Why Escape Games are Important to Me

by Bruce A. Smith

Why Escape Games are Important to Me

Ask my wife; I've been talking about escape games since she met me in 1997. But, in truth, my interest goes much farther back than that...

The year was 1970. I was in fourth grade, and everyone in my family, all four of my older brothers and sisters, had been to Disneyland. We lived in Southern California, and it felt like everyone in the world, except for me, had gone to the one place where I ached to go. My friend Steve had gone to Disneyland, and he brought home a massive souvenir map of the park. I pored over, asking all the questions I could. I bought View-Master reels with images of all the Disneyland "lands." And when told, once again, that we could not afford to visit the park, I created my own. I hung plastic spiders from strings in my closet, played scary music on a cassette player, and sat on the floor pretending I was in the Haunted Mansion.

When I finally did get to go to Disneyland, I was awestruck. I went home and began drawing plans for my own amusement park. It was a combination of every place I loved: part San Diego Zoo, part Marineland of the Pacific, but, mainly, Disneyland. This was to become a pattern in my life; whenever I experienced something artistic; I would try to see if I could do it myself. That's why I learned to draw, learned to write, did video and audio production in college, and became a programmer. It was always about experiencing something cool, seeing if I could create something similar myself, and, sometimes, seeing if I could do it better. But of all the things that inspired me, Disneyland and computer games (which would follow years later) were the most powerful.

As a teenager in Southern California, I eventually got the opportunity to go to the park regularly and explore every corner. Meanwhile, Disney was busy becoming a corporate giant, and they began construction on Disney World in Florida. By the time I graduated from High School, it had become the place I most wanted to go. Disney World was my Mecca.

When I graduated from High School, I held a job long enough to save up some money, and then hopped on a bus and headed toward the East Coast. I didn't stay in any motels along the way or stop in any towns longer than the bus did. I slept as best as I could, often being jolted awake in the middle of the night by the rough ride or random noises. Halfway across the country, I stopped in Kansas and stayed at a friend's house. I caught up on sleep, waited for my mom to send me money, and looked for a job.

For me, Kansas marked one of those turning points in life that you don't recognize until afterward. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had followed through and made the rest of the journey to Florida. But the thought of arriving in a strange place with no money and no friends was too intimidating. I had used up all of my bravery getting to Kansas, and when the money from my mom finally arrived, I headed back to the home I knew.

It wouldn't be until six years later that I made it to Disney World. It absolutely loved it, that's for sure, but it wasn't as satisfying as my first visit to Disneyland had been as a child. Instead of falling to my knees upon arriving at Mecca, I went on a ton of rides, took hundreds of pictures, and enjoyed some really great meals. The blueberry muffins, as well as the croissants and wine still resonate in my memory. But my perception of the place was constantly interrupted by one thought: this would be so much better if it were interactive.

See, between the time that I had arrived back in California as an eighteen-year-old, and the time that I flew to Disney World, I had gone through four years of college, and I had discovered the newest love of my life: computer games. I had started with the classic Scott Adams games, number one had the appropriate title Adventureland. I moved from that to Sierra Online's first ever graphic adventure, Mystery House games. Nothing was more intriguing or delightful, and they tinged my viewpoint of every subsequent trip to my favorite park in Anaheim. I envisioned the Adventure Land bazaar and the shops above it as places you could explore and solve puzzles. I had dreams about Space Mountain as a structure with gears that you could manipulate, causing the top to open up to the skies. In my mind, you should have been able to walk through the dark rides in Fantasyland, all the while touching, feeling, and doing things.

I hadn't stopped drawing up these ideas; I even built 3D models of them. I called them "live adventure games," and many included mazes, another fascination of mine. I have a vivid memory of a time in college when I was sitting around with a group of people, and I started sketching a design for a room filled with puzzles. One of the people in the group had a great time mocking me for doing so, but it failed to deter me.

Disney World would have far exceeded my youngest self's expectations, but, as an adult, it did not incorporate the wonder and involvement I felt when playing Infocom's Hollywood Hijinx. I returned home from Florida with a new quest: to find a place that met my expectations of what entertainment should be: an interactive, puzzle-filled environment.

My love of computer adventure games eventually put me in partnership with Shay Addams, who was the driving force behind Questbusters magazine. I wrote full-length solutions to all of the Infocom text adventures, and he agreed to put them in a book under the Questbusters banner. But then a new thing called "The Internet" came out, and Shay abandoned the project, saying that the Internet would make game solution books and magazines like his obsolete. Of course, he was right.

But, thanks to the World Wide Web, I could use my new dial-up modem to search for terms like "live adventure games," and "live interactive entertainment." The closest thing I found was LARPing, playing live action role-playing games. But I didn't want to dress up like an elf, adopt a persona, or battle with padded swords. I wanted to be myself in a real life computer game. Sadly, places where you could do that did not exist.

In a span of over twenty years, I continued to perform online searches for what I wanted. And when I didn't find it, I would be disappointed all over again. Eventually, my searches decreased. And whenever my wife asked where I wanted to go on vacation, I would say, "You know what I want to do. Nobody's created it. Nobody's done it. It doesn't exist." Instead, we would go and see sights, or ride some rides, which, for me, had become a slightly disconnected experience.

Still, of all the ideas I'd had in my life, the idea of a fully interactive experience was at the top. It was my absolute favorite, and I could not let it go. I occurred to me that if I didn't have the money to build what I envisioned, which was usually on a grand, theme-park scale, I could put the idea out there to inspire others. I designed a park, wrote a story around it, and that became my unpublished, 70,000-word, novel The Nexus Game.

I completed the first draft in October of 2006. Time and time again, in writers' groups and elsewhere, I received a surprising amount of criticism for the idea behind the story. I heard statements like, "Who cares about people trying to solve puzzles? That doesn't even sound fun." When I pointed out that it wasn't all that different from the RPG environments that Larry Niven and Steven Barnes had created in the Dream Park series (there are four books, published in 1981, 1989, 1992, and 2011), I was told that people were a lot more familiar with the role-playing games that the Dream Park books are based on, and since adventure games weren't as popular, no one would appreciate what I had created.

And then, when I was almost convinced that nothing would ever happen with what I considered to be my best idea, my life changed. On November 1, 2014 (I wrote it down), a Google search brought up "Real Life Escape Games," and I saw that the thing I had been thinking about, that I had sketched designs for, and that I had written an entire book about, had become a reality. Over forty years since I sat in a closet with spiders dangling from strings, the world had suddenly become the place I wanted it to be. At least, in one important aspect.

I discovered that an online Flash game called Mystery of Time and Space (or MOTAS for short) was the first to be referred to as a computer "Escape Game," although the format had been seen before as far back as early text adventures. Japanese programmer Toshimitsu Takagi took this format and made it increasingly popular with his title, The Crimson Room. Its widespread popularity increased awareness of escape games, and the thousands of other games that followed suit made the format a genre unto itself. As far as I was concerned, computer escape games were nothing but a condensed version of the adventure games I had been playing all my life. But the short play time was a stroke of genius. I say this, because it lent itself perfectly to re-creation in real life; it inspired the business model.

Immediately, I saw the mistake I had made in my designs. The vast majority of puzzle-themed environments I had envisioned were huge in scale. But real-life escape games could be as small as a single room. You could run people through them in an hour, charge them, and make a decent, if not excellent, income.

Live escape games made their debut in Japan in 2008, under the guidance of a company called SCRAP. However, if you talk to people from Budapest, where escape rooms are abundant, they may tell you that the first escape rooms appeared there, or that at least that they came up with the idea without any prior knowledge of the Japanese games. Either way, the games swept across the globe.

I stayed up late that night in November, learning everything I could about them. The next morning when I woke up, I ran to talk to my wife who was in the shower. Barely containing my excitement, told her that "they finally did it." She was very patient as I sat on the toilet with the lid down and explained my findings.

Within a week, I had gone to my first escape room at Exit Game in Monterey Park, California. I talked them into letting me play the game by myself, which escape rooms rarely do, and I didn't do too well. I overthought it. Regardless, minus some basic game design and the quality of the set, the game was very close to what I had been envisioning for all those years: with giant props and lasers to boot.

I took my wife Sharron to an escape room the next week. She was surprised at how fun it was, and we have played them regularly since then.

In some ways, escape games far exceeded my personal vision. Although my preconception was that such experiences would be larger in scale physically, the smaller, one-to-several-room size actually allows for escape games to be built just about anywhere, and on smaller budgets, which allows for a larger variety of experiences. It's a wild west scenario, like in the early days of computer gaming, where there is more than ample room for creativity, and owners and designers are taking advantage of that space.

It's fantastic. Two of the games that Sharron and I played in Phoenix captured the essence of what these games should be about. One, with an expertly-built set and tactile puzzles, made me feel exactly like I was standing in one of the many computer games I've played, while another with an Alice in Wonderland theme, and crafted with beautiful artistry, gave me another experience I'd been longing for; I got to puzzle my way through a Disneyland-style environment. Playing the games was as rewarding as I had always thought it would be, and others who had become addicted like I was were expressing the same radical enthusiasm.

My dream had become a reality without any involvement on my part. So how could I become part of it? How could I fulfill my role?

It was a tough time to do so. I had left my job. My wife was about to retire, and we were trying decide where we were going to move to. One possibility was Las Vegas where the grandchildren were. On a job-hunting trip to Sin City, I took the time to go to an escape room that had only been open for a few months. The owner, Nick, was from Budapest. After playing his Sherlock room and spending some time with him, I talked to Nick about the possibility of partnering. He wanted a financial partner at the cost of $15,000, and it was not an issue on which he was willing to compromise. There were other red flags, including my wife's sense that Nick would never allow me the creative input I wanted. I agonized over the decision and ultimately declined. Even though I passed on that partnership, I didn't pass on Las Vegas. Sharron and I moved there in 2015.

When it came to escape rooms, the biggest problem I had was I couldn't get anyone to play them with me. So I created a Meetup group called "VERT," The Vegas Escape Room Team. Only two people signed up, Bret, the owner of another escape room in town, and his wife Janet.

I went over to Bret's business, struck up a conversation, and played all three of his games, which I really enjoyed. Bret and I got along great, and we quickly became friends. He let me work at his place during the evenings, and I even got the chance to run his business for a weekend when he was on vacation hiking Machu Picchu. But after a year and a half in business, he became concerned about the rapidly rising number of competing escape room businesses opening in Las Vegas, and he felt burdened by the cost of his lease. Nick, the owner of the first escape room business I had talked too about partnering, had already joined forces with someone else, only to leave the business and move to Phoenix when his partners didn't go in the direction he wanted.

So what next? I had a huge emotional investment in escape games. I didn't have the funds to open my own escape room, and dealing with an actual escape room business had taught me that running it was primarily about running a practical business. Designing your own rooms and getting the opportunity to see people play them was awesome, but that was only a fraction of what was really involved.

It seemed like as soon as I could think of an idea related to the industry, another person had already implemented it. I created a pen and paper based game for my friends to play, and we discussed the idea of an escape room in a box, only to see it immediately executed by someone else in a Kickstarter campaign and then by the company Think Fun.

I imagined portable escape games for corporate team-building and parties, and viola!, someone had announced the idea of pop-up games, which were basically the same thing.

My artistic experience, especially in the world of writing, had already taught me that ideas are a dime a dozen and that it is not the ideas that are at the heart of success, but the actual execution of those ideas that matters. Ideas also seem to have their time. When an idea is ripe, it may occur to many people independently, but the person who gets the credit for it is the one who has the ability to make it come to fruition.

Yet when the idea is your baby, you've cultivated it, been told that that it is stupid, had people get angry at you for it, and you've continued to push the idea regardless, then it stings a lot more when the idea becomes reality and the credit isn't yours.

Between 2014 and 2016, the number of escape games in America blew up, and it became a full-fledged industry. In my efforts to stay up to date with it, I subscribed to the Escape Artist blog by David and Lisa Spira, and it was through their blog that I learned about the first ever annual escape room conference to be held in Chicago. I didn't care how much plane tickets were, or what the cost of the conference was, I was going to go.

Walking the floor of the conference, it was surreal to see the real-life manifestation of something that, for many years, had only existed inside my head. There were large mechanical props that would open up with electronic servos at the press of the right combination of buttons, bookcases that moved aside when the right trigger was activated, and vendors displaying fully-assembled escape rooms for sale. How did it all get to this point so fast? It had expanded beyond what I had ever imagined.

I stopped and talked with David and Lisa Spira. David mentioned that Ginger Flesher-Sonnier, who had recently made a deal with the West Texas Investors club for an $800,000 investment, was going to hit the industry like a meteor. We discussed hopes and fears. Were low-quality rooms going to do too much damage to the industry, or would big corporations step in and make everything vanilla?

Those were only two of the options, but they were common themes during the conference, along with discussions about whether it was a good idea to open your own escape room. Many of the people there were in the process of deciding just that. Some of the seminars attracted over 400 people, and there were debates: were escape games a good money-making idea, or was it too risky? One speaker argued that it was not wise to tell people to pursue their dreams when those dreams were not practical. You had to weigh reality against your ambitions. I agreed. My decisions about my own role in the industry had been guided by such cautions. But there is always a niggling doubt. Had I missed an opportunity?

As the tires of my return flight hit the runway of McCarren airport under the stretch of casinos that make up the Las Vegas skyline, I reflected on this. Since I was not an escape owner or even a potential owner, I often introduced myself at the conference as an "enthusiast," an already established term for people who play a lot of escape games. But the label is so inadequate that it does me a disservice. Try as I might, I have not been able to find a word or phrase that fully describes my relationship with these games and their role in my life, and I can only begin to capture it in a story like the one I've told here. Right now, I am more of a spectator than I would like to be. I feel like I'm standing back, waiting to see what the world will do with my dream.