As part of the ‘Experience Economy’, an Escape Room can scarcely afford to compromise on any design aspect. And that includes the theme on which its missions are based. Here we discuss what the most popular such themes are.
As an Escape Room owner, one of the basic questions you face when creating a new mission is – what theme will this mission be based on?
When you’re taking that decision, it might help if you know what themes are popular with the other Escape Rooms.
And how do you find out what themes are popular with other Escape Rooms? You ask them, right? You take a survey.
Being escape enthusiasts ourselves, we at SEO ORB went ahead and did this for you.
Last year, SEO ORB launched a survey of Escape Room owners asking them about various aspects of their rooms.
And, this is how they responded to the question ‘What themes do Escape Rooms adopt?’.
Mystery Escape Room Theme
As you can see, the ‘Mystery’ theme is clearly the most popular theme.
This may be ‘natural’ or ‘satisfying’ in a way since any Escape Room mission in a way is a mystery – the players need to find out where the clues are, what the solutions to the riddles are and so on.
That being said, ‘Mystery’ is a very broad theme, unlike ‘Prison’. A ‘prison’ theme can support only a few backstories – like escaping from a prison, finding someone in a prison – and so on.
On the other hand, ‘Mystery’ can be anything from escaping the clutches of a serial killer to solving the murder of the head of a crime syndicate.
If you study the two escape missions I just cited you will note a wide variance between the two.
In the first one – escaping the clutches of a serial killer – the player takes up the role of an ordinary person who’s been captured by someone, presumably a killer and needs to escape. Think of it as a crossover between Law & Order and Wolf Creek, although the latter is generally accepted to fall in the horror genre.
A sub-plot involves the question as to whether this ‘someone’ is not just any rank-and-file killer but an infamous serial killer who did in fact exist in real life and torment Northern California for at least a decade.
So, any player is directly thrust into the story and pitted against an antagonist.
Whereas in the second escape game – investigating the murder of a crime boss – the player adopts the role of a professional investigating agent investigating the murder of a crime boss which, if not solved, could lead to gang warfare.
Unless the player is a serving or retired investigating officer, this particular escape game does not thrust the player as is into the game, but places them in a different mould – that of an investigating officer.
This might sound trivial but it can add a lot to the player experience.
A third kind of mystery theme could set the player in a situation where they have to find or decipher something important, for example, evidence or information against someone.
Normally, this involves the player trying to find evidence against someone guilty of a crime, that is, on the right side of the law.
A variant of this sub-theme involves placing the player on the wrong side of the law, putting them in the situation of having to recover evidence before the cops can get to it.
The second most popular theme seems to be ‘Fantasy’. This is another of those themes that encompasses a wide and diverse variety of back-stories or escape game concepts.
First of all you have historical legends – mythology of countries like Excalibur in the UK and all that stuff.
Then you have games based on popular franchises like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter.
You could have completely made-up stuff based on fairies and demons, magic spells and so on.
Room design is always a big issue in fantasy-based escape missions. Some escape rooms even go to the extent of procuring actual artefacts for their games.
Science / Laboratory
Next up is ‘Science/Laboratory’. Now, a laboratory may be chemical, physics/engineering-based or biological/biochemical.
However, if we take the broadest consideration possible, a laboratory may also be a computer laboratory with the player having to defeat a computer program of some sort.
It’s interesting to note how neatly ‘Science/Laboratory’ may mesh with the ‘Mystery’ and ‘Horror’ themes, especially when you consider the zombie or viral outbreak genres.
I would say that the theme that’s fifth in the pecking order – ‘Future/Technological’ – can also mesh with ‘Science/Laboratory’.
Future / Technological
This pits the player in an extremely technological setting or sometime in the future.
There is a lot of scope for interesting and hi-tech room design in this theme so as to represent the period in the future where the player is supposed to be in the game.
‘Horror’ is the fourth most popular theme as per the survey.
Once again, no surprises since horror is one of those things that always seems to add a bit of extra spice to whatever – novel, stage play, movie, escape room – is infused with it.
Horror as a theme has a particularly strong taker. Guess who that is?
It’s the sibling industry of escape rooms – haunted houses. Haunted houses are devoted exclusively to horror and they are big business in the United States, generating around 300 million to 500 million USD in ticket sales alone.
And escape rooms have embraced this concept thoroughly.
While escape rooms that focus solely on horror are rare, many escape rooms do have at least one mission based on horror, with some going full-on ‘creepy’ and ‘bloody’.
Backstory design and presentation is a very big part of horror-themed escape games. For example, one escape game went ahead and established individual backstories for each of the characters in the backstory for their game.
Many escape rooms seem to not go full-on horror and instead incorporate some elements of the occult or horror tropes in games that are primarily mystery or fantasy based.
There’s also variety of ways in which the horror is brought about. Some escape rooms rely on atmosphere while others bring in things like jump scares, fake blood and gore.
Next up is ‘Prison’ which, like I said before, allows only a few scenarios on its own, with the two most prominent ones being breaking out of a prison and quelling a riot within a prison.
Breaking in is also a popular escape concept however it commonly is set in a laboratory, a residence, an office etc. Breaking into a prison seems to be a relatively less popular concept.
Other than that, you could always base your game around solving a sudden death in a prison or investigating some aspect (like contraband, messages to criminal associates outside) but they’d also be based on the ‘mystery’ theme.
‘Military’ themed escapes can either incorporate some political or historical aspects, like this one based on the Cold War or they can be straight-up bomb-‘em or diffuse the bomb scenarios.
Adding some actual aspects like the Cold War can give your escape game a boost in credibility; if you go for straight-up diffuse the bomb kind of scenarios, you will need to create a very good backstory and room.
One of the themes that falls in the middle of the popularity rankings is the ‘Seasonal’ theme, which involves games based on seasonal holidays like Christmas or Easter.
Seeing that a core Easter tradition is finding Easter eggs, I’m not sure you’re very surprised to find that Easter is definitely a viable theme, although not maybe the most popular theme around. Maybe this is because such themes would mainly be popular for those who celebrate these holidays.
A sub-theme in this category involves basing a mystery on typical American holiday traditions or customs.
For example, consider this escape mission – the whole family has gathered at Grandma’s house for Christmas but Grandma is nowhere to be found.
Steampunk is the first theme in this list which may have more of a cult following than widespread appeal.
Or it may just be that other themes happen to be more popular than ‘Steampunk’.
Whatever the reason, ‘Steampunk’ finds relatively few takers as far as escape room owners and designers go.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the genre, it involves a past or present setting with a few futuristic elements.
Think ‘Time Machine’ as people of HG Wells’ time would have visualized it. Or Doctor Who appearing in a Victorian era setting.
It would be very similar to ‘Future/Technological’ themes, except the set design and costumes would be different to reflect the present or the past eras.
‘Crime’ as a theme seems to have its own niche of followers. This theme mostly puts the player on the wrong side of the law or on one side of a tussle between criminal elements.
The player could be asked to remove evidence before the police locate it (I mentioned this before in ‘Mystery’) or to help smuggle something through a secure place like an airport.
Or the player could be put on one side of, say a gang war (borrowing a concept I have referred to earlier) and tasked with finding out something in the possession of a rival gang or to eliminate the head of a rival gang.
In most cases, ‘Crime’ is just a flavour (that is, placing the player in the setting of a criminal). The essence of the escape is either a ‘Mystery’ or ‘Military’.
Toy Room and Cartoon / Anime
‘Toy Room’ and ‘Cartoon/Anime’ seem to be very much niche/cult favourite escape themes although cartoon/anime may be getting a makeover with the release of the new ‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ movie.
However the escape concepts will mostly overlap with the ‘Mystery’ and ‘Fantasy’ themes with the players having to find out certain missing toys or undo a spell or solve a mystery based on cartoons.
It appears that there are two kinds of themes – themes like ‘Mystery’ that create both a setting and the kind of escape concept, and themes like ‘Crime’ which only create a setting while the escape concept is either a mystery or is military-based.
Furthermore, some themes seem to have broad-based appeal while others have a narrower (and maybe more dedicated) following.
To conclude, ‘Mystery’, ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Science/Laboratory’ are the most popular escape room themes, with ‘Horror’ following closely behind.
Some of these themes like ‘Mystery’, ‘Crime’ or ‘Military’ present interesting opportunities for placing the player in a morally ambiguous situation like against the law or as a vigilante.
And some themes seem to have more a cult or niche following than broad-based appeal. It might be a good idea to use these themes in temporary escape games set up at a special time, for example to coincide with the ‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ movie rather than as a permanent room.
About the Author
Marketer / Blogger
Piyush is an Escape Room Addict and an SEO enthusiast in equal measure. His love for Escape Rooms has led him to try to help Escape Rooms scale up their business with the help of digital marketing via his agency SEO ORB.
When he’s not teaming up with friends to go on new Escape Room missions, or doing digital marketing stuff, you will find him at his terminal, playing computer games.
Click here to read Piyush’s EscapeFront editorials.