As is often the case with new ideas, they don’t just fall out of the sky. Escape rooms had many forms before becoming what they are today. For example there used to be a TV show in the UK called Crystal Maze, where teams of 6 had to solve puzzles and gather ‘time crystals’. The game involved themed zones such as the Aztec, the Ocean, the Futuristic or the Medieval zone. Today’s escape rooms are pretty much the same with the exception that you don’t usually get prizes if you finish a game.
Wikipedia points to ‘escape the room’ video games as predecessors of the genre. These are usually point-and-click adventure games, where you have to find clues and keys to escape a virtual room. Even though escape the room video games are very similar to their live counterparts, I think the clue finding and mystery finding started way back with point-and-click adventure games like Day of the Tentacle or the Monkey island series.
These kind of adventure games have been very popular with gamers and non-gamers alike, because they are really easy to control. As the name of the genre suggests, the player just has to point at an item with their mouse and click to use the item or an object in the level. The player can progress trough the story and scenarios by completing puzzles, solving mysteries and finding hidden items. There is not much doubt that this kind of gameplay is an inspiration for a lot of live escape rooms, as they are usually suitable for anyone. You usually don’t have to be an athlete or a chess master to escape from the rooms.
And than there are the Japanese Live Escape Games that take place in a big stadium or similar, kind of open areas. They are more like events. A big difference with these is that the escape rate is usually very low, around 10-20%, which doesn’t sound like a very family friendly activity. However, quite a lot of people attend these events, and I have to admit, they look quite exciting.