A look at the puzzles, theme, and mechanics of this game genre.
An online escape room captures the feel of a real life escape room in the format of a point-and-click adventure. Escape games are puzzle-centric, with a variety of puzzle mechanics. Traditionally, the theme is escaping from a locked room, but games now have a wide variety of stories of tell.
The mechanics of an online escape room are most similar to point-and-click adventure games. The players control the game with a mouse, or rather a cursor in a virtual, usually 2d, game world. Objects can be clicked on to investige them. Items may be dragged around the screen, arranging them to solve a puzzle. Doors, or less subtle arrows, can be clicked to change scenes.
Differing from adventure games, escape games feature puzzles more prominently. In an adventure game the puzzles are there to make the player feel a part of the world. In an online escape game, the story is there to give cohesion to the puzzles they encounter.
There is no real restriction on the type of story told by any puzzle genre. Our game Cookies is part of the classic format, an old lady, with an insatiable appetite for "cookies", has trapped you in her living room. Other games focus on breaking in, or finding a secret. With our Office game, we took a relaxing goal of tidying up at the office before going home.
Escape room style games tend to feature a broader variety of puzzles than other puzzle games. Here I'm referring to the mechanics and style of puzzles. Adventure games use item association and environmental obstacles, varying them with graphics and theme. Escapes games have a lot of rule discovery, where a player needs to figure out the rules of each puzzle. The fundamentals of the puzzle vary within a room as well, some using deduction, or constraints logic, and others using algebraic riddles combined with decomposition puzzles.
Escapes rooms are inherently multiplayer, with each player moving independently about the room. An online game needs to capture this aspect, to avoid the players feeling trapped. As escape rooms have a variety of puzzle types, multiple viewpoints can help catch additional clues and find diverse techniques to solving the puzzles. Solo play is usually possible, though often more difficult.
These games are often played in the browser, but also include downloadable games on platforms such as Steam. The choice of platform shapes some aspects of the game, but doesn't alter the fundamentals of the genre. At Edaqa's Room we opted for the browser for the simplicity of game setup — making the multiplayer easily accessible.
Unlike real escape rooms, online escape rooms don't need to be time constrained. There are no additional resources for longer games, nor do players block the room from the next group. While having time constraints on individual puzzles can be used to create tension, it should be an element of design, and not some arbitrary total limit. An element that survives from the time pressure of real rooms is on-demand hints. An online escape game prefers that players feel constant progression even in the face of a challenging puzzle. A physical escape room has a live host acting as game master, providing hints as required.
Online escape rooms are not to be confused with remote, or avatar, escape rooms. These are live rooms which have been instrumented to allow remote play. The typical approach is a live game host with a camera mounted on them acting as the players' proxy in the room. Some of these games have been augmented with virtual inventory management, or other web-based resources. Experimentation with other formats is always welcome.
I believe online escape rooms represent a distinct genre of puzzle games. Though the mechanics are similar to point-and-click adventures, the focus on puzzles creates a different feeling. There's no better or worse between the genres, they're just here to help setup expectations for you as a player, and help you find games you'll enjoy.