What Is An Online Escape Room?

2020.10.05.

Living in these strange times of Covid-19, means that a lot of our day to day social interaction has become very limited indeed. Many things that we previously took for granted are now out of reach. And that includes many forms of being with friends and family. To break the tedium of the lock-down, many people are turning to the internet for their entertainment. And if you're a person who's previously played at escape room games, then finding an online version is going to be a boon. 

An online escape room is just what is says on the tin. Instead of playing in an actual physical room, you're playing over the internet. You're in a room, yes, a real room, but looking at things thanks to a camera attached to a real live games master. He acts as a kind of robot, following your every command as you direct him to seek out the clues and puzzles. You on the other hand can be sitting comfortably on your sofa or on the toilet, and you'll still be able to play provided that you have an internet connection. 

The game play is similar to that you'll find in a regular bricks and mortar escape room game. The only difference is that you're not actually present. There are a number of different games scenarios. These include having your own games master, who'll follow your instructions as he moves around the room, and you'll be following his every move with your webcam. Another option is an online game without the games master. You use your mouse to search around the room yourself. Obviously with this latter game there are no time constraints meaning that the game can be played at any hour of the day. 

One the whole, most escape room companies will have different themes for each room. These themes will go hand in hand with the story-line offered. For example, if you're searching for Aztec treasure, then the room setting would be ancient Mexican jungle. Like wise, if you trying to solve a Sherlock Holmes style scenario, then the decoration might be Victorian or Edwardian. It goes without saying that all the puzzles and clues will fit in with the theme. In the online world of escape rooms everything functions thanks to the games master.

When you enter via your video call, the games master is the very first person you'll meet. He's here to help you out in any way possible. He'll first explain the rules to everyone. If you're unclear on the instructions or even get totally stuck with one clue, well, he's the guy to ask! Essentially your games master is there to guide all the participants through the game. He'll also provide little hints if you're stuck and if you ask nicely. It's super important that when you speak to him that you are clear and precise. He's only too happy to do your bidding, but going to look under the piano for the twentieth time can get a little taxing, even for him! 

The games master acts as your eyes and ears. So, try and utilize his talents as you would if you were actually there. To that end, don't have him running around like a headless chicken. Be logical in your approach. That means taking in the big picture first. Have him go around the room slowly in the beginning. Note the things you see. Then once you have the lye of the land, so to speak, it's time to examine the nitty-gritty. Have him show you each object or clue so that you get to see all sides. If you feel you missed something, simply ask the games master to show it to you again. Though you might imagine that having to direct a second person over the internet via a microphone might be frustrating and slow, in fact it's surprisingly practical and works much better than you'd think. But please be aware that you're the one giving instructions. So make them clear and easy to follow. Good communication is a key component in online escape room games. And do try and remain polite!

The online chat features of these games allow you to communicate with both the games master and your friends and colleagues. It's of no importance where about's they are situated in the world, as the software brings you all together in the same manner as if you were having a conference call. Of course, it's even easier to talk with each other if you can have a visual contact. To that end, the use of a webcam is recommended. These days nearly all tablets, phones, PC's and laptops come with a camera built in. You can hear your team buddies, but being able to see each other whilst chatting will certainly make for a more exciting and immersive gaming experience. It's important to remain calm as your games master makes his progress through the clues and puzzles. If all the members of your team are screaming at him together, then no meaningful communication can take place.

There's another form of online escape room that becoming increasingly popular. Rather than employ a games master, you simply put on a virtual reality headset. With the click of the mouse, you'll find yourself in whatever room and adventure you've chosen. This is totally immersive, as all your senses are wired into the game. Move your head to the right and you'll be doing the same movement in the virtual world. Want to look under a piece of furniture? Then get down and mimic the movement in real life and in real time. Virtual reality escape rooms represent the natural evolution of escape games. 

As of the time of writing, there are three main versions of VR escape games. The first are what we call "arcade games". These games are publicly available and escape room businesses rent them as ready-to-play units. Essentially the owner will have any number of VR headsets and multiple stations which all offer a variety of themes and games. These games tend to be licensed from the games companies themselves. These are often situated in a physical location, like a shopping mall or somewhere with heavy foot traffic.

Next we have the VR Escape Rooms. These come from suppliers like Bane Escape or Ubisoft. Essentially, teams are playing to rent out complete rooms. Once again, this set up need s a location. Of course, there are no real rooms to explore. The players sit on chairs and are then plugged into the headset, earphones and microphones. The actual escape elements of the game are all non existent and only virtual.

Finally we should mention the latest cutting edge technology from the likes of Bane Escape. They are enhanced versions of your regular VR games. They up the ante in the realistic department by adding various elements to the virtual experience. An example would be a nearby explosion in the game, would cause the players chair to wobble in real time. In fact chairs can include any number of haptic devices. Likewise, wind and heat can be introduced onto the players faces. Of the smell of rotting flesh in a zombie apocalypse. You get the picture.Though the player remains in his own virtual world throughout, we can use real world inputs to make the experience even more realistic with the addition of real world sensory stimulants. All escape games using this technology can be described as "multi-sensory" and encourage the concept of free range movement for the players, thus allowing them to wander around in the dark, so to speak.

Though playing online escape room games was just a natural progression in the evolution of this form of entertainment, the onset and social effects of the pandemic have certainly been responsible for their rapid uptake. The emphasis today is on recreating the same user experience as one would of had back in those carefree days, when we could all be crowding together in an escape room. 
With the continued implementation of social distancing, the escape room industry has been lucky to have been able to pivot towards new technology at exactly the right time. Let's hope it continues in this way.

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