The great escape
Break Through Reno throws down a challenge for folks who want to get trapped in a room
Developments in video games, cinema and virtual reality are taking geeky experiences to the next level with technology. But sometimes, it’s still the visceral interaction with the physical world that makes an experience exciting and memorable. That’s the appeal of escape games, which are also known as puzzle hunts or “escape the room” (ETR) activities. Although each escape game concept varies, the main premise is to create a themed puzzle in a room or building that a person or a group of people has to “escape” from. Essentially, escape games let players act out scenarios within a safe, controlled environment.
Game researcher Scott Nicholson, who runs the game lab at Syracuse University and has researched the subculture of escape games, says that escape rooms began in 2006, and the term was first officially used in Kyoto, Japan, in 2007. Most major cities in the world now have some type of local escape game, and their success has incentivized entrepreneurs to start escape game businesses in their own cities—including Reno, which is now home to Break Through Reno, an escape game company that opened in March of this year.
Some compare escape games to activities like geocaching or scavenger hunts. A recent report in the Washington Post attributed the trend’s popularity, in part, to giving players the chance to act out tasks like their favorite fictional characters (like Indiana Jones or Harry Potter, for example). Escape rooms also have similarities with amusement parks, haunted houses and carnivals.
The intensity of escape games varies. Most are family-friendly and meant to be bonding activities, but there are a select few that border on kidnapping scenarios. Often, the really difficult games are less about play and more about testing a person’s survival skills. For games intended for the general population, however, the fun comes through the adrenaline rush and sense of accomplishment after cracking the clues.Game on
As a lifelong enthusiast of geeky, somewhat clandestine hobbies—lockpicking, ham radio, codebreaking, among other things—I thought an escape room sounded right up my alley.
At press time, Break Through offered two rooms: “The Mask,” which is horror-themed, and “Incoruptum,” which is heist-themed. Both of these are original concepts created by founder Kristian Kuharszky.
“I come up with an idea, and then I get my friends to test it out,” he says.
He said that the community response has been good. Many participants have returned to try a different room, and with the eventual opening of more rooms, there will be more incentive to make repeat visits. Break Through requires appointments to be booked ahead of time through their website, and it costs $20 per person.
I enlisted my fiancé, Andrew Warren, and our friend, Colin Loretz, to try “Incoruptum.” The name “Incoruptum” refers to a fictional religious sect which is the culprit in a global classic art heist. Kuharszky told us it’s slightly more challenging than “The Mask,” which has a completion rate of around 30 percent.
We figured that, between the three of us—an engineer, a programmer and a researcher, respectively—we should be able to solve the puzzle.
Upon arrival, a group of five was preparing to enter “The Mask.” Half of the group didn’t know that they were there for an escape game until their friend broke the news to them and explained the concept. Those who had been in the dark seemed eager to try it out after being assured that, although “The Mask” is about a serial killer, there’s nothing in it that will startle or scare participants. The point of “The Mask” is to escape from a serial killer’s venue before he comes for you.
We were instructed to wait in the IKEA-furnished lobby, which is sparse and gives absolutely no hints for what’s inside the rooms, and then given an overview of the task by Kat, a staff member. We were each given a notebook, pencil and a flashlight, and one radio was assigned to our group so we could communicate with Kat throughout the activity in case we needed any hints. The staff would be watching us throughout the activity.
We were told that we could touch and move objects in the room, but if something couldn’t be lifted by a small child (like furniture), it wasn’t intended to be moved. We had one hour to make it out of the room, and our task was to find a “code,” which would open a box containing the key to let us out. If we didn’t finish in time, the staff would come get us.
We were then led into the room, plunged into darkness, and the door was closed. A video started, featuring an “FBI agent” who summarized the events of the crime spree and gave us our mission.
We spent a few minutes stumbling around in the dark, using our flashlights to check out the furnishings of the room. We identified a circular table in the center of the room, and on it was a chess set with symbols and numbers written on the pieces and the board. There were also paintings by classic painters hanging on each of the four walls. Next to each painting was an armoire displaying objects like books and figurines. On some drawers were large locks, which we’d have to open to access more clues. Each visible clue was a number or a symbol of a planet, and these, in conjunction with riddles dispersed in items around the room, would ultimately lead us to the lock which contained the key. The amount of information in the small room was overwhelming at first.
Although the quality of the set wasn’t totally polished, a suspenseful environment was established through classical chanting music that played through speakers above us and the abundance of art, books and furniture scattered throughout the room.
After fumbling to read a message on the back of a painting with just our flashlights, we then realized that we could just turn on the light switches. That made a big difference. Duh.
However, making things more complicated than they needed to be sums up our whole experience. Without giving away too much about the puzzle for those who may want to try it out, each clue builds upon the former, so it’s best when everyone works together. After overthinking every tiny detail in the room for the first 20 minutes, we got into a rhythm as we learned more about the style of the game.
But ultimately, we didn’t solve the puzzle in time. Kat told us we were about three steps away from escape, and had we spent less time ignoring some of the obvious tasks—such as using a makeshift fishing pole to grab something placed in another part of the room instead of putting it to the side, distracted by another clue—we likely could have finished in time. The room is, undoubtedly, challenging. And the time goes by fast. It’s a somewhat surreal experience to be put in a pressure test like that outside of a video game. There’s no pause button.
After emerging back into the light, a little less triumphant but not totally discouraged, the three of us discussed more ideas for escape rooms, and the potential for finding adventure anywhere out in the city. With a bit of creativity, there’s no end to the intrigue that can be found in the dark corners hidden in plain sight.