Are You Game Enough For Escape Rooms?
Why being handcuffed to your friend and given an hour to escape death is the new craze sweeping Melbourne.
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I am locked in a prison cell with my right hand handcuffed to the left hand of my friend, Kevin. A loud siren blares from a speaker on the wall every couple of seconds, and what little light we have comes from a dim red lamp and the dying torchlight in my hand. There are numbers and letters scribbled all over the walls, their hidden meaning holding the key to our escape.
A timer on the wall counts down the time we have left to escape. 44 minutes and 52 seconds… 51… 50…
It’s bizarre to think that I paid to be in this situation – locked in an escape room with nothing but my wits to work my way out.
How It All Started…
A little over a year ago, Melbourne couple Owen Spear and Ali Cheetham returned from their trip to Europe with inspiration to try something bold and new. Both psychology doctors, they had become fascinated by the escape rooms they had seen in Budapest.
An escape room is essentially just that – a room that you pay to be locked in and have a set time to solve a myriad of puzzles and riddles to make your escape. Think Saw, but with less gore and torture, plus the fact that you consent to being locked up and that it’s all legal.
“It was just this odd experience we’d had in someone’s basement in Budapest,” says Cheetham.
“As soon as we walked out of the first one we did, we started making plans to build our own. They were the sort of weird, quirky thing that could quite easily become popular in Melbourne.”
The pair soon got to work building their very own escape room, called Escape Room Melbourne, in Spear’s mother’s Flemington property, in a bungalow they designed to resemble a 1950s era living room.
“I always liked puzzles when I was a kid. I’m always thinking of fun things to do that I think people will enjoy,” says Spear.
“The escape room was just one more thing that I was trying out, I just love having projects, and it just happened to really take off.”
When the room was finally finished and they began taking bookings, they were only expecting to have a couple of groups per week. But word quickly spread of this new quirky thing that had popped up, and people swarmed.
“I think people like the idea of escape rooms because it sounds weird. People say it’s fun, it’s active, it’s something odd to talk about. There’s the mystery element, you’re active, you’re solving puzzles, it’s a challenge, it involves teamwork,” says Spear.
“Our brains are wired to look for patterns and meaning,” Cheetham adds. “There’s a very basic enjoyment that comes from finding new information and making it fit together in a meaningful way.”
“In that sense an escape room is really no different to any other sort of enjoyable problem solving activity, but with the added benefit of a sense of immersion that you’ll never get from anything that’s not real-world and interactive.
“Being locked in and having a time limit also provides a sense of excitement and urgency that other games often don’t have.”
… And How The Craze Has Flourished
Bryan Low, who manages the Melbourne franchise of Escape Room International and hosts the ‘Prison Break’ room that my friend and I successfully escaped from (with 6 minutes to spare, thank you very much), agrees with Spear and Cheetham that people are keen to try something different.
“People want to try new things; they’re bored of the old stuff. Rather than going to a bar to spend a hundred dollars on drinks, or going to paintball or go-kart session with your mates, you can come and do something different,” Low says.
Low’s Bourke Street franchise, which opened in August, currently boasts six different escape rooms of varying themes and levels of difficulty, all of which challenge people both intellectually and in their ability to focus in high stress environment.
“It’s way to test your limits, in terms of communication, teamwork and problem solving. Some people lose a lot of time focusing on something that was not important at all.” Low says.
A quick search online will give your list of various other escape room businesses that have popped up in Melbourne: Exitus in Port Melbourne, Orz Escape in the CBD, and even Escapism at a Strike Bowling Bar. And they all seem to have a common theme: horror.
I ask Low which of his rooms has been the most popular so far, and he immediately says: “Slaughter House”.
“Everyone picks the scariest one,” he says, laughing.
The Psychologists’ Hypotheses
Following the success of their first escape room, Spear and Cheetham soon began work on building a second room, this time with a mining theme in a warehouse near Cheetham’s parent’s place.
Cheetham thinks the reason the rooms have proved to be so popular is because people are increasingly becoming attracted to activities that allows us to momentarily disconnect from the technology that has come to dominate our lives.
“I think there are… social factors that are particularly relevant at this point in time – so much of our lives are spent online that there’s an extra appeal to anything that incorporates socialising and games but doesn’t involve being in front of a computer or smartphone. I think people like that they can disconnect for a while,” she says.
Spear, jokingly, prefers his simpler theory: “I think people just like the ‘quirky’ factor.”
I ask the couple if they have plans to build any more escape rooms; the answer – yes.
“There’ll definitely be more!” Cheetham says.
“We’re working on another two at the moment, one which will open in South Melbourne early next year, another that we’re doing for a festival in March.”
Kemal Atlay is a journalist from Melbourne. You can find him ranting about politics on Twitter @kemal_atlay.