Gamers are used to the grandeur of large scale environments. It seems the sheer size of a game world is one measurement of the success of Triple-A titles. The same can be said of many films that aim to enthrall viewers in a vast landscape, fantastical or otherwise. Admittedly, there is a strong visual appeal to enormity. The visual spectacle of Lord of the Rings conveys the magnitude of the film’s quest. Similarly, swooping down over a valley in Dark Void or traversing an open desert in Red Dead Redemption can evoke an overwhelming sense of awe or even solitude.
Conversely, there is an entire sub-genre of adventure games that emphasize small enclosed spaces: “escape the room” puzzles. Most of these are flash based games playable in a browser. They are some of the hardest and most complex gaming experiences available, which have earned them a massive and devoted fan base. These games also have their film counterparts, some of which succeed in many ways that these games have not. These confined experiences, some isolated to just a single room, evoke entirely different sensations than huge and sweeping tales and can teach us a great deal about game design as well.
There are a handful of movies that tell their stories more or less in a single space. Directing such a film, captivating an audience, and maintaining that audience’s attention, is a challenge that few filmmakers are eager to pursue. A few notable examples include 12 Angry Men, a 1957 adaptation of a play by the same name that focuses on twelve jurors deliberating on a murder trial, Das Boot, a 1981 German film about the crew of a WWII U-boat, and Conspiracy, a 2001 dramatization of the Nazi Wannsee Conference during which the fate of millions of Jews was decided. All of these films are well worth a viewing. However, there are three particular films that I find representative of the unique sensations confined spaces can create.
The first is Buried, a very recent release by Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés. The film stars Ryan Reynolds as Paul Conroy, a man buried alive somewhere in Iraq. The entire ninety minute film takes place inside a wooden coffin. Sparing a few clever camera tricks and distant shots of the box from the darkness above, Cortés never cheats by including a scene filmed above ground. With just a cell phone and a few miscellaneous items, Cortés maintains a respectable pace, squeezing tense dialogue and two suspenseful action sequences into this space. The film conveys some of the hysteria and claustrophobia that one might feel when so severely limited by circumstances.
The second film is Rope, a 1948 film by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted from a play of the same name. In Rope, two students murder a classmate with a rope and then host a dinner party for the victim’s relatives while the body and murder weapon remain hidden in the same room. With some cleverly masked cuts, the film appears composed of just a few incredibly long takes. The camera also never leaves the apartment. By confining the film to a single room, every conversation is colored by the murder that just took place. The murder weapon is reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, ever present and foreboding, taking on increased significance in confined quarters. By isolating the film to one small apartment, Rope provides a unique and heightened form of suspense.
Lastly, Vincenzo Natali’s Cube, released in 1997, is perhaps most similar to the surprisingly popular “escape the room” genre of games. This sci-fi horror film follows a group of seven strangers who suddenly awaken inside a cube with one square hatch on each side. Each opening leads to another cube, and these cubes lead to yet more cubes—most of which are rigged with elaborate death traps. Only by picking up on small clues can the survivors hope for escape. The film succeeds brilliantly, relying on the mystery of the cube’s design and purpose to draw viewers into a surreal thriller.
Most “escape the room games” begin with a similar scenario to that of Cube. Players commonly begin trapped in a single room with little or no explanation about what lead up to such a circumstance and with few if any clues immediately apparent. Sagrario’s Room Escape is a notable and high quality example in which players find themselves alone in an all white room containing a locked briefcase, a chair that is bolted to the floor, and a single painting. Like the cubes in Natali’s film, Sagrario’s Room Escape hides a great deal of complexity in an austere environment. Small objects are tucked away behind items or under floorboards and invisible messages become illuminated under a black light. The sheer amount of objects and riddles in one room is impressive.
While some “escape the room” puzzles take place in mundane locations, ranging from hair salons to closets, many take place in mysterious locations, sometimes hinting at a darker overall story. The popular Submachine series of escape games by Mateusz Skutnik actually include the skeletal structure of a story told through six thus-far released games, with an additional three spin-off games hinting at some of the series’s additional background story. Skutnick and Vitali both succeed in creating compelling narratives without revealing more mysteries than absolutely necessary.
That being said, confined spaces are conducive for evoking sensations that many games never attempt to create. The suspense of Rope hinges upon dramatic irony, of knowing that a dead body and two evil men are so near the protagonist without him knowing. As single character affairs, “escape the room” games do not capitalize on the tension created between individuals—a side effect of largely avoiding plot altogether. Similarly, the slowly paced nature of first-person point-and-click adventures limit the sensation of claustrophobia and hysteria that a film like Buried relies upon.
None of this is to say that “escape the room” games should be judged by standards set by these highly stylized films. While theoretically no different than most other puzzle games, the physical presence of the room, particularly the blood red walls of The Crimson Room, heightens the overwhelming sense of frustration felt by players who know that all the tools of escape are within their grasp if only they could put together the solution. Interestingly, many of these games also create compelling experiences with essentially no fail-states. They also achieve remarkably simple aesthetics while maintaining a high degree of complexity, putting to shame games with complicated but uninteresting and poorly interactive environments.
The “escape the room” genre of puzzle games proves that confined spaces can potentially be incorporated in exciting ways into traditional games of any kind. Their film counterparts, however, better capture some of the unique qualities of single-room experiences that traditional games overlook. Confined spaces can evoke profound sensations of frustration, claustrophobia, and paranoia and also convey some unique moments of emotional intensity. Indeed, there are a few games, such as Dead Space and Bioshock, that do just that. Yet there is plenty more room for exploration as well.