Room Escape: A Secret Giant?

By Alec Meer on October 6th, 2009 at 12:20 am.

Sometimes, RPS posts don’t come so easy. Maybe it’s been a slow news day, maybe some promised code (you know who you are) or developer comment hasn’t arrived, maybe it was suddenly nearly midnight and you didn’t quite know how it had gotten so late but you knew you still had to get another post up. On those days, I scour a frightening mountain of RSS feeds for inspiration. Every time, I skim right past a few feeds I don’t remember subscribing to, but offer only Room Escape games. Every day there are more of them. It’s an aspect of PC gaming we never cover, but, on the quiet, I think it might just be huge.

Take a look, for instance, at freegamesnews.com – a URL I presumably added hoping for a source of excellent indie games, but largely ignore when scouring for post-worthy material because it’s generally just room escape games. In particular, take a look at just how many games are listed if you click the ‘room escape’ tag. Jeezum Crow.

Meanwhile, the top story there as I write this is about the 101st room escape game one guy has made. They might be short, lo-tech Flash stuff, but seriously – 101! This oh-so-specific genre might even be more prolific than even the match-3, shmup or iron goat-herding genres. Casual gaming totally wins, whether we want it to or not.

I have little idea as to how aware you lot are of room escape, as it’s not something we’ve ever covered much here. So, for the benefit of those that don’t, here’s a brief description. They’re akin to point’n'click adventures, only they tend to be from the first person perspective and revolve around employing a correct sequence of actions and/or item combination to find an exit.

In fact, they’re more like text adventures than point’n'click – navigation is as much the issue as broader puzzle solving, only it’s about finding a path through graphical cues rather than textual ones. Pixel hunting tends to feature highly – these are games based around poring over static scenery for incredibly scarce areas of the screen or items you can interact with. The narratives, meanwhile, are vanishingly slight – generally a variation on “you find yourself in [this location] for an unknown reason. Find your way out.” It’s not about the story. It’s only about getting out, about beating the game.

Here’s a random example from Youtube – it’s not a game I’ve heard of, but it seems fairly representative of the genre to mine uneducated eye:

Solutions are absolutely, almost mathematically specific, while where are also, frequently, codes and passwords to decipher or remember. This is something I personally find arduous, clinical and a massive turn-off and is probably the key reason why I’ve never posted about any Room Escape games before now. So, more succinctly, room escape is the values of Myst in bite-sized, browser-based chunks. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the audience was much the same as those oft-reviled adventures. Christ- remember when Myst was the great whipping boy of PC gaming, back before piracy and sequel boycotts and DRM and all that became the focal points of gamers’ rage? Seems so long ago now.

Anyway. ‘Room escape’ slightly undersells it, as the locations/environments range from the humdrum to the fantastical, though at either extreme there’s always a degree of surreality. Some of them look laughably crude, others are delightful – check out the hand-made paper furniture of 58 Works’ Escraft.

Again, the quantity is seemingly endless, as is the thematic variety. Today alone, the aforementioned freegamesnews links to Underground Palace Escape, Escape From A Japanese Garden, Hot Dog Room Escape, Kooky Cabin Escape, Laser Escape and more. Each of these is accompanied by a healthy amount of comments, in which people chew over trickier problems and share bespoke walkthroughs.

Who’s making them? Who’s playing them? Who are all these people? And why don’t we hear from them? It’s this latter that is key, I think – these are quiet people, quietly playing resolutely non-violent videogames that tick some mental challenge box for them. Notably, a fair few of the games stem from Japan, and remain untranslated, which is no doubt another reason they stick to their quiet corner of the web.

It’s a strange, very much one-note side of gaming, but it’s also remarkably noble in its sleepy, austere way. I must confess I really don’t get on with room escape games myself, finding them too clinical and unforgiving, but I’m oddly pleased that there is this huge and silent community out there, creating and playing seemingly endless numbers of the thing, quietly loving the experience without demonstrating much trace of the usual Shouty Man stuff those of us who enjoy/document broader PC gaming have to endure. And so a paradox of sorts – I really don’t like these games, yet they make me want to celebrate the great diversity of flashing pixels and those who make them flash. Woo! PC gaming! It is legion, and it is powerful.

I don’t believe I’m alone in my relative ignorance of the genre – these are not, after all, games that tend to appear on other sites that regularly cover indie games – yer TIGsources, yer Playthisthings et al. And so, the inevitable question – is anyone here a Room Escape junkie? Please, shed some light on this quiet colossus.

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51 Comments »

  1. Railick says:

    I played one a long time ago where you have to disarm a bomb and escape the room. Since then if I see anything slightly like I run for the hills :P As far as I'm concerned once is enough the rest all the same. There are a LOT of flash games out there that are non-violent that people seem to really enjoy. I found one website where most of the game were seek-in finds like you see in Highlights magainze or something where you have to find the arty hidden numbers in a nice picture in a given amount of time.

    I have a book like this called The Real Mothergoose or something and it has hidden pictures inside of the pictures (Say a spoon hidden in the lines of a tree) so Im sitting here trying to tell my 1 year old there is a spoon in the tree and he's look at me like "Dad, that's a tree, not a spoon you idiot!" : P

    • Joseph says:

      So you’ve played one game in the genre and assumed the rest are the same… and something happened with your kid and a book. What?

  2. CMaster says:

    I’ve played a few.
    They definitely seem to be big in Japan – lots come from there and are translated. They vary hugely in quality and difficulty – some do quite nice things with plot, some don’t. Some are logical, some not so much. Some have multiple solutions that work, some don’t.

    The Submachine ( http://submachine.blogspot.com/ ) series has an excellent atmosphere, although you start to get a bit sick of it and its lack of answers by the last few. It also branches out from simple “escpae the room” – but follows many of the same patterns of the genre.

    Monster Basement ( http://armorgames.com/play/192/monster-basement ) subverts elemnts of the genre nicely and is well done.

    There’s one somewhere which pokes fun at the genres somewhat too – gives you 10 seconds or so to escape and a variety of silly ways in which to do so.

    I haven’t been anywhere near these kind of games in quite a while though.

  3. Coded One says:

    Like a point and click adventure game, only way more frustrating, and absolutely no fun.

    Point and click games can be bad enough with “Find the 4 pixels that solve the puzzle!” Escape the room games take out the mental challenge, and pour in the pixel finding challenge.

    Basically, I hate them.

  4. etho says:

    jayisgames.com covers them rather regularly. They even have a weekly(?) column that highlights the more interesting ones.

    My experience has been quite varied. Some are brilliant examples of puzzle design and subtle storytelling, some are worthless.

  5. Railick says:

    Am I the only one that wanted this article to be about a game where you have to escape a room that either contains a secret giant OR AS a secret giant? I kept waiting for the article to get to the part about the room escape game with the giant in it :P For some reason I thinking of Ender's Game and the giant in that .

    • AndrewC says:

      Well, maybe, but did you click on the arrows in the picture?

    • Clovis says:

      I swear I clicked every inch of that picture and I still can’t escape that room! I must be doing it wrong.

  6. baf says:

    I can’t really claim to be a “Room Escape junkie”, but I’ve played a fair number of them. Every once in a while I briefly binge on the things. I’d basically describe them as tiny Myst-like adventure games with lots of room for idiosyncracies. The appeal has a lot to do with exploring the variety available within a highly constrained form.

    I suspect that the main reason that you don’t hear much from Room Escape fans is that fan talk tends to center around major releases, and there is no such thing as a major release in the Room Escape world. Room Escapes are fundamentally designed to be played to completion in a single sitting. That’s just a part of what defines the genre. There’s just not much opportunity to become a devotee of a particular title. I suppose you could follow a particular developer or a particular series, though. (These tend to be the same thing.)

  7. TeeJay says:

    I thought this was going to be about the latest Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Royal Academy.
    http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/lifestyle/article-23750260-is-anish-kapoors-exhibition-a-suitable-place-for-a-first-date.do

  8. Hypocee says:

    Played a couple over the couple of years they’ve been big. Encountered a couple more and quickly walked away. Adventure games, but minus the plot and usually the personality – where do I sign?

  9. noah_j says:

    i’m a fan of room escape games (and myst- which i didn’t know had stigmatizing attributes until now, thanks RPS). sometimes you just want a good puzzle, and the best ones do that like curious little puzzle boxes that you must escape

    there are, naturally, a ton of them that amount nothing more than a grand pixel hunt. but the good ones are great. i’d say the best of the bunch are done by someone who goes by the name of neutral. sphere and vision are at the top of his personal pile, but they’re all pretty good. http://neutralxe.net/esc/

  10. Vinraith says:

    I liked Myst and Riven quite a bit back in the day, but room escape games leave me cold. While there’s certainly a similarity of game play, Myst’s principle strengths were its presentation, atmosphere, and unusual plot elements. All of those are missing in these titles, leaving only the most aggravating element of the experience stripped of any incentive to push forward.

  11. Pace says:

    is anyone here a Room Escape junkie?

    Well, Walker does seem to be a fan.

  12. Thants says:

    It shows how much I’ve been trained by games that I HAD TO click those arrows, even though I knew it was just an image.

  13. 12kill4 says:

    For a fun take on the room escape genre go check out “Don’t shit you pants!” (Google it. Don’t google image search it…). Seriously entertaining sh- uh… Stuff.

  14. Tei says:

    Is official, and news whorty, there are more “escape rooms” games than tetris clones, based on the incredible productivity of these flash guys :-P

    If my experience is right, this is because out there is some people that play these games, like pop-corn. People would not made these games, withouth others that want these games to be made. Probably there are very good (elite) “escape room” players.. lets say… Houdini players.

  15. Norgg says:

    I played the Crimson Room a few years back when it spread around the interwebs like crazy. Hadn’t realised that they’re quite so massive though. Some history of them up on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escape_the_room .

  16. Jazmeister says:

    I like the more psychological ones where the view outside your window turns out to be a backdrop, etc. Maybe played 3 in my entire span.

  17. Malagate says:

    I do believe the silence of the room escape junky is most likely due to the fact that they need to get the 8 digit password written in ultra-violet ink underneath the filing cabinet in the corner of a very sparse room before they can access their computer. And they can’t find their UV black-lights no matter how furiously they poke every square inch of their home.

    Of course, I am now waiting for a game where you are a secret giant, locked in a room, that has to herd iron goats by shooting at them.

  18. Anonymous Coward says:

    I see the room escape game as simply one more sort of enclosure for more traditional types of puzzles. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Many very successful titles on the NDS, for example, are engines for presenting a series of logic puzzles, from the overt, such as Professor Layton, the Brain Age series, and so forth, on to more free-form entries like Scribblenauts. Good room escapes, at least in my book, aren’t about pixel-hunting or rubbing every object in an inventory against every other object in the room; good ones inspire creative thinking or present an intriguing narrative of some sort.

    Also, before just hand-waving them out of consideration, take into account the very low technical hurdles for creating such games, then apply Sturgeon’s Law. Even some of the crap is excusable; room escapes often serve as educational projects for new developers; it’s the same reason there are tens of thousands of dinky, pointless, badly-written platformers, space shooters, and ordinary puzzle games. They have to start somewhere, and if throwing their bitty little project online manages to net them $75 in Paypal tips over a year, well, that’s a week or more’s meals paid off by the equivalent of doing their homework — no different than a novice carpenter selling box birdhouses and lawn spinners on the side to buy new tools. More power to ‘em.

  19. bill says:

    does Samorost count as room escape? Cos that was awesome.
    Also, those Ben Chandler games like Shifter’s box seemed to mostly consist of escaping from a room.

    I prefered them to real adventure games, as there was a lot less backtracking.

  20. Jayt says:

    I was into these a few years ago to pass the time. Actually I think my interest in them peaked when the first Saw came out, which makes sense.

  21. Ian says:

    I played one last week at Kongregate, where you had to escape a phone box. I don’t really like pixel-hunting enough to play them that often.

  22. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Myst was the whipping boy of PC gaming? Then PC gamers have no taste, I say. :P

    Room Escape games. Well, I’ve played some. I tend to get annoyed by the tedium involved as these tend to be worse, much worse than adventure games in leaving you wondering how you have to get past something, how to get X item and the like.

  23. Ginger Yellow says:

    Um, Machinarium is just a fancy room escape, game, surely, and you’ve given that plenty of coverage. It’s fantastic, of course. But that’s what it is.

    I’d also argue that room escape games are closely related to those “grow” webgames, where depnding on the order in which you click certain things, you get a better or worse end result.

  24. dingo says:

    Interesting coverage.
    I didn’t play any of these games yet but I might.

    Something else you could cover would be those “Hidden Objects” games.
    I would say I’m a hardcore-gamer but if I see one of those I have to play / finish it.

    Most of them are shit but there are brilliant ones as well (namely the “Ravenheart series”) that branch out into adventure gameplay these days and have quite good stories.

    Judging by the popularity of sites like bigfishgames.com those games are huge yet you rarely read on real game sites about them kinda like those “Room escape” games.

  25. mister_d says:

    Played one a few years ago because it was popular at the time. It was fun enough for a little distraction, even though it really only consisted of a scavenger hunt around the room until I eventually had the door key. So I’m aware of them, and I’m a fan of adventure games, but I need the narrative component that they mostly all seem to lack.

    How many puzzles in full-fledged adventure games are actually room escape puzzles? The immediate one that comes to mind is the first puzzle in Broken Sword 2 where George is tied to a chair with a poisonous spider in front of him and a fire blocking the door. The puzzle amounts to finding a way to release George from the chair while not getting bit by the spider so you can put out the fire and the door which now has a too hot to touch handle. In other words: escape the room! The only difference is that with Broken Sword 2 you get the sense that you’re taking part in a narrative, taking a step further along the plot. It comes down to pure mechanics vs. a whole experience: some people may not enjoy the mechanics unless backed up by other elements. It probably doesn’t help the genre any that it is essentially just one situation repeated over and over. Then again, if people continue to make and play them, maybe that is a strength rather than a weakness?

    It’s all rather bonkers.

  26. CMaster says:

    All the people bashing the genre as a whole – you’re being somewhat unfair. Yes, a huge number of “room escape” games are boring, pixel hunt trash. But a notable number of FPSes are (or were) badly coded corridor blasters. Lots of RPGs are dull stat grinds. Etc.

    There are some gems out there. Perhaps that explains why the genre exploded so. Howwever, the explosion of the genre makes finding said gems rather hard. Again, try the Submachine series.

    • baf says:

      The thing is, though, that in the RPG or FPS genre, once you’ve found a good, you can just play that a lot and ignore the bad ones. Room Escapes are intrinsically short and usually have no replayability whatever. (I’ve seen a few that provide some kind of multiple endings or collectibles, but even that just extends the playtime from a lunch break to two lunch breaks.) So when I play Room Escapes, I wind up spending proportionately less of my time on the really good ones than I do in these other genres.

      This is really a problem borne by adventures in general, but it’s intensified in Room Escapes.

  27. Lilliput King says:

    With beautiful pictures and lovely music! These things make a difference.

    TBH I don’t really get this type of game, though. I tend to only play adventure games for the humour, as the actual game mechanics are usually pretty dull.

    • Lilliput King says:

      Reply to Ginger Yellow about Machinarium being an escape the room game :-(

    • Ginger Yellow says:

      Of course they make a difference. I wasn’t knocking the game at all. I was just a bit puzzled by this post coming so soon after the demo of Machinarium.

  28. Carra says:

    I’ve played one or two but didn’t really get into it. It’s missing the story element or character development that a regular adventure game has. And adventures should be about coming up with a solution and not pixel hunting.

  29. Premium User Badge

    Stense says:

    I’d never heard of this type of game before, so I was curious to have a little look. I doubt I’m going to be that bothered in the future. While some looked ok, I didn’t find any that were particulary entertaining or a rewarding experience. Well done to the people who take the time to make one, hope you continue in your hobby. Not my cup of tea though.

  30. DMJ says:

    A good Room Escape makes you feel like a genius when you solve it.

    A bad Room Escape makes you feel like you’re the pixel janitor, scrubbing every inch of the room to reveal the Magic Pixels of Sudden And Inexplicable Victory.

  31. Severian says:

    I’d recommend Guest House: http://terminalhouse.com/guesthouse_en.html

    No, no story or explanation but a lovely setting and intriguing elements that allow you to create your own narrative.

    I wouldn’t say I’m a Room Escape junkie – I tend to give up on too many of them – but I do appreciate that the genre exists and every now and then, they’re exactly what I’m looking for.

  32. Ira says:

    I have to agree with Vinraith.

    I’m also astonished to find out there was such a stigma against Myst. The first two games were great. Third and Fourth were ok and haven’t played the fifth. But man I loved those first two games. The atmosphere and the worlds created are fantastic.

    • The Dark One says:

      I really loved the game, too. Even if it was a hacked version of Hypercard, it was still a pusher- Myst was the game that pushed my family to buy a soundcard. The world was really well put together, and it’s basically the only time I’ve sought out spinoff novels based on a game’s universe (I did read a Warcraft book, but it came free with my Frozen Throne expansion).

    • Ira says:

      The novels were surprisingly good. My wife who is definitely NOT a gamer nor knows anything about Myst read the books on my recommendation and now is recommending them to all her friends.

  33. Joe says:

    Theory: there are a lot of room escape games because they are very easy to make.

  34. JonFitt says:

    I see the Room Escape genre as reductionist point-and-click adventures. They remove the graphics and story and distil them down to their base elements, which is finding items, and using them.

    Even the fact that it only takes place in one room doesn’t really make it any different. It might look like in a point-and-click you go somewhere, but you really don’t. Unlocking a box in a room escape is like unlocking a new screen in a point-and-click. Placing items in a Crows Nest and a Galley is only just drawing out the distance between two items which need to be combined.

    Some are tedious pixel hunts, but then so were some old point-and-click games. The puzzles may sometimes be difficult involving pen and paper, but I would argue these are more like games than some point-and-click adventures which are little more than cartoons with put-the-round-chicken-in-the-square-hole-to-continue blocks.

    A room escape is often The Times Crossword to a point-and-click’s The Sun Wordsearch.

    That being said, I love point-and-clicks and think the story and setting is important, but I think they could learn a thing or two from some of the better room escape puzzles.

  35. mister_d says:

    So I tried Guest House and escaped the room — yay! The only hard part was figuring out that stuff was hidden behind objects, especially one of the coins which was a bit of a pixel hunt. I didn’t expect what happened though and it was somewhat satisfying to complete.

    I was escape number 123297 which I assume is a count, so it’s obviously fairly popular.

  36. patton says:

    So you have time to do this instead of Risen ? :(
    Well, i have never really liked room escape games, mainly because they have ridicilous puzzles, and annoying pixel hunting, so i can find some random item so i can escape.

  37. MadTinkerer says:

    Actually, the Penumbra series is kind of a cross between first-person-stealth and Room Escape.

    Also see Science & Industry. A few of those puzzles were Myst-level infuriating.

  38. Jetsetlemming says:

    It seems the first Escape the Room game (the one where you’re in a one room apartment/motel room, and your ultimate goal is to find a key and doorknob for the exit door) came out only a few months ago in my memory.
    I actually decently like these games, at least when they’re well made and don’t require me to endlessly click shit to pixel hunt for that one little hidden screen (that original game did, you had to click in one tiny little area to get the view to shift to behind the bed to find a battery), and don’t require calculus and knowledge of piano keys and dead languages to solve the logic puzzles. It really is though, just not something you think to talk about and recommend to friends. Maybe because the games themselves are so small and low-key.

    It’s funny, when you think about it, how many proclaim adventure games to be deader than dead, when really what happened is Sierra and Lucasarts quit and the internet took over en masse.

  39. Mikalye says:

    I do play them. I would hesitate to call myself an aficionado, but give me a lunch break and it fills the gap nicely, particularly, as I usually can play these on my office computer without violating any of the blocking, which is not true of most games. I think that there is a huge appetite for very short break games. I suspect that this (as well as the extremely attractive economics) is behind the popularity of the Travian-clones and other persistent browser based games.

    They are played, a lot.