Escape Rooms in an At-Home Era? Here’s the Key

Hours after sunset, our team had finally decrypted the poems and exposed the nine oracles. With the traitor in our midst unmasked and the guardian revealed, the portal to the library began to open.

Then my computer crashed, and I missed the climactic moments of the Secret Library, an online escape-room-style experience poised at the intersection of gaming and immersive theater.

The Secret Library is one of dozens, maybe hundreds, of new events prompted by pandemic-related closures. More than 2,000 physical escape-room facilities operate in the United States, or at least they did back in March, before lockdown hit. Some have since reopened, though patrons remain wary of spending an hour or two in an enclosed and imprecisely ventilated space. Others have closed entirely.

To create a revenue stream, to keep employees on the books, to buck up brand awareness and to keep from going completely stir crazy, many escape-room owners — and people in adjacent trades, like theater — have entered a period of frenetic innovation. In search of pandemic-friendly entertainment, they have created and adapted games to make them available for live remote play, asynchronous point-and-click play, print-and-play, and play by telephone and mail.

So he and his partner, Michelle Rundbaken, created the Society of Curiosities, which so far includes a digital adventure, Mysterious Map Heist, and a monthly game-in-a-box subscription. Similarly, C.U. Adventures in Time and Space, a business in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., took one of its retired games, “The Lost Temple,” and reformatted it as a print-and-play game with a companion website. I tried it with some college and grad-school friends, we managed to save the world, barely. The company has since added a Halloween game, set in a haunted office. “Because what’s scarier than going back to an office?” Anne Lukeman, a co-owner, said.

Can these games equal the excitement of rushing around an actual room as a ticking clock counts down? Not exactly. There are interventions, like visible timers and suspenseful music, that help. “It is different,” David Spira said. But in successful games — he and his wife play two or three each week — adrenaline still rushes. And some games really only work online.

Speaking of “Adrian Rook,” Cooper said: “This show couldn’t happen in person. This is a new artistic frontier.”

It’s also a comparatively inexpensive one. To host an in-person escape room requires a space, rented or owned, and time and money to build out and decorate that space. Strange Bird’s terrestrial escape room, the Man from Beyond, cost about $30,000 to build. “Adrian Rook” cost about $300. “I can stick some sticker brick vinyl on a wall and call it a bar, if I position the camera correctly,” Cooper said.

A lower financial bar means more games and more innovation. Katie Lewis, of Mad Genius, had felt that she had already pushed the boundaries of what an in-person room could be. “This is a whole new world,” she said. “You can add interactive theater, you can add dramatic video sequences, you can animate things happening that you’d never be able to build.”

Online rooms and boxed games have another advantage — nearly anyone can play them, from nearly anywhere, with location and physical ability no longer an obstacle. Sarah Zhang of Omescape said she has seen reservations from people in England, Germany and Australia. “It’s really funny,” she said. “Our goal in the beginning was to bring people out from computers or TVs and into actual rooms. But now our goal is, ‘OK, let’s bring everything online.’”

It’s ironic, perhaps, that escape room games have proliferated when escape from our own homes — depending on where in the country you live and how — feels both so desirable and so risky. At least one industry is meeting the moment with freshly imagined anagrams, substitution ciphers and alphanumeric codes.

In the early days of the pandemic, Cooper saw a sign in her Houston neighborhood — the English World War II motto, Keep Calm and Carry On. It made her angry. “This isn’t a ‘carry on’ situation,” she said. “This is insanity.” Instead she proposed a new motto: Keep Calm and Get Creative. “We can’t go back to our old ways,” she said. “We need to do new things.”

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