Latest trend to land in Sacramento? Escape rooms. Huh?

Fun for the anti-get-drunk crowd—but will it become the next laser tag?

Escape Sacramento founders Max Sutter (left) and Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent are ready to lock you up.

Escape Sacramento founders Max Sutter (left) and Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent are ready to lock you up.

Photos by kevin cortopassi

Escape Sacramento, 1831 I Street; tickets $27;
Golden Puzzle Rooms, 1011 10th Street; tickets $30;
Enchambered: Sacramento Escape Room, 2230 Arden Way, Suite C; tickets $28;

The door clicked shut, and the countdown began. We were locked in a seemingly barren room with 20 minutes to escape.

But we didn’t kick and scream, or try to pick the lock. The room held clues. My friends and I felt like detectives racing against time to save the day.

On a desk, we noticed a series of vials filled to various heights. Those heights must mean something, right? Something important. Right?

They did mean something. But my team was too tunnel-visioned to notice all the other clues around us. Time ran out. We failed to escape. Instead, we were let out.

The man who let us out was Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent. The room in question was a pop-up preview of Escape Sacramento, the first-ever real-life room-escape concept to arrive in Sacramento. It’s opening Thursday, October 29, in Midtown.

Now, why would anyone actually pay to get locked up?

Think you can solve this chess game? Find out at Golden Puzzle Rooms.

“It’s for people who want to go out and do something different—something that isn’t going to a restaurant or bar,” Rodriguez-Torrent said.

Apparently, a lot of people want that. The Escape Sacramento launch party a couple of weeks ago drew a healthy, excited crowd with the promise of discounted Escape Sacramento tickets, puzzles, board games and free swag. People booked more than 100 slots that night.

Two more Sacramento escape rooms are on the way. Clearly, business is expected to boom—understandable, as the concept is wildly popular worldwide.

“People like to challenge themselves; they like to be part of a team,” said Jason Yee, who will open Golden Puzzle Rooms on Saturday, October 31.

Golden Puzzle Rooms lives in an old bank building—the same as Yee’s popular downtown bar, Pre-Flite Lounge. Sounds extra creepy. But the old, heavy vault won’t be incorporated into Golden Puzzle Rooms.

This will be Yee’s first escape room, but hopefully not his last. He’s already traversing California, looking for prime spots to open as many as six more locations. He’ll have one room at a time to start, though he’s considering adding an easier, smaller room for the 18-and-under crowd.

Escape Sacramento, meanwhile, will be Rodriguez-Torrent’s third escape room—he opened ones in Connecticut and Rhode Island earlier this year. He’ll have four rooms going at once—three identical, so groups can race against each other.

But the general premise is the same: go into room, get locked into said room, solve a series of puzzles in order to win freedom within one hour. Teamwork is key—and it’s why real-life room escapes are so popular for corporate team-building excursions.

“The game is unbeatable by a single person, because everyone has their own weaknesses and blind spots or their own way of thinking,” Rodriguez-Torrent said, describing his suite of visual, auditory, mechanical and kinetic puzzles. “The whole idea is to push people to elasticize how they think.”

The escape room concept stems from Japan, where the first business opened in 2007. Quickly, the trend spread through Asia, then Europe, and ultimately the United States in 2012. Already, there are nearly 300 rooms in the U.S. according to the Escape Room Directory, and more than 2,500 worldwide.

Yet for all that rapid growth, local escape room junkie Joe Messteri is already anticipating the business model’s inevitable demise.

“We’re going to go the way of lazer tag,” he said. “It was a fad, it happened for a while, it was really fun. Now, whenever you see lazer tag, it’s a side business—like a value-added thing.”

But that’s probably in a few years, at least—and after the number of escape rooms in Sacramento swells from three to as many as seven, based on Messteri’s industry estimates. In the meantime, he’s opening Enchambered: Sacramento Escape Room in the Arden area, hopefully by the end of November.

As a kid, Messteri dreamed of becoming a Disney Imagineer. After high school, he spent a few years designing sets of haunted houses in the Bay Area. But for the past 15 years, he’s been in Sacramento, working as a web and app developer. He’s also created digital adventure games and real-life “puzzlehunts,” just for fun. An escape room is the logical next step.

Only, Messteri is shooting for something more like an immersive theater experience, in which your team is the cast. The sets are elaborate, highly-detailed creations. The rooms aren’t single rooms, but four- or five-part spaces, potentially with moving walls, secret passageways and crawlspaces. If you get stuck, an attendant won’t come in to help. Instead, a ghost projected on the ceiling might speak to you, or the lighting might adjust to bring your attention to a forgotten clue. And all the while, there’s a narrative, a purpose to your escape and an alternative reality game that continues online when you go home.

“I use the term ’escape room’ not so much because I want you to escape the room,” Messteri said. “I want you to escape reality for a while.”