Escape-room boom

What began as an online puzzle-solving game has morphed into a real-life phenomenon

Escape Room Tip No.1: Think on your feet.

Escape Room Tip No.1: Think on your feet.

Photo by Lucas Fitzgerald

My wife Amy and I drive home after our first-ever escape-room experience—and debate. Who made the Object drop?

I know “Object” isn’t very specific. I’m being purposely vague here because, should you do this escape room—and you should—I’d hate to spoil anything for you. But it’s a funny story, and I think it’ll explain in part what’s great about escape rooms.

We are a group of four: Amy, myself, my longtime friend (and Gnarboots bandmate) Adam Davis, and fellow SN&R writer and pal Steph Rodriguez. We meet up at Exit Strategy Games in Elk Grove on June 16. This is the first escape-room experience for each of us. Though it’s unspoken, we are all uncertain of what to expect, and secretly nervous that we will be the weakest link in the group.

We wait around in the lobby while our jovial game master, Mikey Acord, chats our ears off about all things escape rooms. His job is to watch us from here in the lobby via surveillance cameras and give us hints if we get stuck and request some help.

But first, he sits us down and shows a homemade video of a crazed man who explains the back story for the game we are about to play: Conspiracy Theory.

It’s the 1970s. We are CIA agents. We must investigate his apartment to find clues. Also, some of us might be Soviet spies. We have to find out who.

Oh, and we have 60 minutes to escape or the apartment blows up.

We are only metaphorically locked in the room, as I’m sure it would violate some law to actually trap people and force them to figure out how to escape.

As complicated as it might sound, the game play is pretty straightforward. The objective is to solve puzzles that advance the story and trigger more puzzles. The 60-minute deadline is standard operating procedure for escape-room game play, and it keeps the tensions high. No dillydallying around. You either beat the clock or you lose. It’s kind of like the adrenaline rush of finishing a term paper the night before it’s due.

We fumble at first until we realize that a lot of puzzles are hidden within the Objects. You have to inspect everything, look for hidden codes and patterns, and make connections between Objects in the room.

Amy was staring at one particularly captivating Object, while the rest of us were experimenting with some … let’s call them “buttons.” (Sorry, I have to be vague!) Amy was in a meditative state, certain that this Object held the key to triggering the next chapter of our game. At the same time, the rest of us found a code somewhere else in the room that told us which “buttons” to “push” and in what order; we did so, frantically.

That’s when, to all of our shock, the Object Amy is staring at falls, making a large clanking noise. Amy screams, as though a guy in a ghost suit jumped out of the wall and shook her by the shoulders. We are all shaken and confused, but see what is behind the Object: A new puzzle.

“Amazing,” Adam mutters, and like that our game continues.

Amy, for the duration of the day, continues to believe that she triggered the fallen Object by staring at it just the right way and for just the right number of seconds. And maybe she did.

We’ll come to find out that anything is possible in an escape room, where misdirection is common, secret doors appear out of nowhere, and puzzles are baked into nearly every Object. It’s like playing a video game in real life, but rather than near-real graphics designed by a computer nerd who’s never left his apartment, these Objects are literally Objects: They’re actually real—hyper real. We are the main characters in this video game, and we move the story along with our own hands. (Or eyes?)

Meatspace avatars

I’m not ashamed to brag—we win with less than a minute left on the clock. The four of us make a good team. We communicate well, though sometimes Adam gets a little out of control and stressed out. We exit the room feeling like kings. Here we are, four grown adults, solving puzzles together for a full phone-free hour (devices aren’t permitted inside). It’s quite the high. I can’t remember the last time I’ve gotten together with a group of friends to play a game.

Mikey, sensing our elation, offers to let us play Exit Strategy’s second room, The Torture Chamber, which is a serial-killer scenario. We immediately say yes, ready for more action.

This apparently is a common escape-room premise, as owner Janell Woodbury tells me. Apparently it’s a low-investment room to set up, as Home Depot offers most of your serial-killer-room needs at a reasonable price.

Janell is a hardcore fan, having done 152 unique escape rooms. She dumps all that enthusiasm into her own venture. She’s opening a few new rooms at Exit Strategy later in the year in the hope that she’ll take her business to the next level.

Exit Strategy was one of the early rooms in the area. She opened her doors in March 2016. Now there are more than 20 escape rooms in the greater Sacramento region—it’s a boom. Roughly half of those have popped up in the last year.

Local escape-room fanatic Matt Sanchez sat down with me to give me the scoop on the local scene. He’s done nearly every room in town. (Each facility has between two and five separate game rooms.) He started the Facebook group Sacramento Escape Room Enthusiasts. If the job of “escape room evangelist” has materialized, he’s one of the first.

“I’ve been a paranormal investigator and I’ve seen a ghost in front of me in a way that I never thought I would actually be able to see a ghost. I have seen chains on doors and people literally fly off. I’ve been a professor locked into a lab that’s being descended upon by zombies,” Sanchez tells me with barely contained enthusiasm. “It’s not just interacting with a joystick and a button. I’ve placed Objects against a wall that hit a sensor that caused the door to almost literally explode in front of me. You don’t get that kind of feedback with video games.”

Really creepy

Our escapade continues the following Saturday, where we tackle three separate rooms with barely a break for tacos. We start with Quandary in Roseville, followed by NorCal Escape Company, located in a warehouse space on the outskirts of Yuba City, and close with Escape Sacramento, in Midtown in an old chiropractic office. It’s got a large key painted on its front door in an otherwise unassuming building.

Our team is Adam, Amy, myself and Oakland friend (and also fellow Gnarboots member) Blake Morse. Steph Rodriguez will join us at NorCal Escape Co. She’s bringing along Stephanie Espinosa, guitarist/vocalist for local indie rock band Garble.

Quandary is tucked away in a historic building in old downtown Roseville. We climb a flight of stairs and enter what appears to be a film-noir detective’s office. The shades are drawn; it’s dimly lit. Our guards go up right away.

“We wanted it to feel just a little off, says the co-owner, Ryan, who mysteriously declines to share his last name. “It’s important that the tone is set the moment you walk in.”

Every escape room has its own vibe, and it’s usually weird, which helps to immerse the player in the otherworldly experience. Walking into the NorCal Escape lobby felt like entering a Westworld docking station. Enchambered—we’ll play there the following Thursday—feels like a haunted Victorian mansion, with candles dimly sparkling in long, creepy hallways.

At Quandary, we play a game called “The Dynaline Incident,” which is set inside an eerie doctor’s office. Once we’re “locked” inside, a video pops on a screen and explains that we are trapped in the room with a malfunctioning gas dispenser that we need to contain in 60 minutes or we “die.” The set design is simple, with neutral doctor’s-officey colors, and the story flows in a well-paced sequence. All of the normal Objects of this office space are incorporated into the game play in a well-thought-out manner. Partway through the game, we trigger a secret door that shocks all of us. (No spoilers from me!) After the game, Ryan asks us gleefully if we predicted that secret door. We hadn’t. That’s what he wanted to hear. So far only one team saw it coming, he boasts.

The intricate storyline, we come to find out, runs across all of the rooms at Quandary. I don’t follow it all completely, but I determine that Ryan and his wife (and Quandary co-owner) Christine care so passionately that these details check out with Trekkie-like precision. This gives the rooms a logic that is extremely intuitive.

“We were like: This isn’t about one room. We’re building the Quandary universe. We’re building a whole intricate story,” Ryan says. “We’re trying to cater to the hardcore gamers that are really going to appreciate the deep story lines, and we’re also trying to cater to people that are coming for the very first time.”

Escape rooms are proving to have a broad appeal. It may seem like a niche business model that would only entice nerds, but casual players actually make up a majority of the business, and hardcore gamers a much smaller slice of the market. Because most rooms can’t be replayed (once you’ve solved it, you’ve solved it), escape rooms aren’t competing with one another in a traditional sense. It takes months to build out a new game room. So, if I enjoy a room at Quandary, they will happily refer me to another place. It’s helpful that new escape rooms are opening every month.

Escape Room Tip No. 2: Stay calm.

Photo by lucas fitzgerald

One considerable part of the market is employee team-building, which seems weird to me—back when I worked a normal job, I can’t imagine wanting to do something as intimate as an escape room with all those people I was actively trying to hide my personal life from. Yet it’s a major part of the income stream for escape room owners, and companies seem to really like it.

Kevin Peters, who manages interns for Hewlett Packard’s Roseville office, explains why he takes interns to Quandary.

“There’s a lot of teamwork-communication—trying to solve problems that they’re faced with,” Peters says. It kind of relates to work experience for us because we’re trying to get interns to work together. You’re forced into situations you’re not used to and it makes you think and communicate in different ways, and more clearly.”

Our next stop, NorCal Escape Co., the very first escape room in the area, originally opened in Marysville in August 2015, and reopened at its current location in Yuba City a year later. It was launched by two brothers, Jamie and Kody McCarty, who got their starts building crazy scenes in their houses for Halloween. Jamie had been working at a local casino doing graphic design before opening NorCal, while Kody was down in LA doing film and TV production work.

We play their serial-killer game, Condemned 2. It’s creepily realistic. It feels like we are inside the killer’s lair. Jamie tells me that they used roughly 250 gallons of sheet-rock mud on the walls to make the room look like a concrete basement.

“90 percent of the fun is building the room,” Jamie says. “I love the frustration of having a good idea, but not knowing how we’re going to get from A to B.”

This is the hardest game we played, and our first defeat, which is surprisingly crushing. It’s amazing how invested you feel when you see the clock count down to 0:00 and you can’t quite figure out the puzzle you’re stuck on. It’s a lot of stress. In those final few minutes, Adam is running around in full out-of-control mode.

Adobe Flash mob

Escape rooms were born online, as point-and-click adventure games built on the Adobe Flash video platform, which could be found all over the web in the early-to-mid 2000s. Takao Kato created the first real-life escape room, modeled after these video games, in Japan in 2007. The puzzles were mostly paper games (crossword puzzles, Sudoku, etc.). Soon, real-life escape rooms popped up all over Asia and Europe. The first one in the U.S. opened in 2012 in San Francisco. As they developed, they became more immersive and theme-driven with fewer paper puzzles and more Objects.

They’ve grown exponentially in the U.S. over the past couple of years. In 2014, there were only 22 escape rooms in the country. By mid-2017, there were well over 1,800. Sacramento didn’t get one until October 2015. It was Escape Sacramento, opened by Ethan Rodriguez, who was living in Connecticut at the time. He’d already opened two escape rooms; he chose Sacramento as his third because it was the largest city in the country that didn’t yet have one.

Back then, regular people with very little capital were able to quit their jobs and become their own bosses with something they designed and built themselves. As the phenomenon has gotten more popular, bigger companies with deeper pockets have entered the market.

Escape Room Tip No. 3: This isn’t a game.

Photo by lucas fitzgerald

Red Door Escape Rooms, which started in Dallas, opened their third location here in Rancho Cordova this past February. They had five rooms ready to play (by far the most in town) within the first few weeks of opening. They are positioning themselves as a “high-end” escape room business. They even recently increased their rates.

Red Door is actually relatively small compared to some escape room companies. Key Quest, for instance, has more than 50 locations in the U.S.

There’s definitely concern among the smaller owners that as the industry grows, bigger companies will push them out.

Of course, being innovative is key, and that’s not always something that money can buy. You can feel the passion of these small business owners, as they spend hours upon hours coming up with the perfect puzzles for their rooms, and put their own unique personalities into everything they create.

Haunted hallways

With four escape rooms under our belts, we conclude with Enchambered the following Thursday. It’s the most elaborate in the area, with set design that is mind-blowingly fantastical. They’ve consistently scored high on reader-poll lists across the country. In 2017, Enchambered was voted the number-two escape room in the country by USA Today.

I was excited to be doing just the one escape room. The previous Saturday, when we did three, my brain became a pile of mush. By the time we did Séance (a witch-themed room) at Escape Sacramento, I could barely think. And I had stress dreams all night, flashing back to the one room we lost. It was like my waiter nightmares years ago, where I’d keep getting more customers and more dishes to serve and more backed up by the minute; in this case, it was unsolvable puzzles and a giant looming clock pressing closer to the end of a game that never comes.

Even awake, I started seeing escape rooms everywhere I go. A scene in a movie where the characters are trying to crack a code reminds me of something I had to do in one of the rooms. Locks on gates, noticed while walking the dog, just look like puzzles waiting to be solved. You wonder what will be triggered when you find its code.

Our team has grown to eight, with Dave Adams (Steph Rodriguez’ companion, and bassist for Garble), San Francisco friend Aspyn Oakes, and local comedian Keith Lowell Jensen.

Everyone I’ve brought thus far has been excited to do an escape room. Not Keith. All he sees in an escape room is stress.

“I lose my keys, and my shoes, and forget the alarm code, and then have to go back for my hat—I’m ADHD … I do an escape room just trying to leave my house each morning,” he reports.

We play the ghost-themed room, “The Whispering Halls.” Entering the first space—a library/study—it feels a little like entering Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. We run around the library inspecting every Object. I’m no expert of the Victorian era, but there’s an authenticity to the details of the set that gives the impression that months of painstaking research went into every nuance.

When we start, it seems like it will be scarier than it ends up being (kind of like Disneyland) but really, it’s just a fun, spooky game. (To contradict myself, I am legitimately frightened at one point when, inspecting a puzzle all alone, I hear what sounds like a possessed little girl growling on the other side of a wall.)

The owners, Joe and Coleen Messteri, and Neil and Theresa Morrison, say they would have opened the first escape room in Sacramento, but they spent so long working on “The Whispering Halls” that others beat them to it. In fact, it was taking so long to get all the details just right that they had to set it aside and build a mad-scientist-themed room, “Containment Breach.”

“I’m a huge dark ride fan,” Joe says. “I love when you’re in a boat and you’re going through a dark ride and they’re giving you story. The one thing that dark rides really lack is the interactive element. And that’s what escape rooms provide, like Pirates of the Caribbean, but you’re causing the things to happen. People don’t want to be passive observers anymore. They want to be part of it.”

We lose this game literally moments from solving it, which is slightly less crushing, though still heartbreaking. I don’t quite understand why winning becomes so important, but it is. Our final score for our entire escape room tournament is four wins and two losses, which feels like two losses too many.

Since we figured out the final puzzle but lacked the time to enter it (still a loss), the game master is nice enough to let us physically solve it and see what amazing event it triggers. It’s spectacular. You should really check it out.

Afterward, Joe gives us a tour of the other games at Enchambered, which are all amazing. Adam is going bananas, almost begging Joe to let us play more games, but it’s late and I can tell Joe wants to go home.

But Joe does tell us about his ideas for the future. Some are completely new takes on the escape room format—one has you and your team strapped in chairs the entire game. Another is essentially a zombie game that’s not even an escape room.

In the couple of years that escape rooms have boomed in the United States, it’s evolved really fast. Rooms that some of these early DIY, shoe-string budget, start-up businesses opened with would no longer meet players’ expectations. Everybody has to operate at a much higher level now. It isn’t even a money thing either. It’s about how creative you are with your games.

“There’s things out there that are going to be much more different. That’s what we would like to do. We’d like to actually branch out into other things, things that aren’t just escape rooms. We want to come up with new things that no one else has ever seen before,” Joe says.

His ideas all impress me, so did Woodbury’s game within a game scenario in “Conspiracy Theory,” and Quandary’s elaborate storylines. Over at NorCarl, Jamie shows me a mini, 15-minute escape room he built in his van. You’re a prisoner being transported, and you’re trying to make your escape. The game can be played anywhere the van is parked.

If these business owners keep it up, the games they’ll be designing in two years should be totally different and have concepts people haven’t even imagined yet. The public’s thirst to break out of the virtual world and actually interact with real people and real Objects will only fuel this movement into something much more than an escape room trend. We’re only just beginning to see its creative possibilities.

And even Keith admits that even though escape rooms aren’t his cup of tea, it’s much better than he imagined, and it wasn’t torture after all. That night he says: “That was fun, now let’s never do that again.”