TV shows based on escape rooms games with famous people - what does the audience say? A few words about the story when a hobby meets stars and artists in front of a camera.
Probably there is no need to explain what the escape room game is. The interest of being locked in a room full of puzzles, brain teasers and riddles linked with the great mystery of the room’s story has grown amazingly in the last years. Small businesses, based their products on video games, haunted houses and puzzles, that started escape room history, turn into TV shows that are watched by millions of people. The impact on mass media culture was inevitable and now is significant. So what will happen when we lock famous people together in one room and click the record button?
Firstly, a few words about history
The escape room entertainment is pretty young - can’t even enters a bar in the USA. The place considered as the progenitor and godfather of the whole industry was opened in 2003 in Indianapolis, USA. It was called True Dungeon and was the live play of Dungeons and Dragons. This place was far from nowadays escape room convention, but it gave birth to an idea of future concept. First real escape room game was opened a few years later, in Japan, 2007. The next decade saw the development of this entertainment - other rooms were built globally to finally find a fertile ground in the USA and Europe.
In the beginning of 2019 the SolvePrague Internet service provided an amount of the escape room market in few world countries. The data is partly from 2017. In that moment, pointing out the countries with the largest number of that kind of place, there was ca. 6000 escape rooms in the US, 1400 in Spain, 1000 in Poland, 900 in the UK, and 600 in the Netherlands. It shows the development of the escape room industry, proving the high interest of new branch of entertainment - from 1 room in Japan to even 50,000 – 60,000 in the world 12 years later. Currently, due to pandemic time and many other factors the amount of game rooms decreases, but the market is still alive.
Beginning of the escape series
We all agree that people love challenges. People have a need to compete, be the best, first. It’s in our nature. And what else do people like? That's simple - TV shows. Reality shows, talk shows, debate shows. And game shows. One of the first, or just even first TV game show in the escape room convention was Japanese Dero!. The opening episode was aired in 2009. Each episode of this show had one team challenging three rooms, winning money for each person who… Yeah, exactly - successfully escaped. The show pretends that losers suffer possibly "lethal" consequences - falling to an abyss, for example.
Four years later, in 2013, american channel Syfy released a game show based on a Japanese one called Exit. Rules were pretty similar but with the difference that there were 4 double teams in one episode, fighting against each other. At the end of the episode the most clever team gets $10,000. Syfy released one season containes 6 episodes watched by over 4 millions of people in the USA (an average of over 700 thousand views per one episode). Dero! and Exit shows the entertainment not exactly matched with traditional escape room games, because I’ve never heard before about places that force players to solve the puzzle quickly to avoid being thrown into the dark deep… Real deep.
Escape rooms became more and more popular, just like TV programs based on this amusement. Less than 2 years after the end of the EXIT broadcast, American Science Channel started its original series Race to Escape hosted by well known comedian Jimmy Pardo. It was quite similar to Dero and Exit - two triple teams competed with each other. Teams played in two identical rooms and the faster one won $25,000. This series has only one season of 6 episodes. Despite the similarity to previous series, the scenario of Race to Escape was more like well known escape room games. Almost 1,7 millions viewers watched this production on Science Channel before it was broadcast internationally on Discovery Science channel. Now the reality show you can find on Amazon Prime streaming platform. Speaking of which…
Era of the Internet
Popularity of internet streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, or even YouTube and others, has risen in recent years. Programs are originally placed in the internet platforms mentioned above. Cons? You can watch it whenever you want without having to wait for the broadcast or rerun on TV. And that is the future. One of the well directed and produced for YouTube only is Escape! with Janet Varnet show. Program is created by Ryan Copple and Annie Liu and the executive producer is Felicia Day - actress known from the Buffy and Supernatural TV series. Felicia is also head of Geek and Sundry - commercial YouTube and Twitch channel and multimedia production company behind the production of the show.
And there is where celebrity shows began. Escape! With Janet Varney is probably the first series where famous people take part. Janet, brisk program host, invited well known TV and voice actors and actresses, writers, producers, including Carla Galo, Craig Cackowski, Sonequa Martin Green, Josh McDermitt and and even the aforementioned Felicia Day. They have only 30 minutes to face challenging rooms full of brain teasers and puzzles. Goal - escape on time. In every episode there is another room with special scenario, scenography and matched puzzles, especially prepared for participant guests. This nine-part series has been watched by more than 5,5 millions viewers since the first episode was aired in 2017. The most popular one, watched by 1,5 millions YouTube users, was played by 5 voice actors - Matthew Mercer, Marisha Ray, Laura Bailey, Travis Willingham, and Christopher Sabat, known from Critical Role - the internet series in which seven popular voice-over actors dive into epic adventures of Dungeons and Dragons world (RPG). Critical Role movies have millions of views and, needless to say, as many fans. Probably that's the reason why this episode was so successful.
Return to Asia
In 2019 Chinese TV channel Mango TV aired the first episode of the Great Escape reality series. Producer invited 5 famous Chinese celebrities known from domestic television - actors and actresses, sportsmen, songwriters, singers. The show was attended by, among others, Yang Mi, Deng Lun, Huang Minghao, Zhang Wei and Zhang Guowei. Great Escape focuses mostly on celebrities' experiences and their reactions to events that take place during solving puzzles and walking through previously prepared scenarios. And because of this production and escape room games shares little in common. Many episodes are created as a hunting house idea or as a game of skills. There are puzzles, of course, but to my mind they are in the background.
There were 3 seasons with 13 or 14 episodes each, now fully available on YouTube platform. Unfortunately, I didn’t find information about numbers of viewers while broadcasting on TV. Based on YouTube, the most popular season(the second one), has been watched by 24 millions of people in total.
Shorts and single episodes
There are many more programs and shows based on escape room games - advertising shorts or special episodes. In 2015 CBS 2 broadcast short presents 4 known and respected CBS journalists trying to escape the room. Short viewed an unknown amount of TV and almost 240 thousands of YouTube users.
3 years later, in 2018, James Corden invited singer Ariana Grande to a horror escape room. Number of views on The Late Late Show with James Corden YouTube channel - over 23 millions.
Actor Will Smith, who needs no introduction, took in 2019 his friend, also well known actor - Tom Holland, to a spy themed escape room. Will and Tom, as voice actors, starred together in a movie “Spies in Disguise”. They had 30 minutes to solve all the puzzles linked with this animated movie. Short, recorded as a private Will’s vlog, is a well hidden advertisement of the Hollywood production. Viewership score - 16 millions views.
In the same year Marvel Entertainment published on its YouTube channel a 4 minutes short movie on which actors of Avengers: Endgame movie - Anthony Mackie, Letitia Wright, Sebastian Stan, and Benedict Cumberbatch, trying to escape the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) themed room. It can also be classified as an ad. The popularity of the movie - over 15 millions of views.
Probably every American knows about Red Nose Day. For non Americans - it is campaign with the mission to end child poverty by funding programs that keep children safe, healthy, educated and empowered. In 2020, an American NBC channel aired a TV special called Celebrity Escape Room. The program was hosted by charismatic actor and comedian Jack Black who prepared the puzzle room for a team of 4 well known actors and actresses - Ben Stiller, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow and Adam Scott. The team has 1 hour to solve all brain teasers and escape. For solving every puzzle they earned $15,000 - in total $150,000. Celebrities donated money from the win to the Red Nose foundation (yes, spoiler alert, it means that they won). In connection with the goal, the scenography of the rooms passed by the players referred to the kid’s world - a children's room, school, prom. Number of recipients - 3,8 millions of TV viewers and almost 820 thousands on YouTube.
So what does the audience say?
All in all, looking at the popularity of the mentioned programs, shorts and series, people really like to watch game shows based on escape room ideas. It turns out the real acceptance shows like Chinese or American Escape! with Janet Varney, or even shorts like Celebrity Escape Room found their audience in the online environment. Even those produced for TV - for instance Great Escape or Race to Escape. The interest in such content is not decreasing. On the contrary, the number of programs has grown over the years.
If you asked me, as one of the content recipients (I actually saw almost all of the mentioned programs and episodes of series) and also an active player and the person involved into this world, about my opinion I would say that the still young entertainment field is still developing and looking for new directions. It is commonly known that business and trend news remain unchanged, are quickly becoming passe and being forgotten. Nonetheless, escape room amusement doesn’t want to go away and turn into history. And I am grateful for inventors, directors and other escape room enthusiasts for evolving and popularizing the game that hadn't been yet known 15 years ago.
Journalist and indologist by profession. Writer, marketer, tarantulas keeper and urbex explorer by heart.
In the meantime I’m playing escape rooms and board games, and I wonder how I find time to sleep (still dunno). I was born to write - my favorite forms of expression are extensive articles preceded by a long research, and horror stories (for some it’s the same).
Greetings from Traverse City, MI! Now that we have had a week to recuperate, we’re ready to give you a recap of our twelve state, thirty-five escape room marathon that we completed in just sixteen days!