Within the last decade, escape rooms have gone from near-total obscurity to soaring popularity. These destination activities place a small group of people into a themed room in which they must work together to find clues and solve a challenging puzzle to win the game and “escape” from the room.
Escape rooms are an entertaining and exciting new option for team-building efforts, date nights and family outings, but their origin story is longer and more complex than you might expect. Keep reading to learn how ancient adventures and real-life mazes evolved into the elaborate escape rooms of today. Let’s look at the history of escape rooms and escape room style attractions over time.
Labyrinths: Life-Sized Games of Lost and Found
A thirst for adventure and mystery is encoded in human DNA, and we can see evidence of this passion in the labyrinths of ancient civilizations across the globe. The labyrinth played a key role in Greek mythology, elevating Theseus to hero status when he solved the labyrinth, slayed the Minotaur and found his way back out; Greek currency even featured the image of a labyrinth in the 5th century B.C.
The remains of centuries-old labyrinths have also been found in Egypt, India, Italy, Russia, Turkey, the British Isles and among the native peoples of North America. These massive mazes were conceived as both a place to trap evil spirits as well as a path for the prayerful to meditate as they traced their winding paths.
Hedge and Turf Mazes as Entertainment for the Aristocracy
The emergence of hedge and turf mazes in medieval Europe marks one of the earliest-known examples of people designing a quest for escape purely as entertainment. While the serfs and peasants in 16yth-century Britain lacked the luxury of free time, the royals and the aristocrats didn’t need to spend every waking hour toiling to survive; instead, they devised new diversions like hedge mazes to fill their time.
Perhaps the most famous hedge maze from this period is the Hampton Court Maze outside of London. With a half-mile of paths over a third of an acre, the hedge maze was planted in the late 16th century and may have replaced an even earlier maze developed for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. The maze and thousands of others like it around the world still challenge and amuse visitors to this day.
The Rise of Escape-Themed Video Games
Fast forward several hundred years and you’ll find the next evolution of escape as entertainment: mazes, labyrinths and escape rooms in video games. At its core, the enormously popular video game Pac-Man is essentially a series of mazes or labyrinths in which the hero is being pursued by evil spirits.
Other classic games, like Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers and the Legend of Zelda also feature main characters on quests to defeat evil by making their way out of a specific location like a dungeon, forest or castle while overcoming a constant barrage of obstacles.
One of the earliest examples of a literal escape room in a video game was the 1988 cult classic Behind Closed Doors, a primitive point-and-click game in which players used text-based commands to escape from a bathroom.
However, the escape game that truly launched the genre was Crimson Room, which was launched in Japan in 2004 and remains popular nearly two decades later. In this game, the player wakes up in a red-painted room with a terrible headache and no memory of how they got there; their challenge is to search the room for clues to help them unlock the door.
Escape Games Enter the Real World
After Crimson Room reached millions of plays within a matter of months, it didn’t take long for enterprising gamers to translate these digital quests to the physical world. In 2007, Real Escape Game opened its doors in Kyoto, Japan to overnight success.
The genre expanded to Singapore in 2011 and the U.S. in 2012, with escape room companies also popping up in Europe around the same time. In 2013, former Microsoft employee Nate Martin started Puzzle Break in Seattle, and the trend has continued to grow exponentially over the past decade.
The History of Escape Rooms is the Future of Escape Rooms
For now, there seems to be no stopping the global spread of escape rooms, and with good reason: they’re ideal for team-building activities, creative date nights and family outings, and players of all ages and skill levels can participate.
Many large cities host multiple escape room companies, each with around a half-dozen puzzles of varying difficulty and themes, so players can return again and again for a new and different experience. Escape rooms are even included on some Royal Caribbean cruise ships.
At last count, there were more than 2,000 escape rooms in the United States alone, with at least double that across the globe. With eight to 10 players paying $20 to $50 each to spend an hour locked in a room together, they’re also an extremely lucrative business model, which means this craze is likely to continue for years to come.