Inside the enigma: The tech behind an escape room

Locked in a room with 60 minutes to escape by solving a series of puzzles, escape rooms are the live-action gaming trend taking over the world. But forget jigsaws and crosswords -- the games have gone high tech.

Claire Reilly Former Principal Video Producer
Claire Reilly was a video host, journalist and producer covering all things space, futurism, science and culture. Whether she's covering breaking news, explaining complex science topics or exploring the weirder sides of tech culture, Claire gets to the heart of why technology matters to everyone. She's been a regular commentator on broadcast news, and in her spare time, she's a cabaret enthusiast, Simpsons aficionado and closet country music lover. She originally hails from Sydney but now calls San Francisco home.
Expertise Space, Futurism, Science and Sci-Tech, Robotics, Tech Culture Credentials
  • Webby Award Winner (Best Video Host, 2021), Webby Nominee (Podcasts, 2021), Gold Telly (Documentary Series, 2021), Silver Telly (Video Writing, 2021), W3 Award (Best Host, 2020), Australian IT Journalism Awards (Best Journalist, Best News Journalist 2017)
Claire Reilly
8 min read
The Enigma Room

"A puzzle is a problem that is fun to solve and has a right answer. 'Fun to solve,' as opposed to everyday problems which, frankly, are not very well-designed puzzles," said self-styled puzzlemaster Scott Kim in "The Art of Puzzles."

On the top floor of an unassuming office block in the middle of Sydney, Australia, we're going to put that to the test. We're waiting to be locked in a room for sixty minutes. Our only means of escape rests in our ability to solve a series of puzzles. We're dressed in labcoats (we're playing doctors, after all), blindfolded and led down a dark corridor before the door is locked behind us and the clock starts ticking. Once we take off our blindfolds, we're met with a hallway lined with framed photos, just like you'd see in any young woman's house. But right now we're not focused on these details -- the young woman has only got one hour to live, and we're all staring at a locked box sitting in the middle of the floor.

We've officially joined the ranks of a growing number of city dwellers looking to blur the lines between the hum-drum of everyday life and the world of video games and movies.

Today, we broke out of an escape room.

The great escape

Escape rooms -- or real-life room escape games as they are sometimes known -- have taken the world by storm in recent years; by one count, there are now close to 1,400 rooms spread across 277 cities and 53 countries around the world.

The basic premise is simple: a small group of people are sent into a room, which has been dressed up to look like crime scene, an office, or even an ordinary suburban home, depending on the game scenario. Inside, players are presented with a series of puzzles that they need to solve to get to the bottom of the mystery in this fictional world, and to get out of the physical room that they've been locked inside.

But the puzzles aren't just sudoku puzzles and jigsaws -- they come in all shapes and sizes, and many have been so seamlessly incorporated into the room that at first glance, they don't even look like problems to be solved. Do you need to pick up that radio? Should those books be put back on the shelf? And why is there one chair missing at the table?

The escape room is where the lines between real world and fiction are blurred, and where the seemingly mundane is brought vividly to life. You know you're not on a crime scene and you're not actually locked in the room (it's a game after all, not a flagrant breach of fire codes), but for 60 minutes, the immersion in this fictional world is almost absolute.

First-person puzzler

The seamless experience of taking part in an evolving story takes a lot of cues from video game design -- especially the kind of signposting frameworks that game designers use to guide players through first-person shooters.

Sydney's newest escape room, the Enigma Room, certainly takes a leaf out of the FPS book -- albeit one that ditches the shoot-em-up action for more cerebral exploits.

Created by Sydney locals Matt Lee, Barry Skalrud and Piyush Bedi, the Enigma Room has, by its own admission, gone for slightly "atypical" themes, so there's a little less murder mystery and "Saw" and a little more "Austin Powers" and "Inception" to its rooms. But according to Lee, beneath the props and story lines, there are plenty of gaming-inspired principles driving these escape rooms.

"Dr. Disaster", the mastermind behind one of Enigma's escape rooms. The Enigma Room

"When you're trying to guide people through an FPS you're surrounded by buildings, some of them have doors, there are different paths out of the alleyway -- you need to somehow guide people down a particular path because that's where they need to run," he said.

"The parallels between what we do and what good video games do, is you're trying to present something which is slightly mysterious, but still providing enough information to guide people down a particular path or say that you're on track to the correct solution."

It's not just about filling a room with puzzles and waiting out the clock. Rather, a good escape room will create a linear narrative with puzzles that need to be solved in order, whilst still maintaining the feel of an open world where anything could happen. It all comes down to signposting the puzzles for players.

"You might do that in really obvious ways, in terms of written instructions, or what I prefer is more subtle ways like the room layout or ways items are presented to you so you automatically think 'A goes with B so we need to put them together'," said Lee. "It's a way of getting people to put things together, without telling them what to do."

But while there might be similar design cues across the two genres, the escape game experience certainly goes one better than its video game counterparts. After all, the player is the one standing in the physical space, driving the action.

"We tell people when they first come in, it's not like a video game where you've got a controller and that's all you can do -- we're trying to get people to interact with the physical space in as many different ways as possible," said Lee.

"In some ways we're getting people to live a video game or live a movie...but it's a completely new thing to experience it. Ordinary life is ordinary life -- you don't have someone who is designing special effects around you.

"What we like to do, at least for that little hour, is provide a few of those effects and make you feel like you're not just in a movie, but you're living through it and you're the one who's driving the entire experience, solving the puzzles."

The magic factor

Creating challenging, fun and solvable puzzles for the Enigma Room was a challenge in itself for Lee and his team. In the end, it came down to "burning a candle at both ends" in order to create puzzles driven by narrative, and others that offered interesting puzzle mechanics.

The Enigma Room uses complex puzzles as well as simple directional padlocks. MasterLock

According to Lee, the physical puzzles themselves need to fit within the narrative of the room for the sake of complete immersion. In his words, "if you're doing a jailbreak, and you go into the room and there's a pirate's chest on the floor...it takes you out of the moment."

While you'll see cool padlocks and alphanumeric combination locks inside Enigma's rooms, all the props themselves fit seamlessly within the theme. In the "Inception"-themed room that sees players diving into the memories of a dying young woman, solving the puzzles allows players to open keepsake boxes (not a single pirate chest to be seen). The boxes store tokens from the woman's life -- tokens that double as clues to progress further in the game.

But that doesn't mean room designers can't include clever mechanics that get players thinking and acting in unexpected ways, and this is where Enigma really excels as an escape room for the modern era. Behind the scenes, there is a surprising amount of tech enabling the puzzles in its rooms, resulting in a completely automated space that immerses players further.

It starts before players have even entered the room, when they are shown a video that inserts them into the narrative, and then given a tablet that will act as a personal guide and a means to dispense hints.

When they're inside the room, players are watched on surveillance cameras so Lee and the team know what stage of the game they're up to at each moment. If players are stuck on particular puzzle, they can tap the tablet for help. But rather than hearing from staff, they'll get personalised hints coming from the characters that appeared in the video at the start.

The Enigma Room sets the scene with character videos. The Enigma Room

While other puzzle rooms rely on lo-fi walkie-talkies to let players call out to reception for help when they're stumped, Lee argues that this breaks the fourth wall created when players enter the room. By using characters from the story to offer hints, Enigma keeps players in the world of the game with "a bit more theatricality".

The surveillance cameras aren't the only ways the players are tracked in the room. There are also plenty of smart sensors used throughout the space to fully automate the experience, by displaying content on screens, playing audio clues and even opening doors.

"We don't like to cheat," said Lee. "I'm not one to say, 'We've got a door and as soon as you do a particular action we'll remotely open it for you', or have somebody hiding in the wall and pulling it across. If it's going to have that automatic reaction, then we wanted the tech to be able to achieve that."

Some of this automation is Arduino powered, an inexpensive and easy-to-use chipset that can be programmed for countless applications, from lighting and robotics to "the craziest things you could possibly think of" according to Lee. At Enigma, Arduino boards are linked to sensors meaning that as puzzles are solved, players get immediate feedback in the form of more clues.

But it's not just hobbyist electronics that are hiding in the walls. The team has also used Kinect sensors for motion detection, meaning certain movements in the space are capable of unlocking new elements of the room.

For Lee, it's all about giving puzzle solvers something unexpected.

"Most people would have heard of using a Kinect to play Xbox games, so having the ability to use a component like that, but in an unexpected way, I think it provides that element of surprise," he said.

"It's that magic factor. As mainstream as it's become -- everybody's got a smartphone these days, everybody's got a good computer and a good internet connection -- there is still that magical nature to some tech, especially when you use it in unexpected ways."

This complete automation gives players a truly enclosed experience "so you're never taken out of that world until you literally leave the room". The Enigma staff are always in control, but players forget there's anything beyond the walls of their room.

Whether it's a Microsoft Kinect coming out of the blue, a retro missile control panel or the hidden (and delightfully nerdy) easter eggs spread throughout the space, the Enigma Room aims to surprise and delight in unexpected ways.

For Lee and the team, the constant question driving them with the technology and puzzle design in their rooms was, "Does it surprise you in any way?"

"At its heart, if you're not having fun, there's no point in doing it," said Lee. "If you're in a room and you aren't thinking about the time and you've forgotten about everything else that you might need to do for the rest of that day, then that's success."

After all, the best escape rooms really are just about escapism.