Havana, 1962. An American spy plane has just been shot out of the sky, and the Cuban Missile Crisis is underway. You and other CIA operatives sent to infiltrate Fidel Castro’s palace locate a secret KGB office and must determine if a peaceful resolution is possible or if the only option is war.
Hmmm, was that mission too easy?
OK, now you are traveling by train through Europe with fellow detectives, and en route a murder occurs that you must solve before the murderer can escape at the next train station.
This, too, might be too simple.
How about being aboard a World War II U.S. Navy submarine that has been sabotaged, possibly by German secret agents. The sub’s engines are dead, oxygen levels are descending as quickly as the submarine, and unless you locate the missing oxygen silos and restore power, you and the submarine’s crew are doomed to a watery grave.
Ah, now that’s more like it.
Welcome to the choices, challenges and mysteries of escape rooms.
Escape rooms are physical adventure games that combine role playing, puzzles, treasure hunts and interactive mystery theater. Participants, in groups as small as two or as large as eight, are locked in rooms with various historical themes and must work together to avoid capture, prevent the spread of a deadly chemical virus or bring criminals to justice. And all this just to get out of the room.
“It’s a big rush when you rip the door open, the light turns green, and everything’s done, you got out, especially when you’ve got 30 or 20 seconds left,” says Josh Powers, venue manager at Escapology at the Airway Fun Center in Portage. “The less time there is when you get out, the more the adrenaline is rushing.”
Escapology, at 5600 Portage Road, is a franchise of an Orlando-based escape room business and one of two escape room venues in the Kalamazoo area. The other is The Final Clue, at 505 E. Kalamazoo Ave., an independent venue owned and operated by local contractor and entrepreneur Joel Flutie. The cost to participate in an hour-long session runs between $25 and $35 per person, depending on the time and day chosen.
“People are looking for something new,” says Flutie, “and escape rooms provide that. It’s a unique way to view things from a different perspective.”
First developed in Japan in 2007, escape rooms spread quickly across the globe. Escape room developers found inspiration for their scenarios from adventure and horror movies like Indiana Jones, Cube and Saw, where the stakes are high, time is crunched and adrenaline is racing.
Escape rooms rely on team members’ abilities to communicate, delegate, pay close attention to detail and think critically and laterally. They are democratic in their accessibility to different ages and genders, says Scott Nicholson, professor of game design and development at Wilfrid Laurier University and director of the Because Play Matters game lab at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University.
“The most successful teams,” Nicholson writes in his essay Peeking Behind the Locked Door: A Survey of Escape Room Facilities, “are those made up of players with a variety of experiences, skills, background knowledge, and physical abilities.”
James Baynes, of Mattawan, participated with co-workers in a western-saloon-themed escape room at Escapology as a company team-building exercise. “Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses,” he says, “and you become very self-aware of where you fit and how everyone fits around you. You can figure out puzzles very quickly once you figure out who does what very well.”
Because of the relative novelty of escape rooms, most participants are first-time players and start with easier experiences that allow them to figure out the escape room experience while also being able to escape within the one-hour time limit.
“They are set up as statistically easier rooms,” says Powers, “so you’re not thrown into a more difficult experience. We try to introduce them that way, and then they graduate onto Th3 Cod3 (a computer hacker scenario), where things get more complicated, and then onto Budapest Express (the railway murder mystery), Shanghaied (escaping captivity on a 19th century Chinese ship before it sets sails across the Pacific), and Under Pressure (the WWII submarine disaster), which are really, really hard.”
Each escape room is decorated thematically. Examples include a hacker’s minimalist apartment filled with sterile fluorescent light and a diplomat’s regal office in Cuba’s Presidential Palace. There is an air of artifice, but players aren’t evaluating the replications; they’re looking for clues. Numbers, colors and symbols as well as stage props such as wine bottles, telescopes, chess pieces and oxygen tanks play into the puzzles, A gamemaster, who monitors the game from outside the room via TV screens, can determine what level of difficulty will result in the most fulfilling scenario for players.
“The complexity of these puzzles — they’re not common sense,” Baynes says. ”You can’t just walk in and get lucky. There’s a gamemaster who’ll give you clues, but you actually have to work through these problems and figure out a solution together.”
The rooms themselves are designed in a way that makes it difficult to just stand around and observe, since every detail in each room is a potential clue. “You can’t just stand off to the side,” Baynes says. “There’s always something around you that you can be working on. Everyone participates.”
The pressure of a time limit adds to the excitement, and, since it’s an experience shared with others, players are able to bond with their team members in “figuring out their surroundings … running from place to place, calling out discoveries, and hunched over puzzles in small groups,” Nicholson writes.
Baynes agrees. “It was a great bonding experience,” he says. “Afterwards, you have your story of what you were trying to work through and how quickly you were able to work it out.”
After time is up, players are able to discuss their experiences with one another as well as with the staff before taking a team photo, and this discussion, Baynes says, is what remains to be shared long after the experience itself.
“That’s kind of like the trophy piece,” he says. “You get to talk about your experience.”
And what about the groups that don’t succeed in their missions?
“We’re finding that if groups don’t make it, people have a blast trying to figure things out,” Powers says. “It’s not a frustrating thing. People do get frustrated, but in the end, whether you make it or you don’t, you still had a great time.”