A student in my Video Game Culture and Theory course, when writing a reaction to playing Andrew Plotkin’s Shade, referred to a casual gaming genre that was new to me, the point-and-click “escape the room” game. The Wikipeidia entry for Escape the Room mentioned a key-retrieval puzzle from Zork, but I thought that passage had a weak sense of history. The first paragraph below is left over from what the article initially said, but I added the second paragraph in order to give credit where credit is due.
The game which popularized the term “escape the room” is said to be MOTAS (2001), though there are many older examples of the point-and-click variation. The genre was further popularized by the Japanese “Crimson Room” game (2004) by Toshimitsu Takagi, which has spread throughout the internet and can be seen on many gaming websites. Strictly speaking, MOTAS is not strictly an “escape-the-room” game, as it includes many levels, some of which include more than one location.
The basic idea of collecting and manipulating objects is a core element of text adventure games (interactive fiction). Colossal Cave Adventure (1976-77) featured a grate that requires a key to unlock and a rusty door that must be oiled, and Zork (1977-79) featured a trap door under a rug and a puzzle involving slipping paper under a door to retrieve a key (a puzzle which reappears in MOTAS). While these classic text games were not limited to one location, John Wilson’s Behind Closed Doors is an early example of a commercial game in the genre, and Laura Knauth’s Trapped in a One Room Dilly shows the genre was well-established in the text-adventure hobbyist community in 1998. While a single-location game may not be set inside a room, and while the player’s goal may not necessarily be escape, in 2002 the interactive fiction community first hosted a One Room Game Competition (attracting six entries, all in Italian), and in 2006 Riff Conner wrote Another Goddamn Escape the Locked Room Game, indicating that the genre is well known in the contemporary interactive fiction hobbyist community. Often, a game that features many different locations will begin with a prologue of sorts, in which the player must escape a cell or simply leave the player’s apartment in order to get the main plot started.
A few months ago, Jeremy Douglass posted a thread on rec.arts.int-fiction that asked for early examples of the “My Apartment” genre, which is a common programming exercise (along with “My Dorm Room” or “My Office”) created by people who are teaching themselves how to write a text game, generally with the intention of sharing it with their friends (so there are typically lots of in-jokes and not much else).