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Escape Rooms are the Next Frontier of Gaming

They blur the lines between pop, tech and nerd culture, and they're booming.

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The Penitentiary room at Omescape - PAUL HAGGARD
  • Paul Haggard
  • The Penitentiary room at Omescape

Even five years ago, the suggestion that one would pay money to be locked inside a doorless, windowless room with a group of colleagues and tasked to escape within an hour would be seen as a cruel joke, not a form of lighthearted, interactive entertainment.

Enter the escape room — an interactive, multiplayer puzzle game that challenges players to solve riddles and "escape" by using a variety of clues, hidden objects, and hints. It may seem like a peculiar concept, but it's a rapidly expanding one in the Bay Area.

Sarah Zhang discovered the trend abroad. She played her first escape room while on vacation in China. Now the co-owner of two Bay Area locations of the Chinese escape-games franchise OMESCAPE, including one in Richmond, she left her job in finance after realizing the opportunity for growth in a lucrative market like the Bay Area.

"It was the most fun activity I'd ever done, so I came back to the Bay Area looking for more escape games and realized there weren't many," Zhang said. "That's when we just decided to open our own. Our first location opened in Richmond in 2013, and in 2015 we opened our second store in San Jose. Now we're working on opening a third in the South Bay this spring."

The Bay Area's ties to tech have placed escape rooms front and center when it comes to one of the industry's favorite extracurricular activities: creative, out-of-the-box team-building. As the lines between pop, tech and nerd culture blur, escape rooms have become the perfect niche activity for a similarly niche market of users. Transporting players to a different world, escape rooms require collaboration and communication in order to ultimately "beat" the game — similar to how a majority of multiplayer video games operate.

With elaborate and carefully crafted storylines, intricate props and voice actors posing as trusty sidekicks, immersive escape rooms transport players into a world of fantasy and adventure. Like a video game come to life, players may become outlaws in the Wild West, help defend King Arthur's castle from evil forces, solve a murder mystery, or save the world from a deadly pandemic. These themes and their iterations are endless — and the U.S. industry is just getting warmed up.

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OMESCAPE's Richmond facility offers three different hour-long games at varying levels of difficulty. Groups as small as two and as large as six can take a shot at "Room Omega" which guides first-time players through the elaborately decorated office of Professor Stanley, a physicist who's suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared before publishing controversial research on time travel. "Penitentiary" puts players inside of pseudo jail cell once belonging to America's most infamous serial killers, and five to ten players are tasked with deciphering the meaning of the items left behind in order to escape. Escape room pro? Look no further than "Forgotten Treasure," OMESCAPE's most difficult and arguably most classic game, which sends players on a treasure hunt in search of buried gold and pirate's booty.

Though escape room themes often traffic in eerie imagery, Zhang assures that they're not at all intended to intimidate or spook. Hidden actors or props don't pop out unexpectedly, and there's nothing violent or graphic in any of OMESCAPE's games. And contrary to popular belief, users are never physically trapped or locked inside a space—meaning you can walk out for a bathroom break at any time. Once the clock is ticking, however, users are hard pressed to leave.

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Zhang's OMESCAPE locations are just two of the roughly three-dozen escape rooms in the Bay Area, a majority of which have popped up in the past few years. Given their appeal to tech workers, a number of them litter the South Bay and Peninsula, and another large concentration can be found in San Francisco's SOMA District — also home to Twitter, Airbnb, Wired and Reddit. But the East Bay is the industry's latest destination, housing one location in Richmond, another in downtown Oakland, and two others scattered between San Ramon and Dublin.

Indeed, escape rooms are growing in popularity across the country — as evidenced by a new horror film, titled Escape Room and a recent episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which takes place entirely within an escape game.

The origins of escape room games date back to the late 2000s, though the exact history is a bit murky. Some enthusiasts claim that escape rooms were born in East Asia while others maintain their genesis was in Eastern Europe. Fans and escape room owners agree, however, that the United States was late to catch on.

One of the very first stateside escape rooms came by way of Japan, making landfall in San Francisco in 2011. In 2007, Kazu Iwata, now the CEO of SCRAP Entertainment in San Francisco, was a creative director living and working in Japan. He was active in the online escape room gamer space, but had never heard of the concept being brought to life until he met Takao Kato, SCRAP's founder. After trying his first physical escape room, he was hooked.

"I was excited when I heard the concept, and the actual experience exceeded my expectations," Iwata explained in an email. "I immediately became a fan. In 2011, I started living in San Francisco [when] SCRAP brought the concept outside of Japan and asked me if there was a possibility to make a game in the U.S. That was the start of my SCRAP career; it was serendipity."

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