Places around the world such as Japan, New York and Budapest are locking up civilians and forcing them to figure out how to escape their rooms — and the civilians are paying for it. The experience is part of a fully-immersive real-life game called, appropriately enough, an "escape room," in which small groups of participants are given a series of riddles, puzzles and clues in order to find a way out of an actual chamber, usually within an hour.
Given how popular they've become internationally, it was just a matter of time before L.A. started with its own escape rooms, too. Trapped in a Room With a Zombie had people trying to escape not just a room, but the undead. Meanwhile, the Basement L.A. declares, "All we can tell you is that you're locked in a basement and you have 45 minutes to find your way out or else...." And Escape Room L.A., which opens today, brings thematic elements into the picture, with the room itself designed as a 1940s detective office and the puzzles all geared toward helping an absentee sleuth work on his case while a real-life "secretary" watches over 12 people trying to find a key and get out.
It seems online games have inspired the concept. "Escape the room" point-and-click video games have been around awhile, at least as early as 1988, when a text-based game called Behind Closed Doors started entertaining early online communities. More recently, an app called The Room has been popular with mobile users. Now, people are doing it in real life.
Escape Room L.A. is the brainchild of Boston transplant John Hennessy, who since 2004 has been manning Race/LA, inspired by The Amazing Race. Armed with a degree in directing, Hennessy says he came up with the idea to do a one-day version of The Amazing Race around the L.A. area. In 2007, he launched a separate but related series of events called CityRace Urban Adventure Hunts, which brings teams of two to four people together to solve clues in different L.A. neighborhoods.
"Everything is done on foot within one one area," says Hennessy. "CityRace clues focus more on using brainpower, research and puzzle-solving skills whereas the clues in Race/LA often involve more navigation around the city and physical activities." He adds that CityRace Urban Adventure Hunts are held between three to six times per month, much more frequently than Race/LA's.
Either way, with his credentials, Hennessy knew he was the one to tackle the bourgeoning phenomenon of escape rooms, and with a background in theater, he stepped it up a notch to make it look like a scene right out of a film noir flick. He hired scenic designer Jeff McLaughlin to bring the whole thing together in less than two months. Budget for the room, including the props, was $5000.
It all takes place in a nondescript industrial building downtown. A slow, clunky elevator with a quilted metal interior brings people up to the third floor, where bold, primary colors and the title of the event/experience is written in out in a Hitchcockian font. "I knew I wanted to do this downtown because of the 1940s detective office theme," Hennessy says. "Many of these older downtown L.A. buildings probably had actual detectives offices in them in the 1940s."
Overall, the experience is certainly unique. There are about ten different puzzles that people need to figure out, and each involves a series of mini puzzles/riddles that uncover other clues that ultimately lead to solving the puzzle itself. It's best (and even necessary) that everyone work together, but with each time slot open to a dozen people, most are going to be strangers, unless it's a group excursion for a team-building exercise or a party where everyone knows each other. And group dynamics can be unpredictable with strangers: Pushy people who think they know everything will tend to deliberately ignore others, even when someone discovers a vital clue. At least there's enough to look at and play around with while A-type personalities hog all the puzzles for themselves.
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Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred to the app The Room as Japanese. Its creators are actually in the U.K.
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