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Popular Escape Room Themes

Eight of the most widely-used escape room designs found throughout the world.

As escape rooms develop, so do the puzzles, the locks, and the doors. But one of the areas that has probably seen the most development in the industry is in the area of escape room themes. A good escape room puts you into a scenario, but a great escape room can throw you into another world. The puzzles may be amazing, but you don’t get to see that beforehand. Just like in the movies, it’s often the name of the room and the cover image or video trailer that sells a room. So it’d be silly to ignore the importance of authentic theming.

No matter the theme, there are essentially two approaches to escape room design. In the first generation of rooms, most were escape-based. This means that the overall goal of the entire room, the thing the players were trying so hard to accomplish, was the escape from some kind of predicament. The theme could be anything, but the goal was always the same. While these rooms still exist and remain popular, a second approach has emerged, that of quest-based games. Rather than attach the goal to a particular door as the means of escape, it became associated with accomplishing some other task, like solving a mystery or finding a special item. As such, quest-based rooms allowed for greater creativity in the themes because operators were free to let the theme create a fitting story, rather than try to fit every theme into the need to get away from some imminent danger.

Regardless of the goal, there are some mainstream themes that tend to get used a lot, but uniqueness can go a long way. Regardless, here’s a look at some of the most popular escape room themes in the business.

The Classics

There are some themes that just fit the genre of solving puzzles to accomplish a mission so perfectly that they’ve become a staple. Just about every major escape room facility has designed a room to check off the ‘classic’ box, whether it’s the prison escape, the detective story, or the deranged mad scientist’s lab. But as contrived as they may seem, they’re called ‘classic for a reason … they’re still super popular!

Back to the Future

While the Classics often get by riding the waves of past stories, these rooms like to ride those waves right into the future. They can still be down to earth, with “Bond-like” themes using lots of tricks and gadgets, but more often, they like to reach for the stars, with tricked-out spaceships and alien encounters. The real common thread with these rooms is the use of technology inside the rooms; the more maglocks, the better. These designs usually have very expensive buildouts in order to immerse the players with lights, decorations, and special effects.

A Night at the Movies

Big-time movies and TV shows have inspired some of the most successful escape rooms in the world. Harry Potter has birthed wizard schools. Indiana Jones has inspired over-the-top archaeology designs. Game of Thrones brought in lots of medieval intrigue. Even Jumanji has given us a number of rooms (can’t imagine why). These rooms are popular because they try to drop players right in the middle of their favorite movies.  Unfortunately, many operators don’t respect intellectual property and trademarks, creating marketing with language plucked straight from their muses. But who knows? If these kinds of rooms prove to be popular, maybe one day we’ll actually see an official partnership with a major movie property and an escape room design!

Historical Rooms

Apart from the Classics, this category has probably the most popular room themes. They can run a wide gamut of genres, like ancient Egyptian or American western, but these rooms all draw inspiration from historical time periods and legends. They remain popular because they’re often filled with adventure and offer some killer inspiration for props to fill in the details. Who wouldn’t love to find themselves in the middle of Atlantis or trapped in a medieval castle? While most escape rooms will allow players to wear costumes, it’s never more appropriate (or encouraged) than in historical rooms.

Abstract Rooms

There is an interesting feature of escape rooms sometimes. When a unit makes TOO much money, the operators stop paying so much attention to themes with obvious mass appeal and just design rooms around whatever pops into their minds. They might be all white rooms with no decoration whatsoever or rooms just based on illusion play, but one of the best examples is Christmas rooms … which can be booked twelve months a year.

Adult Themes

This is another of the most popular categories of escape room design, themes drawn from horror and other extreme elements. While most rooms aim at fun and challenge, these rooms aim at terror. Blood, gore, awkward lighting, and ‘Rated R’ scenarios are essential elements here. Some horror rooms sit halfway between an escape room and a ‘haunted’ attraction, the more intense even including actors inside the room to scare and harass the players. Believe it or not, at the end of the spectrum opposite the vampires, zombies, and old hospitals, there are even escape rooms with erotic themes that have proven popular in some markets.

Family-Friendly Themes

Just as there are escape rooms popular among the adults, there are also those popular with kids and younger families. The themes themselves can be all over the place, like pirates, wizards, or even a gingerbread house, but the real theme here is to aim the puzzles and challenges more toward kids. It may be ideal for birthday parties or just for some cool family bonding experiences. But the popularity comes from puzzles more aimed at developing minds. Game masters may even hang out inside the room to play a role in guiding or helping the players to ensure that they get the best possible experience.

Comedic Rooms

This is probably the most underrated category of escape rooms simply because it seems counterintuitive to the idea of escape rooms as a semi-serious gaming challenge. But just like with movies or TV, one of the biggest challenges to designing an escape room is to create one that is actually funny! Most that have managed it successfully tend to be somewhat circus-themed, but the idea is that gags contribute to the overall experience of the game. Sure solving puzzles is great and all, but solving puzzles that make you laugh?! That’s some next level stuff right there!

Are you interested in trying out one of these awesome themes? Check out PanIQ Escape Room around the world!