 30 people who split into four different rooms. His daughters chose our Mission Manoa room which is based on a room at our original location (Breakout Kansas City) and features a hand cuffing component. As you can imagine, the Secret Service was not going to allow anyone in the room to be handcuffed, especially the President!

Was everything else business as usual? Were there other paying customers visiting that day?

There were paying customers that day and everything was running normally up until about 2:30pm. That’s when the secret service came in and started their sweep which definitely alerted the other customers to something going on. We unfortunately couldn’t tell them, for security reasons, so we had to do our best to explain in vague terms that we needed to escort them out after their game was done.

Which game did the Obamas play? Is that the game you would have recommended for them?

The Obamas, specifically President Obama and his two daughters as well as some other family, played Mission Manoa. This was one of our original games at Breakout Kansas City, one of my personal favorites and a perfect one for them to take on. It’s a challenging room, currently with an 18% success rate, that mixes a variety of different puzzle types and incorporates among the most locks in any game we offer.

What was it like to tell the President the rules of your game?

I didn’t run the room personally, but having heard first hand from our employee Janelle who operated the room for them, she was more than a little stressed out. Every room has its stresses, but put the experience of the President in with everything else definitely takes it to a new level. Full credit to her for keeping her cool and taking care of them as she would with any other group. Her and the rest of the staff did an exemplary job under extremely high pressure.

We hear that the Obamas escaped with only 12 seconds to spare. How intense were those last few minutes? Were you nervous that they weren’t going to make it out?

The tension could not have been higher in those last few moments! We knew we had to let them set their own pace and attack the puzzles as they saw them, which was very hard because with a high profile guest it’s hard to resist the urge to take control. However, as anyone who has done an escape room knows, you have to experience for yourself or it’s just not very fun. Fortunately in the end, they had what it took to escape the room just before time expired. They did use all three clues, but they used them wisely and that can always make the difference!

How aggressive were they (or you?) with the hints?

They were fairly average in the way they took clues, never waiting too long to request a hint or asking too early before they were stuck. As with most groups, there were some things they understood immediately and others that they struggled with before overcoming.

Who was the all-star?

Word is that Malia was key to their breakout, doing most of the heavy lifting when it came to solving the larger puzzles!

Did they take a post-game photo with their time?

They did, but we weren’t allowed to take it with our own camera. Instead their Photographer took the photo but it’s licensed for personal use only.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Everything went about as close to perfectly as you can hope. Three of the groups broke out, one did not, everyone had a great time and there were no major issues. All in all, near perfect!

How has business been since their visit? Any notable uptick in escape room players?

We have absolutely experienced a bump in business since the President dropped by. Starting with the night he came in, we had quite a few groups book the same room he did just so they could give it a shot. Since then we have continued to enjoy a little bit of buzz that has carried over.

Do you expect a visit from President-Elect Trump?

Time will only tell, but we are certainly ready to have him drop by! If President-Elect Trump is up for the challenge, he is more than welcome to drop by and take on the Obama’s time whenever he would like to.

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.

Room Escapers Wanted For Hunted Season 2

This is a little strange and it is not a sponsored piece.

This is a casting call

CBS is premiering their new reality series, Hunted on Sunday, January 22. The premise:

“Hunted follows nine teams of two in a real-life manhunt as they attempt the nearly impossible task of disappearing in today’s vast digital world as highly skilled investigators combine state-of-the-art tracking methods with traditional tactics to pursue and catch them.”

Basically its The Fugitive where you are Harrison Ford and if Tommy Lee Jones catches you, you lose… instead of going to jail for a murder you didn’t commit.

Season 1 has a room escape designer

The season that is about to air has Lee Wilson of Jackson Escape Rooms as one of the fugitives (contestants).

Casting call for season 2

We won’t find out how Wilson did until season 1 airs, but he must have put on a good show because CBS is looking for more room escapers for season 2.

Casting call for Hunted season 2

Personally, this is the kind of thing that I would love to try without the prize money or television cameras… which is also how I feel about Survivor.

They are looking for teams of 2 who know each other well (spouses, significant others, close family, best friends), have the skills to succeed, and present a compelling backstory that will work well for television.

If this interests you at all, you should absolutely apply. We’ll root for you.

Submit your applications & videos to HUNTEDCASTING.com by February 5, 2017.

A Look Back, A Glance Forward

2016 has been a horrible year for iconic celebrities, but it has been an incredible year for escape room players in the United States.

There are over 1,500 individual companies in the United States; many of them are creating interesting, intense, and innovative experiences for players to enjoy.

Yesterday we honored 13 of those games with our Golden Lock-In Award. That recognition is only a small part of the story.

Painting of a lock. The background is pink, purple, and black. A large old lock holds teh door shut.

Rapid innovation

In our earliest review we made a commitment to ourselves and our then non-existent readership to forgo a “star rating” or scaled system because we knew even back then that the rate of change was going to greatly exceed the lifecycle of an individual escape room.

We had a hunch that anything we rated a 5 out of 5 in 2013 would not be a 5 out of 5 in 2014 and there would be no way for us to objectively reevaluate.

In 2016 escape room designers truly proved us correct in this regard.

Looking back at our 2015 Golden Lock-In Award recipients, only 3 of the 10 winners would have even been in the running in 2016. The competition, innovation, and rate of change has been exceptional. (I won’t name the three, however, because we awarded those winners for 2015, and that stands.)

Superlatives

There were a few games that we visited in 2016 that didn’t win a Golden Lock-In, but still deserve recognition.

Listed chronologically in the order in which we played them.

Boda Borg

This was basically an escape room amusement park. There was something for everyone at Boda Borg, but particularly for the physically fit and highly coordinated puzzle thrill seekers. Mentally and physically, it was a wonderful workout.

Komnata Quest – 7 Sinful Pleasures & Boxed Up

Komnata Quest’s brand of love-them-or-hate-them games pushed boundaries and deliberately made players uncomfortable by creating some seriously strange situations.

Casa Loma – Escape From the Tower

Built in a real castle of historic importance, Escape From the Tower incorporated the building’s history to tell a story that spanned four floors through puzzles and actors.

I Survived The Room – Sanatorium

Believable actors and a foreboding environment made this Joker / Harley Quinn inspired game intense. The killer ending was one of the most unforgettable escape room interactions of the year.

Escape Artistry – The Railcar

Made almost entirely from recycled and reclaimed materials, The Railcar was beautiful, unusual, and political without ever ramming its message down your throat.

Palace Games – Houdini Room

The Houdini Room combined some of the best puzzling I’ve seen in an escape room with impressive technology.

Unfortunately it couldn’t be considered for a Golden Lock-In because Lisa wasn’t able to play it.

Epic Team Adventures – Vault of the Volcano God

A half-dozen puzzle dispensers spewed a seemingly endless stream of puzzles. Epic Team Adventures created an episodic series of puzzle hunt-hybrid room escapes for those of us who love a challenge.

Out in 60 – The Pyramid

The ultimate DIY game, Out in 60 made just about everything in The Pyramid themselves and 3D printed almost all of the props and set dressing.

The Basement – The Boiler Room

Small and intense, there was no waste in The Boiler Room.

Unfortunately it couldn’t be considered for a Golden Lock-In because Lisa wasn’t able to play it.

It’s A Trap – The Legend of the Cea Sisters

While they are closed as of 2017 because life can be cruel, It’s A Trap created so many innovations in their game design, from replayable / reversible rooms to a brilliant approach to in-game actors.

Curious Escape Rooms – The Dollhouse

The Dollhouse had some brilliant use of video. Curious Escapes Rooms proved what we’ve said over and over again: small companies in tiny towns on thin budgets can make memorable, innovative, and unusual games when they steer into their own strengths.

Room Escapers – Naughty or Nice?

In this temporary, seasonal game, Room Escapers went out of their way to rethink a game element that most designers take for granted: how the game begins.

Looking forward

If the advances of the past year are any indication of the coming year, we are so hopeful for the escape room industry.

We’re often asked, “are escape rooms a fad?” Our answer is, sure, the hodgepodge of furniture and basic puzzles is probably a fad. I can’t imagine that people will buy tickets to them in five years… but there’s a larger concept here and it’s constantly evolving. The excitement is in where we are going and the incredible things that are being created so regularly in our community.

With the quality of innovation and the ever-expanding variety of experiences offered by escape room companies, I certainly do not think we’re looking at a fad. This is not a one-dimensional form of entertainment.

Thank you

Lisa and I started writing about escape rooms when damn near no one in the US had even heard about them and just about every conversation began with an explanation of the concept followed by a defense. “No! It’s not like Saw!”

We wrote about these experiences purely out of passion, when pretty much no one was reading. We’re still shocked that our readership for a single day today is roughly the same as our first 3 months in total. We have been blown away by the intelligence and kindness of our readers. While we would still be writing about escape rooms even if you weren’t reading, having you here makes this journey so much more fun.

We’d also like to extend a special thank you to everyone who has ever done anything at all to support us: from the eagle-eyed readers who point out our typos, to those of you who help keep our map current, and those of you who supported us by buying a t-shirt.

In alphabetical order, we’d like to thank the folks who have gone so far above and beyond that we have been humbled by their support:

Adam, Amanda, Brett, Chris, Clara, Dan, Darren, Drew, Essa, Eva, Jessica, Lindsay, Mason, Melissa, Noam, Noelle, Pá, Patrick, Paula, Rex, Tommy, Trapspringer and we’d be remiss if we left out the Room Escape Divas gang.

2016 Golden Lock-In Awards

2016 RoomEscapeArtist.com Golden Lock-In Award - golden ring around the REA logo turned into a lock.

We played and reviewed 152 room escapes in 2016.

These 13 rooms are the games that we wish we could play again.

There is no such thing as the perfect escape room, but these are the ones that still make us smile long after we escaped.

That isn’t to say the 139 other games we played were bad; many of them were great too.

In the end we considered 20 games for the award and these 13 rose to the top.

Rules

  1. We only considered games that we both personally played in 2016.
  2. We both had to agree to award the room the Golden Lock-In. (We did not consider either The Basement or Palace Games because only one of us visited these companies.)
  3. We established no arbitrary minimum or maximum number of rooms that could appear on the list.
  4. A company could only win once for the year.

2016 Golden Lock-In Winners

Listed chronologically in the order in which we played them.

Escape the 1980s

Steel Owl Room Adventures – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The bubblegum pop of escape games, Escape the 1980s felt like a living museum. It was brimming with joy, nostalgia, and VHS tapes.

Senator Payne

60 Out Escape Rooms – Los Angeles, California

With a killer ending that remains one of our favorite escape room moments, Senator Payne felt like living an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In Memoriam

The Enigma Room – Sydney, Australia

The only tender escape room we’ve ever come across, In Memoriam was full of feels and femininity in this largely masculine genre.

The Vanishing Act

Locurio – Seattle, Washington

Intrigue, magic, and superb puzzles: Locurio’s homegrown yet polished mystery started simple and escalated to a dramatic conclusion.

Firefighter Rescue

Escape From The 6 – Oakville, Ontario, Canada

Created by an actual firefighter, Firefighter Rescue managed to entertain, haze, and teach us a thing or two in this massive two-story adventure.

Crossroads

Escape Games Canada – Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Beautifully designed and constructed, Escape Games Canada’s foreboding technological marvel was a psychological thriller with choice and consequence.

The Alchemist

Insomnia Escape  – Washington, DC

This mystical heist elegantly wove puzzles throughout an intricate environment without losing the thread of gameplay. Clever technology and game design showed us a memorable adventure.

The Experiment

Escape Games NYC – New York, New York

Far more than a blank white room, The Experiment hid all manner of cleverness in its seemingly simple design.

Mystery of the Magician’s Study

Boxaroo – Boston, Massachusetts

Tricksy and theatrical, Boxaroo adapted stage magic principles to toy with our senses as we solved their mystery.

Shelter R

Brooklyn Escape Room – Brooklyn, New York

This video game-inspired, post-apocalyptic adventure was light on puzzles, but heavy on atmosphere and badass moments.

The Hex Room

Cross Roads Escape Games – Anaheim, California

The Hex Room cast six players as different horror film archetypes. Cross Roads innovatively blurred the line between team and solo gameplay by adding a heavily individualized element.

Krampus

Countdown – Los Angeles, California

Countdown married elements of horror with escape room-style puzzling to create something that will satisfy both thrill-seekers and adventure puzzlers.

Gangster’s Gamble

Team vs Time – Berlin, Connecticut

It wasn’t just the room that felt like it was lifted from 1952; the experience that Team vs Time built around the game truly sold the drama.

Congratulations to the 2016 Golden Lock-In Winners!

Harlem Escape Room Raising Funds To Restore Themselves After Fire

Earlier this year, we visited Hoodwinked Escape and played their games Spirit of Harlem & Military Mission.

Hoodwinked Escape is one of our many hometown companies and we are sad to report that they had to close their doors due to a fire in their basement. Thankfully no one was hurt, but their games are in rough shape.

Before and after photos of the Hoodwinked facility. There is a lot of damage.

Support Hoodwinked

Hoodwinked Escape has launched a Go Fund Me campaign to fuel their rebuild. In the spirit of the holidays, we encourage everyone to join us in giving a little to help the folks from Hoodwinked Escape get back on their feet.

Send a little love their way.

Happy holidays.