Adventurous new gaming trend locks away the hearts and imaginations of Calgarians

For some, the idea of locking yourself away in a room specifically designed to hold you prisoner would be nothing short of absolute insanity. But for many Calgarians, it’s simply the latest affordable thrill.

“There is such a high after you get out of the room, whether you solved all the puzzles or not. It’s that feeling of, ‘We did it!’” says Kay Jarand, fresh off of successfully vanquishing a series of mythological beasts in The Locked Room’s “Lair of the Minotaur”, her five-person team escaping with just 12 minutes to spare from the hour participants are given to complete a room.

Adil Hooda, a manager and co-creator at The Locked Room, Calgary’s premiere escape room facility, explains that the objective of these rooms is less about escaping from them physically, and more about escaping to them.

“Augmented reality gaming is becoming so popular these days,” he says. “People are way more on the mobile gaming now — putting themselves into the game — than the console gaming. They want to get out, and we wanted to give people something fun to go do that’s a little more interactive than going to the movies. Something you have to work together on, but that isn’t too strenuous.”

Adil Hooda, co-creator of The Locked Room, stresses the importance of consistency in creating the most flawless escape room experience. “We want every group that comes in to experience the same adventure… I don’t want to say it’s like McDonald’s, but you know what I mean — you eat the same burger in Calgary that you do in France. We want all of our players to come out of these rooms with an equal sense of accomplishment.” Photo by Michaela RitchieIn recent years, Hooda and his colleague Kyle Fitzgerald have brought no shortage of bizarre trends to Calgary — for example, a zombie obstacle-course race, and a reboot of the ugly Christmas sweater trend by opening up stores across the city. In short, these guys know their way around creative directivity of a crowd. So when a friend approached the duo about bringing the escape room craze sweeping through Asia and Europe to this side of the pond, it seemed only a natural fit for them to be the first to bring this slice of live-action adventure gaming to Calgary.

“We just love to bring crazy cool things to Calgary, so when we heard about [escape rooms] we wanted to be on the leading edge of it. We thought why not build a facility centered around puzzles and puzzle gaming? And we were all gamers ourselves, so it was a blast for us to build and figure out along the way,” says Hooda.

Real Escape Game (REG), a Japanese company, is widely credited as the originator of the escapist novelty rooms, the idea evolving to encapsulate over 2,800 dedicated venues worldwide by 2015, according to an article by MarketWatch. In a 2009 interview with The Japan Times, REG executive Takao Kato described his vision for escape rooms, which in their early days amounted to no more than pre-planned clues scattered around downtown Tokyo bars, as being deeply rooted in childhood fantasy.

“I wondered why interesting things didn’t happen in my life, like they did in books,” Kato said. “I thought I could create my own adventure, a story, and then invite people to be a part of it.”

“Your uncle was into some freaky shit,” says Adil Hooda, explaining the plot twist of this hidden satanic cellar in one of The Locked Room’s most popular sets. Although escape rooms are often thought to emphasize horror elements, and although many companies are moving towards incorporating more of that ‘haunted house’ feel, Hooda reminds players that the scare factor isn’t an escape room’s primary goal; the focus is on fun stories that reveal themselves through their riddles. Photo by Michaela Ritchie“I think that’s a really big part of why this stuff is becoming more popular,” says Kayla Bigras, the manager of Exit Calgary downtown. “We’re all just big kids at heart, trying to get away from the troubles of our daily lives. 

“The main people we get in are in their mid-20s to late-30s, the 90s kids, the people who all grew up on Mario or Sonic,” Bigras continues. “Growing up being a part of an adventure series like that, and now getting the chance to think you’re Indiana Jones when you do our Egypt room — it’s that live adventure, live action, interactive imagination, and sense of discovery that drives people.”

Although there is no set formula for constructing escape rooms, grading their quality, or designing gameplay across companies (and often within them), Bigras says there are some general precepts that unify the industry.

The quintessential escape room experience entertains players primarily by making the imagination do as little heavy lifting as possible. With the goal of making each adventure feel as real as it can be, escape rooms utilize real props and settings — physical elements that players can interact with in real-time, from a Minotaur’s head, to laser beams, LED-light torches, gigantic Egyptian pillars and real sand on the floor. It’s the next step up from the use of digital headgear and computer generated interfaces that players are used to with most virtual reality gaming.

Kayla Bigras, manager of Exit Calgary, shown in the Halo Tea Boardgame Café, says one thing she particularly enjoys about escape rooms is their ability to pull people from all walks of life out of their everyday routine and throw them into a thrilling new adventure. “Because we have a certain amount of slots to play in each room at a time, sometimes in bookings we get total strangers playing together, and they share this really cool experience together and, a couple times, have come out the other end acting like the best of friends.” Photo by Michaela RitchieThough themes and the number of players accommodated changes from room to room, based mostly on the constraints and configuration of that space, players can expect in most cases to be greeted by confines about the size of an average bedroom, with similarly-sized payoff rooms to follow — if you can unlock the doors to get inside.

Each Locked Room theme includes two rooms to play through: the one players start in, and the one they have to unlock to complete their objective. Exit Calgary storylines take players through three rooms in most cases. Other companies may opt to simplify gameplay with only one, or complicate it further with multiple additions.

In most Calgary rooms, players have 60-minutes to puzzle their way to freedom through a room’s numerous riddles and clues, relying on their team’s combined intellect, and maybe the occasional hint from the company’s staff, to make it out before the clock stops. The difficulty of a room is decided almost entirely by players’ ability to do this. Most companies mark their rooms on their websites with an ever-evolving “escape rate” percentage to reflect the number of teams successful in breaking out before their time is up.

Teams will encounter a bevy of unorthodox and intricate combination locks on their way to freedom, making a 10-15 minute orientation by staff mandatory before you enter the game. Clues to cracking these locks — which can ultimately be undone using a variety of letter combinations, number codes, keys, and even compass directions — are uncovered around the room, often in a non-linear order.

‘Heed my warning’ is scrawled in (fake) blood in a hidden locale in Exit Calgary’s Prison Break themed room. Though not directly related to the popular Fox show of the same name, manager Bigras says many escape rooms do pay homage to pop culture favourites.
Photo by Michaela Ritchie
How you come across these clues, the obstacles you face, potential bonus quests to complete along the way for extra points on the leaderboard, and the various storylines that piece everything together into a larger narrative are primarily what sets each escape room apart. The budding escape room scene in Calgary is so young, says Bigras, that so far there has been ample room for different companies to form niches without much overlay in competition.

For example, Escape Capers is currently the only company with an in-character guide to help players through the room while livening up the story. Esxoss Manway provides intense technological enhancement in their rooms to interact with, while Escape2gether focuses heavily on the complexity of their puzzling elements.

The Locked Room offers the most diverse variety of room themes to choose from across their three locations, and Exit Calgary aims to be the most immersive, with a focus on elaborate staging and props. The venues are competitively priced, with each player paying no more than $30 at any facility to experience an escape.

Hooda maintains that the rooms, although certainly heavily rooted in gaming, offer an equally satisfying experience to players outside that community as well, because of their relative ease and all-ages entertainment value.

Much of escape rooms’ appeal, says Bigras, comes from their ability to incite players’ imaginations. “Getting the chance to think you’re Indiana Jones when you do our Egypt room — it’s that live adventure, live action, interactive imagination, and sense of discovery that drives people.”
Photo by Michaela Ritchie
“It’s not like you need to be a gamer to enjoy these rooms,” says Hooda. “Anything you need to know to win the room is actually in the room with you, you just have to put it together.

“It’s the convenience of knowing easy controls,” he explains. “Why is Pokémon Go so successful? It’s because it doesn’t take inherent knowledge to know how to play it. You just throw the pokéball using your finger on your phone screen, which you already know how to do. And you already know the Pokémon from when you were younger, so the story is very intuitive.

“It’s the same thing with Escape Rooms. It doesn’t take incredible knowledge to know how to use your hands. We’re already inherently knowledgeable about the controls — the controls are our bodies!”

Bigras also highlights the gameplay advantages escape rooms present in their focus on communication and intellect over physicality, a feature that makes them an excellent choice of entertainment for folks who have trouble with more rigorous activities.

“When it comes to things like paintball and laser tag, if you’re athletic, you’re going to have an edge in competing. Here, you don’t necessarily need to be a particular kind of person or physicality — it’s so important that no one is left out of the fun because of something like age or ability,” says Bigras. “We design our rooms so they appeal to a bunch of different types of thinking instead. If you’re a very tactical, hands-on person, we have puzzles for that. If you’re very word savvy, we have puzzles for that. If you love math, we have puzzles for that. Just ask.”

And in case you were wondering — as people often do, say both Hooda and Bigras — those puzzles will change over time. Both Exit and The Locked Room are currently brainstorming new ways to reconfigure their existing rooms to continue puzzling return customers, and Exit makes a point of updating customers via its Facebook page if any rooms have undergone an “upgrade.”

However, according to Hooda, though his team is always on the hunt for ways to modify and improve their existing room themes, elaborate changes, like an all-out swap of one room theme for another entirely, are unlikely to happen at The Locked Room locations, because of their already extensive variety, until more people have tried the rooms they’ve already laid out.

This escape team, comprised of (from left to right) Carolyn and Brian Fitzgerald, Kay and Amy Jarand, and Melissa Adams, made it out of the Lair of the Minotaur at The Locked Room’s Southland location on Aug. 8 with just under 12 minutes to spare. “I’m not really a puzzle person, so I was a little intimidated at first,” said Adams post-victory. “But I ended up having a lot of fun, and doing it with a team meant at least there were people there I could follow around who could help me out. There are definitely things that will keep me coming back.”
Photo by Michaela Ritchie
“Everybody keeps asking us when are you going to switch up the rooms?” he says. “But the funny thing is, not everyone has played all of them yet, and we’re still selling out. I don’t think enough people know about escape rooms, or have played them yet in Calgary, for us to worry about changes just yet.”

But with less than 25 per cent of the predicted market audience having been reached thus far, Hooda predicts, he says Calgarians won’t be escaping this trend any time soon.

“It’s a constantly evolving thing, and every year that it’s around, you’re going to see it step up,” he says. “People will see these rooms only becoming cooler and more interesting with time to answer demand. This is just the beginning. We have room to become even more adventurous, more imaginative. It just takes time.”

mritchie@cjournal.ca