The great escape (room) craze

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Margaret Plevak | September 11, 2016

LAKE GENEVA — You've uncovered a tomb in an ancient Egyptian pyramid, and in the midst of exploring it, you suddenly find yourself trapped. You have 60 minutes to escape, and as the clock ticks down and the hieroglyphic-covered walls seem to close in, you search for clues in the tomb that will point to a way out.

What sounds like the scenario of a mobile game played on a smartphone is actually the much more hands-on experience of an escape room.

Escape rooms are physical adventure games where a group of people willingly enter a locked room where they generally have one hour to look at all the elements or objects in the room to find clues — keys, codes, puzzles — that help them solve a mystery and unlock the door.

Typically, a “gamemaster” will meet with the group before they enter the room to set the scenario: They're looking for a way out of that Egyptian tomb, trying to prevent a robbery on a train, tracking down CIA secrets or investigating a crooked governor. The gamemaster also will review the rules, like no breaking furniture or tearing apart electrical outlets searching for clues. Then players have to use their own observation skills and mental dexterity in figuring the way out, although most escape room operators offer clues if needed.   

Escape rooms trace their roots back to early video games of the late 1970s and early '80s, but many fans say the real-life adventure games got their start in Japan about a decade ago. Interest spread to Europe and, only a few years ago, to the U.S.

Initially found in bigger cities like Milwaukee, Chicago and Madison, escape rooms have caught on locally in places like Beloit, Janesville, Lake Geneva and McHenry, Illinois. 

They've spawned seminars for escape room operators, like the one held in Schaumburg, Illinois, last month, featuring workshops covering everything from the nuts and bolts of starting an operation to creating sensor-based tech props.

“I'm pretty convinced escape rooms are the fastest growing entertainment function,” said Joe Panek, co-owner of Twisted Limits, a McHenry escape room that opened this spring. “A year and a half ago there were only about four escape rooms in Illinois. Now there are probably around 30 and counting. A year from now I guarantee there will be double the number of rooms.

“I definitely still consider it in its infancy, but it's growing, just like haunted houses evolved from rooms with walls painted black and museum-like exhibits to more interactive features.”

Panek said he's seeing a mix of first-time players and die-hard gamers. While the novelty of escape rooms is drawing people in, there's a bigger pull at play, he said.

“It's a new type of experience, normally something that you'd get from a video game. It's a mystery that you work on together with other people, and it's designed to be done socially as a group,” Panek said. “That's a mixture that's kind of hard to resist.”

Operators say they're popular activities for date nights, birthdays, bachelor and bachelorette parties, even business events. Group sizes can be as small as two, and most operations can handle larger numbers, such as Boy Scout troops.

Kerilynn Loftus, owner of KL Escape Rooms in Janesville, originally thought when she opened the business in November she'd be focusing on corporate customers who would use the escape room as a team-building exercise, but she's attracting more couples and groups of friends looking for something different to do.

“You go to a movie. You go to the mall. This is like a challenge. This is like a scavenger hunt for adults and it's fun,” Loftus said.

Escape rooms also are a family friendly activity, even for the youngest participants, who sometimes see things adults don't.

“Kids can be good at making connections,” Panek said. “People tend to brush them off, but when we've watched players in action, we've seen that often the kids were spot on with clues.”

“Kids crawl around. They're always into something,” said Vicki Hutchison, owner of Escape Quest in Beloit, which opened in May. “I think people underestimate when I say escape rooms are great for any age group, it really means that. I do a lot of 10- to 12-year-old birthday parties.

“People also say, 'I'm too old for that.' You don't get too old to think,” said Hutchison, who used to run a puzzles and brain challenges website.

“Everybody can contribute. When everybody comes out of the rooms, they say, “I did this,' or 'I solved that,'” said Kathy Speaker, a former high school teacher and the owner of Lake Geneva Clue Room. “Everybody enjoys that 'aha moment,' the feeling you get when you solve one of the puzzles. You don't have to be athletic or worried about not being smart enough. It's basically common sense and just a bit of problem solving.”

Speaker's mother, Joyce Murphy, 80, has frequented a number of escape rooms with family members, who share their talents at deciphering clues. Once, she said, she was the one who figured out how to open a safe to get a clue by using a fake finger other players had discovered. 

“I watch TV shows,” Murphy said, explaining how she acquired her sleuthing skills.

“The most successful groups do talk together and collaborate because there's a lot of brainstorming going on,” Speaker said. “So you'll have somebody shout out, 'Hey, I've got a lock over here that has four digits.' And maybe somebody else across the room might say, “Hey, I have a code over here that might work.' You have to talk to work together.”

“It's interesting that every group operates in a different way,” Hutchison said. “Some will immediately collaborate, others immediately separate.”

According to websites for local escape rooms, the success rate of people who do manage to escape within the one-hour time limit ranges from 20 percent to 50 percent. Escape room owners say they try to make the adventure challenging, but they'll nudge stumped players along with clues.

“We had one couple who didn't escape, and the woman just sobbed, literally sobbed. We consoled her, but she took it hard,” Hutchison said. “Another couple who went in absolutely did not want a clue during the course of it. Everyone gets three clues, but they said no, they would not need them. They couldn't do it and just gave up.”

Players have limits — they are discouraged from moving furniture around or trying to take down walls — but they may have to do some searching, like the clue inside a deck of cards that's sitting behind a shelf of books.

Most escape rooms have video cameras that monitor player activity. At Lake Geneva Clue Room, clues are sent over electronic digital billboards in the rooms. At KL Escape Rooms, players get walkie-talkies that connect them to the gamemaster.

Operators say they've used personal possessions or finds in antique shops and at garage sales to furnish rooms. Loftus, who also runs a haunted house in Beloit, gets some items from a props wholesaler. As a gynecologist, she has even purchased a few medical instruments for her escape room morgue to add realistic detail. Other owners shop online.

“Amazon is my best friend,” Speaker quipped.

But Speaker said she keeps her rooms simple rather than packing them with too many objects that might prove to be frustrating red herrings for players.

Some escape room operations offer more options. KL Escapes will set up a mobile escape room on request, and Loftus has a cypher challenge of assorted puzzles and brain teasers for people to solve. Escape Quest's Hutchison arranges scavenger hunts for adults or children.

While there are escape room franchises that have pre-planned escape programs, most local owners say they like being independent.

“I don't want something that somebody else could have,” Loftus said.

Many operators change the setup periodically to keep things fresh for players.

Local escape room themes include a principal's office, a CIA room, a casino, a morgue, an Egyptian tomb, Cold War bunkers, a train station and even Al Capone's bar. 

“We like to do local themes,” said Speaker. "My brother, who runs an escape room in Baltimore, has Edgar Allen Poe and the B&O Railroad themes. Of course, here Al Capone is a natural.”


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