As the lockdown fuels the craving to go outside, escape rooms stand empty, but ready, to fulfill a change of scenery.
Escape room businesses have been successfully operating across countries in North America, Europe and East Asia for well over a decade. The concept involves locking participants in a space for a set period of time, usually an hour, during which the team works together to solve puzzles and find clues in an effort to beat the clock.
Christine Hibbard is the owner of Looking Glass Adventures, a Toronto business specializing in escape rooms. In March of last year, due to pandemic restrictions, the business closed its Danforth Avenue location and Hibbard has been relying on virtual rooms to engage her customers.
“We’re still embracing the unknown; we’re still embracing change. We’re rolling with it,” Hibbard said.
Hibbard visited her first escape room a little over seven years ago.
The room she experienced with her children was a first-generation escape room. The challenges from this generation were comprised of padlocks, keylocks, and passwords to complete. Players today experience a variety of themes and scenarios in escape rooms. Some are family-friendly, like pirate ships and spy heists, while others are more adult-oriented, such as horror.
Seeing all the empty storefronts lining Danforth Avenue gave Hibbard the push she needed to open Looking Glass Adventures in 2015. She believed an escape room would be helpful in stimulating the local economy, including the restaurant sector.
“I really wanted to support my community and other businesses, and help feed into that,” she said.
Hibbard created an elaborate escape room, implementing several themes and scenarios that were not present in her predecessors’ rooms.
A virtual experience
In May of last year, Thomas Parslow used his skills as a software developer to give escape room businesses, like Hibbard’s, an opportunity to transition to an online platform. Visitors can experience escape rooms virtually using software such as Buzzshot and Telescape. Looking Glass Adventures uses Buzzshot software for their virtual escape rooms.
“I’m the only full-time developer,” Parslow said, discussing his time with Buzzshot and Telescape. “There’s been various contractors who have done various bits over the years.”
Telescape underwent a variety of updates and features over the past year. It held an inventory system to allow players to keep track of the clues they have. The software also allows players to communicate with each other during the game. The virtual experience was successful enough that owners could playtest each other’s games and give feedback, Hibbard said.
Another way players can play is through an avatar. This role is filled by an escape room employee who follows the player’s instructions to solve the puzzles. Making use of an already existing escape room helps alleviate production costs. Some venues even offer multiple camera angles for a better view.
Looking Glass Adventures adopted this approach for their virtual games. Guests are greeted by an on-site host who explains the rules to them. From there, guests give directions to the host who follows their commands.
“They really are kind of like a live avatar,” Hibbard said. “They will provide some feedback, especially if you need help. They might suddenly put in like hints at something or build in a clue.”
Other businesses, such as Hourglass Escapes, recreated their escape room on a virtual landscape. Their escape room, Rise of the Mad Pharaoh, uses virtual assets that help the player keep track of their progress.
Parslow has been an avid supporter of escape room businesses. He started a members-only Facebook group for escape room owners that currently has 840 members.
Experiencing escape rooms at home
Errol Elumir is one of four hosts of the Room Escape Divas podcast which talks to the various creators of escape rooms and examines their inspirations. Guests from several countries have been featured on the show, including creators from the United Kingdom, Australia, United States, and Canada.
“The escape room enthusiast community is small, in that we all seem to know each other, but it’s also large because it’s international,” said Elumir.
Although transitioning to a virtual experience has been one-way that escape rooms have remained in business, some like Elumir remain skeptical.
“If you just convert an escape room to an online game, but you remove that human element, I almost don’t want to play it because there are other things on the computer that I can do that I will find more fun and better value for your money,” Elumir said.
As a self-described enthusiast, Elumir has completed over 300 escape rooms, in person, across North America. The appeal for Elumir lies in two factors: role-playing and human interaction.
“Another friend invited me to do an escape room, and we all came from a variety of different backgrounds,” Elumir said. “…And we did amazing in that escape room. And it’s because we all brought different things to the table. We all thought differently.” Compared to other recreational activities like films and books, escape rooms give players an adventure that isn’t available in real life. Capturing that essence will be difficult for virtual escape rooms to do.
The second aspect of human interaction extends to family, peers, and even strangers that happen to share the same starting time. This aspect is much easier for escape rooms to fulfill since Telescape makes it possible for customers all over the globe to partake in them.
Elumir plays weekly games online with his sister, who is based in Calgary, and another person from Australia. “So you can see, it’s really hard to find a time that all of us can fit,” he said.
Escape room businesses have co-operated with each other throughout the pandemic. Businesses will playtest each other’s rooms to “keep things fresh,” Hibbard said. While virtual escape rooms have not adopted by every business with a physical escape room, they remain an option thanks to technology.
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