It feels like art mimicking life mimicking art. A new series of The Crystal Maze has been announced, after nostalgia prompted the building of a crowd-funded experience. And I think that this (momentous) event owes a lot to the craze for Escape Rooms.

If you’ve not been to one of these the concept is straightforward. You’re locked in a room and have an hour to figure out the puzzles and escape. Generally this is framed around some fantasy / sci-fi / mystery / espionage narrative, where an unseen antagonist hinders your fight for freedom.

These take place in real life, physical space, though they do owe a heritage to a whole genre of ‘Escape the Room’ computer games. I’d probably follow this trail even further back to the earliest photo-realistic computer games like Myst and The 7th Guest.

Personally, and perhaps this is the kinesthete in me, I find the physicality to be vital to the experience. You are literally in a place from which you need to escape – it really couldn’t be clearer what you’re trying to achieve. Nothing is standing in as a metaphor for winning this game. There aren’t points to be won or bosses to be overcome. You just have to get out.

Within this framework there are many great variations – and many have expanded well beyond a single room. Secret doors and crawl-spaces take you into new parts of these constructed realms.

It’s interesting, too, how stressful and anxious Escape Rooms can make you feel. They require quite a bit of teamwork, usually done with four to seven players depending on the size of the particular experience. And it’s easy to descend into all shouting over one another. The elegance of the design of a room depends a lot on all the elements coming together and being ‘used up’ when finished with – so that it’s clear that you’re not going to have any more need for them. Therefore, frequently what is needed is a) strong leadership; b) working together; and c) clear evaluations of the current state of affairs, so you know what you’re doing next.

I reckon another important element of the design is clear indications of how much you have left. On a few occasions, you might think ‘YES! The key to the final door!’ – only to find another room beyond it. Like a good drama, it should build to a climax and you should know where you’re getting to as the time ticks away.

Pity the souls who have to put everything back into place after team after team wrecks the joint.

I’ve only done a few of these – but they’re so much fun I’d love to do more. More spring up every month, so I’ll have the chance to do many more in future!

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