The scenario seems all too real. Nine young men and women in the city slammer, locked up for rowdy behavior after drinking too much at a Red Sox game. They’re desperately trying to get out.
They rattle the bars, tear apart the bed, search for clues — anything to help them escape. They have only 60 minutes until they’re doomed.
“Does this move?” one of them asks, fiddling with the toilet.
“Hey, I found a key,” says another.
“Guys!” shouts a third. “Over here. We got this open!”
But these aren’t actual convicts making a jailbreak. They’re a team (law-abiding as it happens), and they’re trying to maneuver themselves out of an escape room — an increasingly popular genre of physical adventure game. This one, called “Drunk Tank,” is offered by a company called Trapology Boston located across from Boston Common.
There are many more. According to the guide EscapeRoomDirectory.com, more than 3,725 escape rooms can be found in 65 countries, from Brazil to Bulgaria to Bahrain. Locally, some 20 escape room locations have opened across New England — in old office spaces, warehouses, and tourist areas, even an old police lockup. In March, two more popped up: LOK’d! in Manchester, N.H., and Lock and Clue in Pawtucket, R.I., which sold 1,000 tickets before it even officially opened. Another, called North Shore Escape in Salem, is poised to entrap visitors in May.
In almost all of them, teammates are confined to a locked room and have a short period of time to devise a way to get out. Using brainpower as their primary tool, players comb the room for clues directing them to solve a series of low-tech and tactile puzzles. These might be word games, codes, or tasks that require ingenuity and agility and out-of-the-box creative thinking — and each holds part of the secret to unlocking the door. All the while, the clock is ticking.
Escape rooms: You can’t escape them.
The world’s first escape room appeared in Japan in 2007, according to Scott Nicholson, professor of Game Design and Development at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario. Since then, the phenomenon has exploded. The industry grew an astonishing 3,900 percent from 2014 to 2015, said Ethan Carlson, whose Escape Rhode Island opened in Providence in October and offers three very different games: Ex Machina, decorated with mechanical contraptions in a Victorian steampunk style; The Study, where the theme is secret agents searching a mansion for missing spies; and The Gallery, where players investigate a mystery in an art studio.
Escape rooms are his “passion business,” said Carlson, 25, a mechanical engineer. “We get to decide what we’re going to build, whatever is going to entertain people. It’s gratifying to see the smiles on people’s faces when they escape.”
These games have become popular for corporate team-building, date night, or just socializing. They’re also great levelers. Everyone tends to participate equally when playing, and since no one knows what to expect, no one is an expert, said Jason Loeb, co-owner and cofounder, with Nicole Chan, of Trapology, among the first to hit Boston when it opened in July 2015. Escape rooms are “a great psychology experiment,” he said. “The best part is just watching people.”
In most cases, “once they have experienced one room, they want to find other rooms,” said Chiu Chan, co-owner of Amaze Escape in Arlington, where players spend time in actual former jail cells.
While prison scenarios are fairly common, there is no typical escape room. The setting could be a contemporary hotel room, an ancient tomb, or a futuristic laboratory. There may be no story line other than a mandate to escape from, say, a jail cell or serial killer’s lair. Or the goal might be more narrative: Players are charged with investigating a crime, pulling off a James Bond-like mission, rescuing a prisoner.
“People want both that ‘aha!’ moment and the decor,” said Jeff Boyer who opened his RoomEscapers business in Boston’s Haymarket neighborhood in October. His game, called Pirate’s Booty, has a time travel/treasure-hunting theme. “Half the fun,” he added, “is getting into the mind of the person who designed it.” Boyer is always tinkering, inventing fresh puzzles. “I’m constantly trying to make props,” he said. “The hot glue gun is my new friend.”
On a recent Friday night at Trapology Boston, operations manager Tina Wood , who is also one of the “game masters,” briefs another team about to enter the Drunk Tank, which looks like a meager police office with an adjoining windowless, graffiti-covered jail cell.
She goes over the rules: Recording devices aren’t allowed (no spoilers!). No trying to get into the ceiling or HVAC system. And no using excessive force. “If you find yourself with a box with a lock on it and you’re trying to rip it apart without opening the lock — not the correct answer,” Wood gently explains. “Everything’s going to have an elegant solution.”
Once you have the right solution, that is. Her best advice? “Talk to each other. Explore everything very thoroughly. There’s a lot of clues in the room. Some are useful. Some are not useful at all.”
To solve the mystery, team members are advised to split up and work on different tasks like scouring the walls and furniture, or opening cabinets and drawers. Scraps of paper, game pieces, maps, documents, and tools are hidden everywhere — they could be parts of a puzzle, or red herrings. Wood, who observes the team in a nearby surveillance room, can provide hints via a video screen if the escapees are stumped. All the while, a soundtrack of moody music plays in the background, upping the tension. Success or failure, when the game is over, Wood debriefs the team, explaining what puzzles were missed.
As for Trapology’s poor prisoners, they flubbed a few of the final brainteasers and couldn’t get out of the Drunk Tank. (Only 17 percent of teams successfully solve it.)
“I knew the success rate was low,” said first-timer Eryn Fennig of Rochester, N.Y., “but was still hoping we would be one of the groups to finish.”
Her boyfriend, Matthew Filmer of Indiana, had been even more determined. “I’m really mad at myself for not finding some of the items that were in some of the drawers,” he said. He plans to do another escape room, and next time, he said, “I will remember that there is no such thing as checking the same place too many times.”
What explains their appeal? With the onset of smart phones and devices, the opportunity to socialize with each other, face-to-face, is increasingly rare. An escape room makes that possible. Or perhaps it’s simply that “people like solving mysteries. They like being surprised,” said Matthew Bertsch co-owner and creative director at LOK’d! He and other fans compare escape rooms to “Myst,” the classic adventure puzzle video game set on a mysterious island. “The difference here, in the real world, is that you can’t just keep clicking on things until something happens. You actually have to make sense of things.” And take action.
Participating in an escape room not only brings a group together; the adventure also sticks with the team, and haunts them. Once bonded, even players who’d previously been strangers go out for drinks afterward to pick apart the game, said Trapology’s Loeb. The time they spend in an escape room may last only an hour but over beers they’ll often rehash it for hours.
In other words, you may be free of an escape room’s locks and cages after an hour but the experience doesn’t let you go quite as quickly.
Contact Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,” at ethan@ethangilsdorf
.com or on Twitter @ethanfreak