In 60 minutes – and the clock has just begun ticking – Prof Blacksheep will have hacked the computer mainframe in the abandoned lab of his arch-nemesis, Mr Q, who is a mouse. The professor, who accidentally turned himself into a sheep during an experiment to gain animal superpowers, wants to do more dark stuff with genes and unleash a global internet supervirus. My job, as a secret agent, is to stop it and save the world after first shrinking myself to mouse size to get into the lab.
I’ve had simpler nights out in north London, where I am confined to the basement of a former nightclub. My other mission, beyond the whole sheep-hacking thing, is to explore the rise of the escape room. After five years of steep growth – there are now almost 1,500 escape rooms across Britain – this upstart entertainment hybrid is mutating into something mainstream.
Eleven days from now, Red Bull, the energy drink more commonly associated with extreme sports, will stage the Escape Room world championships in Shoreditch, London. Four-strong teams from 23 countries will travel to the event, which will culminate in Omni’s Escape, a room that will have an ethical theme involving artificial intelligence, designed by Scott Nicholson, a professor of gaming in Ontario, Canada.
Meanwhile, entertainment giants are realising that escape rooms can give new life to their worlds and characters. Doctor Who rooms have just arrived in Bristol, Leeds, Oxford, Manchester, Reading and Birmingham; an official BBC Sherlock escape room opened in London in December, featuring original footage of the show’s stars. “Pretty much all the major entertainment companies with significant intellectual property are looking at escape rooms now,” says Ken Ferguson, a blogger and consultant who helped create the Red Bull event.
I find Prof Blacksheep at clueQuest, an escape room company run by four Hungarian brothers. I am joined by one half of the British team for the Red Bull championships; Sarah Dodd and Sharan Gill are a power couple who have completed more than 1,500 games around the world. They will be showing me Origenes, clueQuest’s newest game, based in King’s Cross, London. The company opened its first room in Tottenham in 2013, when it was only the second such facility in London. There are now 136 games at more than 50 venues in the capital, including one in a former church just over the road.
Origenes starts in the Shrink-o-mat, where we have to work out how to shrink ourselves and gain access to the lab. It looks like a bathroom on Starship Enterprise. There are flashing lights, mysterious wheels and cogs, miles of exposed circuitry, and compartments bearing strange symbols. Bolted to all the MDF, which has been artfully rendered as grimy steel, a screen shows the countdown clock.
As an escape room newbie, I have no idea where to begin. I’ve never really been into gaming, puzzles – or locked rooms – and have an aversion to organised fun (call it stag fatigue; happily I’m now deep into the Netflix and soft-play stage of life). But I’m, well, game – and glad to be in a team of pros. “We always start a room by just trying things,” says Dodd, who was a doctor before her move into gaming. Gill, a civil engineer, reaches inside some of the boxes attached to the wall. “So if you put your hand in this one you can feel a handprint and in here I can feel bumps,” she says. “Is it … a pattern?”
As Dodd and Gill do their thing, working around each other like fast-forwarded detectives at a movie murder scene, I can begin to see the appeal. There is the childlike thrill of exploring a strange world made real. Then the satisfaction of discovery as patterns suggest themselves. The bumps Gill feels match the combination lock on the far wall, it turns out. There are several more around the room, and a different bump – or button – is depressed in each one. Together they produce a string of numbers, but what is the order? And what do we do with it? I feel immediately immersed in the story, however silly it is. “If I read a book I can’t be the protagonist or touch it,” Dodd says. “In escape rooms I can.”
The escape room trend is late to bloom in the UK, yet has roots in the Dungeons & Dragons craze that started in the 1970s, and the adventure games that were big on British television in the 1980s. Now Get Out of That (1981) and the sci-fi themed The Adventure Game, which started in 1980, pre-dated the most successful adventure show of them all: The Crystal Maze, which first aired in 1990.
That trend fed into computer gaming, which had spawned “escape the room” titles in Japan. In 2007, Takao Kato, a 34-year-old publishing employee, launched his first Real Escape Game in Kyoto. Teams were given an hour to decipher clues and find hidden objects to get out. “I wondered why interesting things didn’t happen in my life, like they did in books,” Kato, a manga fan, told the Japan Times in 2009. “I thought I could create my own adventure, a story, and then invite people to be a part of it.”
As the rooms spread across Asia and America, Hungary emerged as Europe’s escape room crucible when, in 2011, Attila Gyurkovics, a former social worker, launched the Parapark franchise. Escape rooms in Budapest multiplied in empty buildings with low rents and cool cellars. The country has a heritage of puzzling: Ernő Rubik sold his first cube in Budapest in 1977. In 2012, Attila Nagy and Csaba Vinkler, two thirtysomething Hungarians, opened Britain’s first escape room in north London. HintHunt is now a global chain.
Escape rooms quickly appealed to a nostalgic generation of Brits who had grown up watching Crystal Maze and playing low-fi computer games. “People were also starting to move away from their screens,” says Zoltan “Zoli” Papp, 31, one of the brothers from Budapest who launched clueQuest. PLAN52, its first game, involved a similar mix of clues and puzzles with a secret-agent theme. Gigi, Zoltan’s brother, a puzzle fiend and former PE teacher, led the design. ClueQuest has welcomed more than 55,000 groups through its imaginatively locked doors.
Sarah Dodd and Sharan Gill play Origenes.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Sarah Dodd and Sharan Gill play Origenes. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
Dodd and Gill, who have been together for five years, caught the escape room bug in 2016. They, too, were looking for something new that didn’t involve a screen, to celebrate Dodd’s birthday. They were into games and puzzles, but the visceral thrill of escape rooms immediately seduced them. “I can also get out of the house with friends and have a drink afterwards. It’s not solitary,” Dodd says, adding: “Ultimately, humans like escapism and adventure, and to challenge themselves … and we gain most satisfaction from doing these things in a group of friends.”
Dodd has hit pause on her NHS career to become an escape room consultant, podcaster and writer. She co-founded the UK Escape Room Industry Conference, which welcomed more than 450 owners to its second event in London last October. She advises Houdini’s Escape Room Experience, which started in Southampton in 2016, and has just won a contract to open rooms within more than 40 bowling alleys operated by the Tenpin company.
As they did in Budapest, escape rooms often thrive in spaces that may not be otherwise viable. They have sprung up in castles, pubs, warehouses and disused underground stations. Startup costs can be low for those willing to put in the hours. Last June, Nick Scott, a former set builder, launched Cave Escape in a vacant shop in a former lace factory in Nottingham. “It’s something people can come and do that isn’t sitting in a cinema for two hours in silence,” he says.
Papp says his rooms unite generations, often drawing teens from their screens into family activities. Groups of adults arrive with memories of The Crystal Maze. The show gave the escape room trend a boost in 2016 when a temporary live experience opened in north London, complete with an Aztec zone, retro bomber jackets and a gold ticket-filled Crystal Dome. Two new Crystal Maze experiences have just opened in central London and Manchester.
Nick Moran came from an immersive theatre background; he launched Time Run, an elaborately produced escape room with a time-travel theme, in east London, in 2015. Thousands played, including Stephen Moffat and Sue Vertue, the couple behind Hartswood Films. They showed up one evening with Mark Gatiss, the co-creator of Sherlock, which Hartswood makes for the BBC. “They all loved it,” Moran recalls. “They didn’t have plans for a new season any time soon and had wanted to make a live experience. So we sat in a room and talked.”
Moran launched Sherlock: The Game Is Now after almost two years of development, offering players the chance to emulate the detective. He says he is surprised that it has taken this long for the trend to go fully mainstream. While many incorporate sophisticated technology – the room I am in is controlled by more than 40 computers – the trend is not driven by it. As Moran puts it, they’re “a decisively offline social experience”.
Elsewhere, museums and schools are exploiting escape rooms as interactive alternatives to historical reenactment or creepy waxworks of old sailors. Nicholson, the academic who designed the Red Bull game, has created an escape-room-inspired game for Canadian schools about the country’s electoral system. “Escape rooms have something other group activities don’t have because they are not about competition but collaboration,” he says. “We now want to design games that can make a real difference.”
At clueQuest, Dodd and Gill welcome mainstream attention if it dispels some of the myths around escape rooms. They are not scary, Dodd says, and very few have an explicit horror theme. The couple were disappointed in Escape Room, Hollywood’s latest take on the trend, in which six players end up in a series of death traps. The film jarred uncomfortably with a real tragedy, coming out just weeks after five teenage girls died in a fire in a Polish escape room in January. All the doors at clueQuest have a release button and are never genuinely locked. “I don’t like being scared and I’m claustrophobic,” Dodd says. “That’s not what it’s about.”
I have promised Papp that I will not reveal the secrets of the Origenes game. But I can report that it is captivating yet fiendishly difficult. Only 20% of teams succeed, even with hints from the control room. Dodd’s and Gill’s brains work on a different level from mine, spotting patterns and remembering sequences with startling ease. With their help – a lot of it – I shrink myself and gain access to the lab. Our task there is to understand and manipulate an array of giant objects in search for codes. There is a giant padlock, a giant floppy disc and a lot of clever lighting and moving parts. With 17 minutes to spare, we manage to save the world (you’re welcome). Slightly breathless, and more energised than I have felt doing anything that isn’t actual sport, I return to the Shrink-o-mat to get back to human size – and reality.
Source: The Guardian