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The art of escapology

Robert Reid: In Escape Rooms

Escape Room Melbourne. Escape Room Melbourne.
courtesy the artists
You’re in a bungalow at the back of a garden in suburban Melbourne. The game runner, who met you at the door and explained the experience you were about to have, locks the door behind you and the room is dim. You have torches and an hour to work out how to get out.

Escape Rooms are a new form of interactive entertainment in which participants are locked inside a room and must complete a series of puzzles and challenges in order to escape. Inspired by the digital Escape the Room games designed in 2005 by Toshimitsu Takagi, such as Crimson Room, real life versions of the game began to appear around 2007 including Takao Kato’s room in Japan and Kazuya Iwata’s room in the USA.

Escape Room Melbourne, run by Dr Ali Cheetham and Dr Owen Spear, was the first to open in Australia and since then new rooms have opened in Sydney, Perth and a second in Melbourne. Cheetham and Spear first encountered Escape Rooms in Budapest, where the form is so popular that over a hundred rooms have opened. Spear recalls, “Some of the rooms had an interesting, old nostalgic feel; others would be a little bit creepy and run down. It felt to me like being a kid again, exploring a room, trying to find a hidden object.”

Each Escape Room tends to be unique, expressing itself through the aesthetic choices of the designer, the kinds of challenges and the depth of narrative. The active puzzle-solving and teamwork elements can lend themselves to less nuanced purposing of the experience, of course, and there are many versions that lean heavily on genre—there’s no shortage of zombies and safe crackers in these rooms, be assured. The experience can also be lyrical, suspenseful and magical.

Escape Room Melbourne, for two-four people in a 70-minute session in a medium size room, has a quality of haunted suburban mystery to it. There is a sense that something urgent once occurred in this room. A letter gives the room its fictional context, laying out just enough exposition to give a narrative explanation for your presence in the room. Each puzzle and challenge has antiquity: the furniture, the objects, the clues, all come from a Melbourne long past. It’s a little like discovering that your grandparents were Cold War spies.

In this way the environment is made to perform around you. The sense of significance gradually focuses the longer you play. As you work out how the puzzles have been constructed around you, a grid of narrative meaning is layered over your physical experience. At the end it’s possible to trace your own experience through the room by following the path of solved puzzles.

Spear describes the participant experience of their Escape Room, saying “most people start off a little uneasy, and then really get into it once they’re in. There’s huge variety in the way people interact with the room. No team seems the same, and they range from speaking very little, and acting quite seriously, to screaming and laughing.”

A crucial aspect of Escape Room is the feedback mechanism that helps players move through the tasks. This varies from live in-character performances to no feedback at all. In the case of Escape Room Melbourne it’s a simple voice over. The Game Runner who let you into the room is also monitoring your progress as you play. If you need a clue you can ask for one. If the runner sees that you are very off-track or running out of time they will sometimes offer advice. Spear says, “I think they interrupt it slightly, but it’s sort of a necessity, otherwise the puzzles would have to be made too easy. We’re thinking of having a note system set up in the next one, where hints are sitting round the room in envelopes.”

Players are able to listen to the prompts in an ‘out of game’ framework which keeps the mechanics of the game very apparent without impacting on the immersive nature of the experience and lends it a sense of security. Other escape rooms are much more immersive, designing all their interactions as ‘In Game,’ which heightens the potential for immersion but demands more commitment to performing over playing.

Escape Rooms are part of the growing trend towards immersive and participatory experiences that includes work as diverse as that of Blast Theory, Punchdrunk, Slingshot and Coney (see my articles in RT115, and RT117). As Frank Lantz, director of the NYU Games Center, told CNBC, “Games used to be a form of experience. The thing that got left out of that equation was human bodies and face-to-face interaction. I think we’re seeing a return to those qualities.”

Escape Room Melbourne, book online:

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 36

© Robert Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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