The video game Zork was released in 1978. It was the primitive kind where you type in your commands—"hit troll" or "drink water"—and get trapped in rooms and have to solve little puzzles to escape. The Legend of Zelda (1986) copped this feature to a degree, then Myst (1993) took it even further, and plenty more followed suit. Eventually, the "room escape" feature became a mainstay of the adventure genre of video games. Then some enterprising nerdlinger realized that, unlike some video-game features, rooms are real.
In 2006, two unaffiliated groups on opposite sides of the world—Hong Kong and Silicon Valley—designed prototype versions of what's now known as real-life room escape (RLRE). The idea, which combined elements of the aforementioned video games, Dungeons & Dragons, and Agatha Christie novels, found an audience immediately. Today, there are thousands of these franchises around the world—more than 100 in the United States alone—but it's an especially big deal in Asia, where the games are set in old hospitals, amusement parks, churches, and stadiums, sometimes accommodating thousands of players, and inspire films and TV shows. Here's how they work.
The idea is pretty simple: You go in with a team of people you may or may not know. You all get locked in a space with a bunch of stuff in it—shelves with books and objects, wall art, rugs, things that can clearly be messed with—and given a time limit (usually an hour). Most of the time there's a conceit, e.g., you're trapped in a vampire castle! And then you have at it. The room is stuffed with dozens of puzzles, all leading to the location of the key or padlock combination. You aspire to uncover whichever clues you can, work together to make sense of them, and free yourselves before time runs out. Most of the time, you don't win anything if you do manage to escape; the satisfaction of having brained it out is its own reward.
The theme is very often a specific book, usually mystery or sci-fi. Prisons are, naturally, a popular theme as well, as are Chandlerian detective plots. One of them is set in a public toilet. Germany has one where you escape from East Berlin. Sometimes the rooms are cavernous, and sometimes they're the size of an apartment dining nook. Lots of them are in basements. Some have rooms within rooms. The different flavors of puzzles span a marvelous spectrum: There are logic puzzles, numerical puzzles, linguistic puzzles, kinesthetic puzzles, map puzzles, audio puzzles, acrostic puzzles, physics puzzles, fitting-wood-blocks-together puzzles, puzzles where you have to play a certain melody on a piano and then a hidden door opens. In short, puzzles.
The greatest challenge, I find, lies in first ferreting out the objects with the clues in/on them, seeing them out of context, and then resetting your mind to figure out what on earth they mean when they're placed IN context with one another. That's where the multiple-people-working-together bit comes in—one person's string of arbitrary numbers on the back of a horsey bookmark is another's Euclidean algorithm. Not all games are equally stumpy, but generally the complexity of the clues is so great that you absolutely need to communicate in order to both unearth everything and add it all up in time.
Despite and because of the complexity, RLRE has obviously struck a chord. Though the form attracts plenty of normals—stressed-out students, office dwellers, cool-dad tech companies looking for novel ways to allocate the team-building-exercise budget—the most obsessive fans of these games appear to be, uh, gamers. The fecundity of Seattle's professional geek culture has led to a profusion of local businesses offering variations on the experience. Four are up and running now, and a fifth opened last week.
Puzzle Break (1423 10th Ave, Studios B and D): The first Seattle room escape opened in late 2013. The rooms are book-themed, and there are two to choose from right now: the Grimm Escape (Grimm fairy tales–themed) and Escape from 20,000 Leagues (à la Jules Verne). They're both really, really hard, with maybe 50 different clues to Easter-egg out per room, and time is short. The cost is comparable to the competition's ($26 per person), but the production values are noticeably higher. The highly creative clues and overall game structure make Puzzle Break the best game in town, at least for now.
Enigma Studio (4000 Aurora Ave N, Suite 226): You were investigating a bank robbery but got knocked out and woke up chained to a wall in an IKEA-furnished office. The clues are strewn around, but within reach. Everyone on your team has to escape from a padlocked chain, then from the room itself. Enigma Studio makes you bring your own team—good for people like me who are afraid of strangers—with a mercifully low minimum of four and a max of six or seven. It costs $25 per person. The puzzles are largely numerical and logical, to facilitate, as I was told, ease of use among players whose first language isn't English. The room—entitled Chainber Break—was a little dingy, and I deeply dislike the word chainber, but the puzzles are clever and inspired. Their pending sci-fi room will be on the Ave and sounds more polished.
Room Escape Adventures (603 Roy St): REA has 24 locations nationwide. Their Seattle spot is on Lower Queen Anne in the back of a window-tinting place. They have an actor dressed up like a zombie. That's pretty much the whole theme, and they milk it hard. If you like zombies, you might like this one more than I did. Seems like it's for kids, but the website leans heavily on the corporate-solutions angle, offering analyses of your team's ability to work cohesively, etc. The room itself looks like the office of the Thunderbird Motel: cinder-block walls and a splintered '70s living-room set. The puzzles themselves were cute, though. (Lots of rebuses!) But the scuzzy aesthetic was glaring at $28 a head.
Sherlocked (915 E Pine St, basement): The second-latest entry in Seattle's RLRE empire is only two months old, but it's got a little more quiet dignity than the others, and a slightly higher price tag ($28 per person) to match. It's in the basement of the Odd Fellows Building on Capitol Hill and will soon have three rooms. In Escape from the Secret Office, you're a secret agent who's traveled back in time to a locked office for some reason. As with Enigma Studio, you bring your own team, minimum of three, maximum of seven. The aesthetic is mildly classy, Clue-ish. The room has fewer puzzles than usual, but they're challenging and interesting, and offer the advantage of less frantic communication. Extra points for not stressing people out for sport.
Ninja Escape (3800 Aurora Ave N, Suite 280): This Fremont RLRE only opened for beta testing last week, so I didn't get to play it. Per their website, the room is another secret office where you solve a "hack attack." And also escape, presumably. Not sure how ninjas enter the picture, but that's the whole thing about ninjas—you never see them coming. As with Puzzle Break, you can play Ninja Escape with strangers, but it'll cost you $30.