LYNNFIELD — We’ve arrived at the Tate Modern in London in the dead of night. Across the Thames, lights from the Palace of Westminster glint off the water. Our mission? Somehow break into the museum, bypass security, and steal Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
No problem. I’ve assembled a crack team. There’s Jenness and Woods, our communications experts. Healy and Barrows are hackers. Sack is our code breaker.
“We need to find the combo to this padlock,” Healy offers.
“Let’s find the code,” says Sack.
“There are markings here.” That’s Barrows.
And then there’s me. What’s my role?
Unsure what to do, I describe the symbols etched at the base of a faux stone lion. “Crown, lantern, phone booth, Big Ben, tea pot . . . uh, that’s a guard at Buckingham Palace, whatever,” I lamely offer. “We probably need to get into that phone booth.”
Despite my sad advice, we’re making progress. We locate a hidden a key, break into a black taxicab, and solve one of the padlock codes. But what number to dial once we’re inside the classic red British telephone box? Could the flickering lamp post or the London Underground map offer anything? Or are they red herrings? Later, when we get to the actually gallery, I’m sure paintings by Liechtenstein and Klimt and a bust of David Bowie will reveal more secrets.
All the while, a digital screen shows how much time remains. We initially had an hour to solve the entire shebang. Now we’ve only got 23 minutes.
Such is the adrenaline pumping world of Skeleton Key, which opened in April. I recently tried out the “adventure emporium” with fellow puzzlers Chrissy Barrows of Danvers, Anne Healy of Needham, Richard Jenness of Los Angeles, Robert Sack of Plaistow, N.H., and Charlotte Woods of Wakefield. If you’re not familiar with the genre, an escape room is pay-to-enter puzzle experience. Each features a theme and a scenario: escape from prison, solve a mystery, track a spy, and so forth. Over the course of an hour, your team of friends or family — or, in my case, strangers — must find clues to solve a series of puzzles and complete tasks in a room or series of rooms. The game culminates in finding the exit, hence, the “escape.”
“The room has to tell you what to do,” says Skeleton Key founder Ray Weaver. “We essentially provide no information on what the objective is.”
To my mind, not knowing is part of the fun. For others, that might lead to frustration.
Escape rooms are hot. According to one directory, some 50 of them exist in Massachusetts alone, so you’d think the market would already be super-saturated. But Skeleton Key offers a new twist on the fad.
While most escape rooms are located in lower rent locations like factory lofts and industrial spaces, Skeleton Key is smack dab in MarketStreet Lynnfield, a luxury open-air shopping center on the North Shore that’s home to upscale shops and dining spots such as Whole Foods Market, FuGaKyu, Legal C Bar, lululemon, and Pottery Barn. Targeting a more high-brow clientele, Skeleton Key offers what Weaver calls a “premium environment.” The Harvard Business School professor turned entrepreneur behind the Muse Paintbar chain is hatching plans to open Skeleton Key in West Hartford, Conn., and White Plains, N.Y, later this year. All three locations, he says, cost “in the millions” to bring to life.
I’ve done several escape rooms. I can vouch that Skeleton Key’s production design is a cut above the rest. No handmade props or sets made by some theater school dropout here. The posh, speakeasy-themed bar/restaurant and waiting area is bedecked with a couch and stuffed chairs, cafe tables, a wall of curios, even a throwback pneumatic tube system that allows customers to send messages to the spirit world (or some backstage presence). Another plus: Before or after the game, patrons can enjoy beer and wine, circus-themed snacks like carnival popcorn and corn dogs, or a sit-down meal of chicken and waffles sliders and shrimp tacos, among other options.
Weaver contracted with BeSide Digital, a New York City experiential design and tech company, and a host of engineers and designers to craft the environments for each of the three escape experiences. Besides the “Starry Night” painting heist puzzle, I got a sneak peak of the next two adventures. In “Scarab,” visitors must find a pharaoh’s amulet lost in an Egyptian tomb complete with hieroglyphics and a sarcophagus; the space reminded me of a scene out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” There’s also “Virus,” set in a circa 1980s office and laboratory; your job is to find a missing researcher and the cure to a global pandemic. (Both will open in May.)
These escape rooms are enhanced by cool soundscapes and lighting, but the special effects don’t overwhelm the immersive real-world experience. “The technology is there to enable an analog experience,” says Matthew Haber of BeSide Digital.
That both adults and children can engage with the many challenges was essential to the design, says Michelle Frea, director of game development. Hence the giant Tangram puzzle and metal pipe game that must be assembled in a certain way. Frea found inspiration for these hands-on riddles in an unexpected place: children’s museums. “We wanted to see how we could make things that kids love that’s super tactile.”
I think this is the appeal of escape rooms: In an increasingly online world, we long for in-person, interactive experiences. I know I’m stuck for too many hours in front of digital screens.
“We think people want to spent time with knobs and buttons,” says Weaver. An escape room is “counter to the culture,” he adds, and offers “a reason for people to come together.”
I agree. Doing something as a team to achieve a goal makes the win all the more sweet. If six strangers can work together, perhaps there is hope for the human race.
Whoever you’re with, you’ll likely find the excitement of an escape room palpable. You can’t help but become invested in solving the puzzles in time.
As for our team, we do. We figure out the final clue that allows us to snag the Van Gogh . . . with a whopping two minutes to spare. We exit into the entryway to debrief.
“The attention to detail is what set it apart,” says Robert Sack. “I’ve been to other escape rooms that have a very straight path, one clue that leads to the next. This one had so much to do at once that everyone in the group played an important role.”
“I like the mind meld,” says Charlotte Woods.
As for Anne Healy, upon exiting she tells me “I’m shaking.” Once her blood pressure settles down, she declares, “Now I’m ready to take on the rest of the day.”
Skeleton Key, 663 Market Street, Lynnfield, skeleton-key.com $24-$32.Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com. Follow him on Twitter @ethanfreak.