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Escape Artistry

Apr 12, 2017 10:25PM ● By Randy Robinson
For the cost of going to the movies, you and your friends can get locked in a room for one hour. To get out, you’ll need to follow clues and solve puzzles. If you fail, you die.

Just kidding. You won’t die, but that’s the narrative with some escape rooms. Some of the more popular ones follow serial slasher or mad kidnapper themes. Others involve space ships coming in for a crash landing, while others take a more lighthearted approach, like finding a missing magician in his secret parlor.

The basic concept behind every escape room is the same: clues lead to puzzles, and puzzles lead to keys that unlock more puzzles. Complete all the puzzles within the allotted time, and you win.

It may seem anticlimactic—even antithetical—to spend an evening out being locked in some weird room with a bunch of people you don’t know. When I first read about escape rooms, I didn’t think much of them. I wasn’t even seeking them out; I stumbled on them when I clicked on a suggested article covering the topic. It seemed like a neat surprise for my partner, so I signed us up for the The Cabin, a horror-themed escape room hosted by Denver’s Great Room Escape.

Usually this room holds several people, but the other couple that signed up for our slot canceled at the last second. It was just the two of us. We’d be locked in this homicidal maniac’s cabin, and to get out, we had to unlock four switches that powered the front door. Our only light source was a flashlight provided by one of The Cabin’s employees. After an hour of frantically deciphering codes, fishing for hidden keys, and jumping at our fair share of scares, we finally got to the last challenge … and the final five minutes. I’d love to tell you we succeeded in that first outing, but we didn’t. Cue: masked murder bursting through the back door, swinging a faux chainsaw. Game over, man.

But even though we technically lost, we had a crazy good time. And now, we’re hooked. I can’t promise you’ll have the same reaction, but I can promise you won’t find the same rush from any movie, TV show, or video game.

For those of you familiar with video games, an escape room may sound like a familiar scenario. That’s because the first tried-and-true escape room was, in fact, a video game.

In 2004, Toshimitsu Takagi designed Crimson Room, a Flash game which followed the escape room premise: from a first-person perspective, you’re stuck in a room, and to get out, you solve puzzles. The room was fairly ordinary, and there were no scares or additional pressures.

Crimson Room, however, didn’t pioneer the idea of solving puzzles to move forward in a game. Myst redefined and popularized the puzzle-environment game back in the 1990s. Final Fantasy and Resident Evil also utilized all sorts of clues-to-puzzles-to-keys-to-more-puzzles formulas in their blockbuster video game series.

In 2007, Takao Kato brought the escape room concept to life with Riaru Dasshutsu Ge-mu, or Real Escape Game. He got the idea from reading manga, a type of Japanese comic. Fed up with the lack of adventure in his own life, he created the first real-world escape room to bring some excitement not only to himself but to others as well.

The Real Escape Game was a stunning success, and shortly thereafter, escape rooms took off in Asia. Singapore amplified the craze, then it spread to China, where there are more escape rooms than anywhere else in the world. Then escape rooms crept into Australia, Russia, and Europe. The first ones officially hit American shores in 2012.

And the phenomenon keeps expanding at an ever-increasing rate. That’s partly due to the wildly alluring profit potential of this business: according to Market Watch, it’s not unusual for an escape room company to experience 800 percent growth in a single year. Even in northern Colorado, home to over a dozen escape room companies, bookings constantly sell out, even on weekday mornings.

Especially on weekday mornings.

Besides the awesome social aspect of escape rooms, they provide corporate value, too. Many businesses rent escape rooms for team-building exercises outside of the boredom-inducing environs of the office, and most escape rooms offer corporate discounts.


The psychology behind escape rooms’ appeal is complex, but most analyses suggest their rising popularity is a response to the dull humdrum of urbanization and digitization. Studies show millennials prefer not to go out these days (for a variety of reasons), and social media ensures we stay glued to our mobile devices, even when in the company of flesh-and-blood people.

With a few rare exceptions, escape rooms aren’t solo acts. You must work with a group to get out of the room. Even online player-versus-player games don’t offer the level of interactivity you’ll  experience at a real-life escape room.

Because escape rooms are designed for groups, there’s always something to do. This isn’t a turn-based thing: half the team can be working on one puzzle while the other half tries to decode a cipher. There’s no excuse for someone to be standing around with their hands in their pockets; even stragglers can wisely spend their time scavenging.

Being phoneless cuts off escape artists from the ubiquitous, perpetual pull of the Internet. No texting, no push notifications, no selfies. You’re focused on your team, the challenge, and nothing more.

Anyone who steps into an escape room has something to offer the team. Even if it’s just seeing a
particular clue in a way no one else does, your very presence will push the team further along than it would have gotten without you. “A puzzle geek will have a great time on the puzzling aspect,” says Ryan Pachmayer, the founder of the Puzzah! escape room. “People that are really into stories or visual themes will be immersed in the story and atmosphere. Competitive people can challenge themselves. There’s just a lot going on that will cater to specific personalities without taking away from other personality types.”

This one applies across the board, but even at team-building events with coworkers, escape rooms offer a reprieve from the daily stresses of modern life. For one hour, you can completely immerse yourself in a fictitious setting with a fantasy narrative.

There’s nothing quite like solving a mystery in an escape room. Even if you fail to escape, you’ll likely crack most of the puzzles in the room. You’ll do this without any strategy guides, cheat codes, or Wikipedia searches. If you solve a puzzle, you can take pride in knowing you did that on your own accord.

“Escape rooms are a great way for people to realize that they actually like challenges,” explains
Mathew Sisson, one of the founders of Enigma Escape Rooms. “It’s a way for people to get joy out of things they’ve been missing.”

Every escape room company offers something a little different, but they all follow the same procedures, too. If you’re unsure of what to expect, here’s what the typical escape room schedule looks like.

Step 1: SIGN IN
Escape rooms require you sign a waiver granting consent to being locked in a room. It sounds much scarier than it actually is. Just keep in mind every escape room has some sort of panic button in the case of an emergency. Some rooms don’t even lock you in (these particular companies prefer to be called “puzzle rooms”).

Some escape rooms require you temporarily fork over your cell phones. Others just ask that you turn them off. Part of that is so players can’t cheat, although most puzzles can’t be solved with Internet assistance. Also, they don’t want you taking photos of the puzzles and spoiling the fun for everyone else.

An escape room employee will brief you on the story behind the room. You might be trying to unlock a safe for a vaccine to a virus outbreak. Or maybe you’re looking for a missing scientist’s hidden schematics. Or maybe you’re on a train that’s about to crash, and the only thing that’ll stop it is following the clues to activate the emergency stop. You get the idea. The briefing will also go over the rules. Some escape rooms encourage you to scrounge through everything. Others would prefer if you leave the decorations in peace. Almost every escape room makes clues and puzzles easily accessible, so there’s no need to tear through the couch cushions or disassemble the ceiling panels.

You’ll have a clock in the room showing you how much time is remaining. There’s usually some way for the escape room employees to provide clues as well, such as slipping notes under the door or broadcasting a statement or two through an old transistor radio.

Whether you beat the room or it beats you, you’ll get a full debriefing once you exit. If you didn’t succeed, the solutions and clues will be explained to you. If you did succeed, you’ll usually be told why you did so well. Some companies will take your photo at the end of a successful run so you can have bragging rights. Others hand out small prizes, like stickers or trinkets. Regardless of what you walk away with, the experience alone is worth the effort.


Ryan Pachmayer of Puzzah! took a revolutionary approach to puzzle room design. The rooms at his location are completely automated; an AI determines which hints to drop and whether to introduce bonus puzzles based on the speed and ingenuity of a particular escape room group. Despite the high-tech approach to his puzzle rooms, Pachmayer has some general tips to help escape artists of any experience level:

1: Any action or answer you find compelling, have multiple people try if the first person fails. If you discover a numerical code and someone puts it in and it doesn’t work, have another person try it.

2: The other common pitfall is in finding objects, or scavenging. Make sure to look around and under everything. Missing that key or black light or piece of instruction can really hold you back for awhile.

3: Overthinking solutions is another common fault. You have to remember that almost every group that walks through the door has to have a legitimate chance at solving almost every puzzle in the room. If you come across an organ, you’re not going to have to play a complicated song. If you come across a computer, you don’t need to open up HTML and start typing in code. Think simple. Look for ways that objects in the room can be connected, and you’ll do well.



New to escape rooms? You’re not alone. According to Kurt Allison of Conundrum, “Just one-quarter of Americans have even heard of an escape room.” Fewer have actually experienced one. “There’s not a lot out there about us,” Allison continued, “but that’s changing.” Because every escape room company has its own unique personality and approach, here’s a brief guide to help you pick your first.

Consider Puzzah! or Golden Puzzle Room. Escape rooms in the US usually group you with strangers, a scenario that’s daunting for a lot of first-timers. These two companies prefer to keep the experience relatively private, so you’ll only play with people you know.

Consider Denver’s Great Room Escape or Boulder Escape Room. Most escape rooms feature family-friendly themes, but some may have settings related to kidnapping, imprisonment, or even murder. These two companies go above and beyond with horror-inspired rooms crafted to make you jump with fright. If you work really, really well under pressure, these haunt-themed spots may be perfect.

Consider EscapeWorks in downtown Denver. Most escape rooms are made for 2–8 people, but EscapeWorks’s multi-sectioned rooms are designed for 10–15 people. These are best for corporate team-building outings as the entire department can join in, with plenty of challenges and opportunities to solve puzzles for everyone involved.

Consider Enigma Escape Rooms in Boulder. This one is located smack-dab in the center of the Pearl Street Mall, so after your escape room experience, you can hit the nearby boutiques and restaurants.

Consider Conundrum in Arvada. Conundrum’s designs employ some rather strange and unusual puzzles that require seriously out-of-the-box thinking to solve.