📖 How does an online escape room work?

A look at what to expect in these visual, mouse-driven, team games.

Online escape rooms capture the spirit of real life escape rooms, but in an online collaborative format. They provide a way for several players, in various locations, to solve puzzles in a virtual environment. There are varieties, but they all share a display of the virtual room, using the mouse to interact, or click on things, and a list of items that you can use and investigate. They also require a way for you to communicate with your team, such as Jitsi or Zoom.

In an online escape room, you, along with your team, will click through a series of visuals, finding items, and clues in order to solve the puzzles. Fans of adventure video games will be familiar with this system, whereas others can think of them as a highly visual and immersive collaborative website. This type of game ranges from 60 to 120 minutes, with no previous experience or preparation required.

You can try out our online escape room Cookies for free. It’s a shorter game, meant as an introduction to the genre.

Shared Virtual Room

In order for an online escape room to be cooperative, the players need to be part of the same virtual world. Each player can connect form their own computer, but will be part of the same game. The game will reflect the progress of one player to all the players; everybody sees every item acquired, and every puzzle completed.

The games are commonly played in a web browser, or sometimes a custom downloadable app. The interface of all of them shares some similarities, mainly the room itself and the item listing.

The room is usually a visual depiction of the environment. Here at Edaqa’s Room we use an immersive cartoony style, similar to point-and-click adventure games. You interact with objects in the room by clicking on them. You may have a keypad with buttons to press, which unlocks a door, which you then walk through by clicking on it.

Some games feature photographs of physical rooms. These are still clickable, but to feature less interaction, owing to the static nature of the imagery. Other games offer a more web-like experience, using an integration of photographs, videos, and text in a page-like environment.

Though you’re all in the same virtual environment, not all team members need to be doing the same thing. Players could be in different parts of the room, looking at different puzzles or items. Different games offer varying levels of flexibility here, with our own games offer a highly parallel experience.

Items and Puzzle Pieces

Escape rooms have many objects to interact with. Not all of them are of prominent interest, but some are key pieces to the game’s puzzles. Online escape rooms have a place which lists all the important items the players have found.

A player finds an item by visually locating it in the game, or a game event may give it to them. The player will immediately see the item, and it will also be added to a list. They can click on it again later to see it. Some games let you grab an item and use it in the room. For example, in our Office, you can grab an empty glass, and click on the water cooler to fill it up with water.

The item list is shared between all the players. If one player finds something, then all the players can see it, or use it. An item that is used may be removed from the list, or marked as no-longer-needed. This prevents players from being overwhelmed with items they’ve already used.

Audio Conference (Zoom, Jitsi, et al.)

Communication is important for escape rooms; the online ones are no exception. Players are part of a team, and they need to talk to each other, saying what they are doing, and talking about what they see.

Online escape rooms rely on external platforms to provide this aspect of their experience. You’re probably already familiar with products like Zoom or Jitsi, or perhaps Steam group chats. The audio connection is more important than video, as the players already have the game occupying the screen.

Unlike a live escape room, players can’t rely on the physical actions of others to see what they are doing. This increases the need to communicate, they need to make up for lost visual information, and even aural information, about what their teammates are doing.

I continue to innovate in this area. Though I believe our games offer lots of progression feedback, they could still do more to give activity feedback. We rely on players talking1 to each other, and I think that’s great, but some players might be happier with more silent, in-game feedback.

Solo Player

While online escape rooms are built with teams in mind, individuals can also play them. It can be a challenge, though, given the scope of the games, and the breadth of the puzzles. Though unlike a real life escape room, an online escape room doesn’t need a time limit, so a single player could simply spend longer on it.

Be aware that some games truly require more than one player, as they have a game mechanic requiring two people. The game’s info page should mention this if it does.

There are online games out there with time limits, and I find this personally unfortunate. An online escape room doesn’t have the same physical space and bookings limits of a physical room. From the first online room I wrote, I allowed unlimited time, and unlimited breaks, even letting you come back days later.

A puzzle adventure, with hints

The key aspect of an online escape room is a variety of puzzles. You, and your team, will need to solve puzzles to get further in the game. Don’t be afraid if you can’t quite figure something out. Online escape games feature built-in hint systems. People see and try different things, so it’s not uncommon for a mismatch, and temporary block to occur. In-game hints ensure your game keeps going smoothly.

And that’s it. Go ahead and try our free game Cookies to test it out.