Locked In: Behind the Scenes of the Escape Room Craze

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Locked In: Behind the Scenes of the Escape Room Craze
All photos: Hep Svadja, Make:
All photos: Hep Svadja, Make:

You find yourself in a room. An old room, by the look of the decor, like a parlor taken out of history. An antique desk rests at one end, a tall wooden box stands in a corner. A tangle of copper pipes serves as candelabra for a collection of colored light bulbs. None of them are on.

The walls are adorned with pictures of people you recognize from middle school American history class — Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Helen Keller. You fiddle with one of the countless switches found mounted on the walls. Nothing happens. A dresser by the entrance contains a scale like the one found in the hands of Lady Justice. You hear a click from the door through which you entered. You’re locked in.


Escape rooms have existed in some form or another for around a decade. Originally inspired by the escape-the-room genre of videogames, one of the earliest rooms was created in 2007 by the Japanese company Scrap in Kyoto, Japan. Rooms spread across Europe, Asia, and finally the United States, when in 2012 Scrap opened a room in San Francisco. Since then, they have become a popular tourist attraction, team-building activity, and general form of entertainment in the U.S., powered not only by the players who can’t get enough of the real-life puzzles, but also by the makers, who pour creativity, technology, and love into every design.

To bring the rooms to life, the creators use tech and techniques both new and old, including magnetic locks, infrared sensors, servo arms, LEDs, Arduinos, and more. Along with the gadgets that make elaborate setups possible and affordable, the room makers leverage creativity, community, and passion.

“I think, just as a medium, as an art form, as a game type, or whatever you want to categorize it, escape rooms are just inherently a lot of fun,” says Christopher Alden, founder of Palace Games. It’s his room, located in the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, that has the parlor that seems torn out of history. “People like shared challenges and working together to accomplish a shared objective,” he says. “They like competing and racing, it’s definitely a race against time.”

Many rooms feature a narrative of some kind — EscapeSF, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, currently runs a room in which players infiltrate an antiques dealer’s apartment to steal the Mona Lisa, and another where they must escape from Alcatraz prison. (You start that one handcuffed to the wall of a small replica jail cell.) Other rooms forego higher production values, opting instead to present players with a cavalcade of puzzles, sometimes as sparse as simple pen-and-paper problems in an empty room, with their solutions collectively adding up to a means of escape. Some feature intricately crafted props that shouldn’t be touched; others encourage you to rip things apart to discover clues hidden in seat cushions and under floorboards.

Most rooms follow a relatively similar formula: A group of people, usually numbering four to 12, are locked in a room filled with clues, puzzles, and other hidden things. The group then has a limited amount of time (an hour is fairly standard) to solve puzzles and uncover the room’s mysteries in order to escape.

Christopher Alden in the Great Houdini control room
Christopher Alden in the Great Houdini control room

“Doing a really good one is hard,” says Alden. “But in general, it doesn’t require a lot of space, doesn’t require a lot of investment. That’s probably why they’re cropping up with such speed.”

In late July, the Science Channel premiered “Race to Escape,” a reality show in which two teams compete to beat a room designed for the show. Teams of three race to win a cash prize, going through challenges like a ping-pong ball maze and a panel-sliding puzzle. A host walks you through the teams’ progress, and it gives you a good impression of what it’s like inside the rooms, which are typically closely guarded secrets — knowing the puzzles can ruin the experience, but escaping from one room will likely help you solve another. “One of the biggest indicators to how well you’re going to do in the room,” Alden says, “is if you’ve played an escape room before.”

If you haven’t, there is a good chance you’ll have an opportunity soon. The Escape Room Directory lists 2,120 worldwide, in 59 countries.


In 1915, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition took place in San Francisco. One of history’s great world’s fairs, it was held to commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal, as well as for San Francisco to demonstrate to the world its recovery from the 1906 earthquake that left most of the city in ruins. Some of the most esteemed people and world-renowned innovators were in attendance, including Edison, Bell, Ford, and Keller, as well as Luther Burbank, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Philip Sousa, Charlie Chaplin, and Harry Houdini.

“It struck me,” says Alden: “Wouldn’t it be cool if some of these innovators who were here got together, and what if Harry Houdini designed the first escape room ever, 100 years ago, as a challenge to these eight great innovators to see if they could escape his room.”

As the timer starts to tick, your group fans out and begins prodding at the room, tugging at corners in the hopes of finding a thread that might help you progress. There’s a folder on the table in front of you. Someone sets to work pondering the riddle you find inside — something about the four elements, and how progressing through them will lead to your escape.


“Houdini was always challenging the elements, be it going underwater, or being buried underground,” Alden says. “So he’s created a number of challenges, based on the elements, and then a series of puzzles designed for these eight innovators, tapping into their areas of knowledge and expertise.” Alden even managed to sneak in some educational moments about the innovators — many of the puzzles have additional Easter eggs if you know where to look.

In drawers and cabinets you find more cryptic clues — a laser-cut cog with an “N” on it, a key that doesn’t match any of the locks in the room, a piece of what looks like some sort of electrical blueprint. You fiddle with the levers on one wall — they play a note when you press the bellows mounted next to them. Then something happens: One of the lights blinks on, then off again. Your group scrambles to repeat their recent actions in order to discover what triggered the bulb.


We take for granted the process of using a key to unlock a door. In one state, the door doesn’t open; then, by putting this object into a specific place and turning it just so, the door changes state and now can be opened. Mystery rooms are filled with the same sorts of things, except instead of a key turning in a keyhole, it’s a series of switches being flipped in the right order, or a painting being hung in the right place.

Things happening “automagically” is a term Alden uses sometimes. It refers to the kind of mechanics that fill haunted mansions in the likes of Scooby-Doo: Pulling a candelabra to open a trapdoor, removing the proper book to rotate a bookshelf. There’s no modern technology in the Houdini room, at least not on the surface. Alden wanted to build the room in a way that, he hopes, you could envision being possible 100 years ago. Of course, there’s a lot going on in the background to make everything tick.

Organized chaos in the control room
Organized chaos in the control room

The pulsing brain of Alden’s room is a bank of eight Arduino Mega microcontroller boards mounted on a plywood shelf. From the control room — a cramped closet tucked behind one of the room’s walls — these boards link to lights, infrared sensors, magnetic locks and other hidden mechanisms, connected by a massive tangle of wires, thousands of feet worth of cat-5, speaker wire, and bell wire. Alden has written more than 5,000 lines of code, running around 300 I/O pins. “I keep coding, and adding more stuff,” he says. The room contains about 40 incandescent bulbs, and a few LEDs, hidden to maintain the historic atmosphere. There isn’t a lot of hardware designed for creating these automagical devices, so Alden has to build most of his equipment from scratch, retrofitting things to serve his purposes.

For example: One of Houdini’s puzzles is designed around air — it involves using that bellows to play a note. It’s a mechanical process, and Alden experimented with several different ways to measure the inputs — pitch and airflow, for starters. Ultimately, he installed small microphones in the tubing to register the air flowing past.


Another issue is power. “We’re constantly going between low voltage and high voltage,” Alden says. “The Arduino world is mostly low voltage, but when you’re turning on lights or large motors, you’ve got to get into the high voltage world.” It’s typically a complicated problem, involving relay switches and hard-wired high voltage wire. But Alden’s electrician, Andrew Florek, created a simple solution: Use the low-voltage Arduino output to turn outlets on a power strip on and off.

Arduino relay system
Arduino relay system

Aside from the control room, a lot of Alden’s room is decidedly low-tech. He haunted antique shops, scrounging for old furniture and fixtures that would give his room that aged aesthetic. Though a lot of the puzzle pieces are laser cut or etched, many objects have been built with old-fashioned hammer-and-nail carpentry. Pipes, depending on their required resiliency, could either be actual copper or PVC painted to look as such.


There isn’t really an official name for these kinds of games, and “escape room” is actually a bit restricting. Not every game is a single room — earlier this year Scrap put on “Escape from the Walled City” in which participants had to solve mysteries to escape from stadiums in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. And not every game particularly involves an escape.

“Maybe a better name would be mystery room,” says Alden. “I think that allows for a broader set of things. Not everything has to be a technical escape. It could be a treasure hunt — maybe you’re Indiana Jones finding an idol.”

Like Alden, EscapeSF’s co-owner Andre Belov uses Arduinos, magnets, and lots of items scavenged from vintage stores and flea markets. He describes EscapeSF’s rooms — two currently, with a third in the works — as “adventure games,” citing inspiration from classic computer quest games like Myst and Monkey Island. “Combining those experiences with the game design theory and desire to make something truly unique provides a good foundation to build on, followed by weeks and weeks of brainstorming and testing,” he says.

In today’s world of Candy Crush and Clash of Clans, video games are becoming increasingly asocial. They’re stationary. They don’t require a lot of physical prowess, and for many, a lot of mental prowess either. “I don’t think the problem is games,” says Alden. “We just need to come up with better games.”


The puzzles Alden and his compatriots create are not without precedent. There are a few basic devices — models for what a puzzle is, frameworks for how to build them — based on logic puzzles, riddles, and more. And there’s a community of people who create them in all their variations.

Alden’s creative process goes something like this: He comes up with a set of constraints that ties any potential puzzle to the theme of his room — for example, the challenges attached to each innovator from the 1915 Expo. Then he varies the medium of the puzzle. Will it be performed using light? Sound? Mechanical? Electric? Some must be completed as a team, others can be done individually. Then he prototypes, and invites testers to solve them, first individually and then in the room as a whole, to see if they are of appropriate difficulty.

“That’s the trick — every game maker wants to be beat,” he says. “But you don’t want to make it too easy on them. And if they don’t solve it, you want for them to say, when they find out the answer, ‘Oh, I should have gotten that’!”


As Alden plans his next room — spy themed — he’s pondering new frontiers in escape room design. Can he make one that pits different teams against each other? Can he make it re-playable? The Houdini room already allows him to track players’ actions, giving detailed data on how groups approach the puzzles. Alden looks at it like a software program — the inputs are switches and objects, rather than a keyboard, and the outputs are lights and actuators.

“What I’ve done is instrumented the program, which means that almost every activity that happens in the room is being measured and tracked and time-stamped,” he says. That means he can give a report that shows how well they worked together, whether they were analytical or experimental problem solvers, and more. Interesting for a squad of tourists, but potentially very useful for executive teams or work outings.

Already, Swedish versions of game rooms are appearing in the U.S., featuring physical challenges as well as puzzles, like the dungeons in Zelda. Between them and Alden’s new ideas, and the innovations brought by television and Scrap’s ever larger events, the puzzle-makers are puzzling out the future of escape rooms and their ever-broadening appeal.

You complete the final task. A door springs open. You’re free to go, but the feelings stick with you — accomplishment, teamwork, wonder, frustration — and from that there’s no escape.

If you want to play an escape room near you, visit escaperoomdirectory.com. If you’re interested in building your own, or at least elements of one, Adam Clare, who teaches game design at George Brown College and OCAD University, has written a list of tips for would-be game makers. And visit Alden’s room on the web at: palace-games.com, and EscapeSF at questroomsf.com


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Bo Moore

Bo Moore is a culture and entertainment writer living in San Francisco. His work can be seen in Wired, PC Gamer, Tested, and a few others.

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