The Art of the Escape Room

A scene from Escape the Room NYC, an interactive game/puzzle where groups of people are locked in a room and have to solve puzzles and find clues to escape, all within 60 minutes. Benjamin Norman

David Spira's team is ready. No need for inspirational speeches—the adrenaline (aided by plenty of caffeine) is flowing. They cross the threshold, and the door locks behind them. The seven men and women briskly attack the room, tugging at drawers, trying to lift a print off the wall. Spira flips the rug over, shouting out his discovery into the swirl of an increasing din.

Room escape games lock players in a room where they must seek clues and solve puzzles tied to a story or theme to escape before time runs out, usually in one hour. Already a worldwide phenomenon, room escapes are suddenly hot in America, even capturing the attention of university researchers and corporate marketers. Scott Nicholson, director of the Because Play Matters game lab at Syracuse University, praises the games' interactive nature. "They allow people to leave the world of screens and engage face to face," he says, adding that "because room escapes offer different types of challenges, each member on a team has a time when they are able to be the hero."

In Spira's group, Lindsay Froelich and Lisa Radding thrive on word puzzles, Jason Lisnak is the numbers guru and Jason Cascio is "the hacker" looking for ways to circumvent the designed sequence of puzzles. Spira, the leader of his group of friends, has also become what seems to be America's first room escape blogger and reviewer.

The first five minutes for Spira's team are "organized chaos," says Froelich. "We turn the room over." They developed this tactic of gathering all the puzzles and clues immediately, says Lisnak, because the first time Spira and his friends tried a room escape, they made a bad rookie mistake. "We were trying to solve one puzzle for 10 minutes, but it turned out we were missing a clue that was in the cushion of the chair I was sitting on," he says with a cackle.

They can sometimes be too thorough. Once, while playing a game housed in a former medical office, Spira found a urine sample. He snatched it eagerly and carried it around, certain it was a clue. It was actually trash that had been left behind.

After being born as point-and-click computer games like Crimson Room, the live version began in Japan in 2007, spread throughout Asia and reached Eastern Europe by about 2011, becoming especially popular in Budapest, Hungary. A Japanese import, SCRAP, arrived in San Francisco in 2012. There was little competition for years, but in the past 18 months these games have proliferated at an astonishing rate. Jonathan Murrell, co-founder of the Nashville Escape Game, which opened last May, was recently in Florida launching a second location, with plans for follow-ups this year in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas.

"They're cropping up faster than we can keep track of," says Spira. "The good ones really are works of art."

Marty Parker, owner of Room Escape Adventures, estimates there are more than 80 locations and expects more than 300 by year's end. He opened his first in Chicago in December 2013 and now has rooms in 18 American cities, plus three abroad. A voluble pitchman, Parker, who has worked as a day trader and a team mascot, and now promotes mud runs and tomato fights, was "looking for the next thing in the active entertainment industry." His games are among the few rooms with live actors—each has a chained-up "zombie" who tries to attack players.

Most owners got involved because of an interest in game design and puzzles. Jeff Hsin was an IBM computer engineer who partnered with an electrical engineer and a mechanical engineer to create the Exit Game in Los Angeles, which features things like a laser wall that trips an alarm. "We wanted to design one a little more high-tech," he says. "Our strength is our Hollywood magic. You should feel like you're in Ocean's Eleven."

Back at the Hydeout at Mission Escape Games in New York, Spira's team combines pieces found in one area with a clue from another and suddenly hear a creaking sound. A secret passage opens to another room. (Room owners request that few details be divulged; however, Mission Escape founder Derek Tam says the creaking noise as the passage opens is real but he has to pipe it in a second time because players otherwise "just think this old Chinatown building is making weird noises, and they ignore it and don't see the passage.")

Room escapes have undergone a rapid evolution, with a greater emphasis on what designers call "the wow factor"—black-light, secret passages and trapdoors are increasingly regular features. Murrell tries imagining an effect—"It would be really cool if players pushed the dynamite down and the wall blew up"—then has his custom builders find a way to pull it off.

In the better rooms, the early reliance on number puzzles and locks has also given way to a more elaborate mix of puzzles and clues. Some alternatives are simply inventive: Jason Cascio from Spira's team says his favorites have included one in which Spira had to use an endoscope on a CPR dummy and another in which they had to use binoculars to find a clue on a restaurant sign down the block. "I'm a nerd for these puzzles," says Murrell, but he knows not everyone is as captivated. "If it's all number games, my wife just shuts off."

There is also a greater emphasis on themes and stories. "You want to suspend reality and feel like you're in an alternate universe with your friends," Radding says. Parker adds that the players need to feel the clues are connected, not random. Spira points to a Time Travel game from SCRAP where one room in "the past" allows players to change the room in "the present" to help solve puzzles. On the other hand, Spira says, SCRAP gets bogged down in obscure math problems: "Their games feel like 10 minutes of cinematic movies wrapped in 50 minutes of mind-numbing homework."

SCRAP, like the puzzles in Japan, prides itself on a success rate in the single digits. "The Japanese don't care if you get stuck, but American audiences are not like that," Murrell says. This is a night out of entertainment, "and if you get stuck, you get bored.

"The success rate is one of the biggest debates we have," he says, adding that his Nashville games are solved perhaps 35 percent of the time. Many places have games with success rates in the 20 percent range but offer one more challenging game. "It needs to be a substantial challenge to feel worthwhile. Also, if you lose and everyone else is escaping, you'll feel like an idiot."

Some places allow players to request a limited numbers of hints, while others provide as many as needed. Eric Siu, co-founder of Mystery Room NYC in Manhattan, has a timed checklist, and if he sees players struggling, he'll give a hint. "We would love it to be completely organic, but without clues 90 percent of the people would not get their money's worth and the industry would collapse," Parker says.

For 35 minutes, the team makes steady progress. But Lisnak gets stuck on a crucial number pattern, finally passing it off to Tara Lyons, 22, who had been trying to solve lock combinations with Jackie Vance, 29. No luck. Frustrated, they relent and ask for a hint, then moan when they realize they had accidently placed a crucial piece of information in their "solved" pile. With that, the pattern is easily solved, and the answers click into place.

This year and next will be a time of rapid expansion for the industry—Spira points to Las Vegas as an underserved market—but everyone sees a saturation point coming. Nicholson and Rik Eberhardt, who runs the MIT Game Lab, say the key for designers is to figure out how to swap out puzzles quickly without undermining the story so customers can replay rooms.

Radding says customer service will become a decisive factor. "There are plenty that can design good puzzles, but many are geeks and nerds who are not good with people, so customer service can be lacking," she says. "The ones that will survive are the ones who can run a business."

There are also new avenues for growth. Parker says a large percentage of his business is companies looking for fun team-building exercises. "They learn there's no quick path to success, that it's OK to take risks and be wrong, that there's a process and it requires teamwork," he says.

Meanwhile, Tam hosted a Penguins of Madagascar room for DreamWorks last year, and NBC Universal's USA Network worked with New York City's Escape the Room to promote its archaeology adventure series Dig with rooms in three cities and at two Universal theme parks.

Given the need to build relationships with fans and the potential for reaching "the nerd audience coveted for fantasy and sci-fi projects," Spira thinks there'll be more sponsored room escapes coming soon.

And Nicholson sees room escapes as an educational tool for museums and other places. He's designing one for Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome, New York, that will rely on ways the army concealed messages during the American Revolution, teaching both the history of the fort and the time period. "The potential for these games to be learning tools is significant," he says. As for the growth of room escapes, he adds, "We haven't seen anything yet."

With 17 minutes to spare, Spira's team escapes the Hydeout. They share a postmortem with Tam, then head for a celebratory dinner at a Greenwich Village burger joint. The conversation there spans many topics but can't escape room escapes: Froelich will soon try one in Dublin; Lisnak and Lyons will play one in Rome.

As they stand on the sidewalk saying goodbye, Cascio looks at the restaurant's awning, studying the street address. "When you play these games, you see numbers and patterns everywhere," he says. "You start thinking everything is a clue."