Entertainment options that require us to put on pants and become ambulatory have undergone decades of gradual disintegration. A night at the movies, or the comedy club, or even most local restaurants can be done from home with the help of an app or streaming service. Why leave the house if nearly everything you'd leave for now can come instantaneously straight to you?
This is why escape rooms stand alone from the other options. There is no home version. Try locking your friends and family into your home from the outside and let us know what happens. You'll have a hard time beating a charge of forced imprisonment if your only argument is: "But I gave them a series of clues!" Sure, a waiver might be useful, but we doubt you'd go through the legal rigamarole to make that happen.
You're much better off leaving this to the professionals, and as it turns out, a lot of Americans are doing just that. Escape rooms have become big business. In 2014, there were just over 20 companies that specialized in this brand of entertainment. As of now, there are somewhere around 2,500 locations nationwide. An impressive number, which is compounded by the equally impressive fact that these rooms enable people to work together with other actual people in an actual physical setting.
Hard to fathom, right?
Here in the Valley, we have about two dozen escape rooms, and it's safe to assume more are on the way. One of those locations, Tempe's Alcatraz Escape Games, has three rooms with three different themes that run the gamut from family-friendly to downright rough and gritty.
"Our demographic is so huge," Alcatraz's Marketing Director, Lea Zibeth, says. "I'm fascinated by escape roms because there's no limit to what you can create. It's a world of unlimited possibilities."
Zibeth is spot-on there.
Alcatraz, for instance, has one room that features the vibe and feel of a certain teenage wizard's adventures, which Zibeth says is a big hit with the all-ages crowd.
On the other end of the spectrum, Alcatraz has a death row-themed room, complete with handcuffs, an electric chair, and even an actor decked out in full Hannibal Lecter garb. Zibeth and the good people at Alcatraz gave me the chance to experience this room. I have to admit, I would never have imagined how entertaining a prison breakout would be. The hour began with my partner and I being cuffed to the cell bars, and ended with the two of us figuring out how to disable the security lasers and dash out the door with literally seconds to spare. Four seconds, to be exact.
With an option for a Harry Potter fantasy in one corner and a Ted Bundy fantasy in the other, attendees are bound to get what they want.
And that's the beauty of these immersion-therapy centers, where entertainment meets claustrophobia: If creators can dream it, they can probably build it.
You want to find the emergency exit in the deep bowels of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory? Not a problem. You want to make a mad dash out of John Wayne Gacy's basement? Give a set designer a script outline and a reasonable timeframe and you've got yourself a house of horrors, complete with a fully committed actor playing the role of the killer clown himself.
This infinite number of options means that escape rooms firmly abide by the LEGO rule: They're fun for anyone, from ages 9 to 99.
So what does this tell us about the future of entertainment? Are these rooms just a fad, or do they have far deeper implications?
Philosopher Alan Watts may have given the perfect answer to that one in a 1972 lecture in which he theorized that entertainment would one day come full circle.
The noted zen master pointed out that we went from live theater, to radio, to black-and-white television, to color television. He then predicted advancements that bear a strikingly close resemblance to everything from HD television to virtual reality technology. The only logical step from there would be more and more advancements in VR, bringing us closer and closer to the real thing but never separating entirely from its synthetic state.
And where do you go from there? According to Watts, you'd go to the next logical conclusion: immersive, physical entertainment embedded in real experiences, live and in living color.
If you subscribe to that belief, then the entertainment of tomorrow might already be here.
If you're looking to have an escape room experience of your own, here's a quick list of some of the locations you can find here in the Valley:
Alcatraz Escape Games
1290 North Scottsdale Road, #103, Tempe
Escape The Room AZ
7017 East Main Street, Scottsdale
Gilbert Escape Room
1422 West Warner Road, Suite A 102, Gilbert
Escape Rooms Mesa
86 West University Drive, Mesa
Paradox Escape Room
7 East Palo Verde Street, #9, Gilbert
The Puzzle Effect
4700 North Central Avenue, #102, Phoenix
Cluemaster Escape Rooms
425 West Guadalupe Road, #117, Gilbert
International Room Escape AZ
1166 South Gilbert Road, #105, Gilbert
Dare to Escape AZ
9875 South Priest Drive, #101, Tempe
Riddle Escape Room
2334 North Scottsdale Road, Suite A-120, Scottsdale