Get me out of here! The new world of escape games

Clients pay to get locked in an escape room, a fast-growing entertainment where players in pseudo-prisons must find clues to free themselves before time runs out. Paul Cocks visited Can You Escape Malta to see what was making escape rooms so popular around the world and maybe, just maybe, see if he could beat the clock

paul_cocks
Paul Cocks
19 August 2016, 9:05am
Partners: Can You Escape Malta is owned and run by Jeanice Bondin and Riccardo Gulino
Partners: Can You Escape Malta is owned and run by Jeanice Bondin and Riccardo Gulino
You are a space traveller, marooned on a spaceship that you need to get out of. Or you are an officer from the British Army in World War II Egypt, convinced that there is a hidden box with encrypted messages somewhere at Hán el-Halili bazaar. It’s the end of a school day but your classroom door is locked tight and you cannot get it open. You are part of an elite team tasked with stopping an insane doctor from developing a deadly virus to use against mankind.

What do you do?

Then you remember you are in a setup of your own choosing. That you actually paid to be trapped in this scenario. That you only have 60 minutes to get out of there. And that the clock is ticking.

Because this is an escape room; you signed up to be locked in a room and must find clues and solve puzzles to complete a given mission and find the key to escape from the room within the set time limit.

This phenomenon took off in Asia, and was quickly copied in western Europe and the west coast of the US. There are now thought to be more than 3,500 escape rooms around the world.

And this activity is fast gaining popularity in Malta as well. There are two “escape-room” centres in Malta. One in Fgura opened in March this year and is open seven days a week. Another in Sliema, in operation since April, is open all week except Mondays.

These escape rooms are another form of activity-based entertainment that is solidly gaining popularity as more and more people look for fun away from television and cinema screens, smartphones or pc monitors. 

If you are fed up of the usual outing to the cinema or bowling alley, this will be right up your alley.

Part game, part theatre, part team-building exercise, escape rooms allow people to leave the world of screens and engage face to face, and because they offer different types of challenges, each member on a team has a time when they are able to be the hero.

That, in itself, makes for a satisfied and loyal customer, the kind that goes on to tell all and sundry what a great experience is to be had tackling these challenges.

The more research I did, the more intrigued I became with the notion. I remembered I had seen an American TV show along these lines, and I had been fascinated – and frustrated – at how some things that might seem obvious to a casual observer, could prove to be so difficult for a player in the thick of the game.

Escape games: the latest craze is being locked in a room such as a classroom or a spaceship
Escape games: the latest craze is being locked in a room such as a classroom or a spaceship
Escape games: the latest craze is being locked in a room such as a classroom or a spaceship
Escape games: the latest craze is being locked in a room such as a classroom or a spaceship
A live and unique social play experience

I had to see this for myself, and after a couple of phone calls, the operators of Can You Escape Malta agreed to let me and our photographer visit and to show me around the rooms.

So I went to Fgura, anxious to find out if these escape rooms really lived up to the hype and expectations. 

Once there, I was greeted by Jeanice and Riccardo, the young owner-operators of Can You Escape Malta. 

The two – a couple in life as well as in business – were very friendly and welcoming. Even after only a few minutes, their passion and excitement for what they were doing became obvious.

They opened their doors in March this year and have been promoting the escape rooms on social media and other online avenues. They commissioned a website – read, awesome-looking website! – and they have slowly been spreading the word.

The young couple decided to build the escape rooms after having been fascinated by them during their travels abroad.

They could have applied for a franchise from some of the largest escape-room providers abroad, but instead they decided to go it alone.

This was risky, for not only did they not get the out-of-box and ready-to-go business that a franchise provides, it also meant they got no easy access to tech and administration support, media campaigns and everything else.

They had to do it all themselves: build the rooms, create a theme and concept, buy the props, furniture and accessories, then create and implement the numerous clues and puzzles for each room.

And they are satisfied with what they have achieved, especially considering they are still both full-time students and will be starting their final year at university after the summer; Riccardo is studying business and IT, while Jeanice opted for maths and banking.

They are quick to agree that their skills complement each other’s perfectly for this line of activity.

“I am more into the tech side, while I leave all the book keeping and numbers to Jeanice,” Riccardo explains. “And she is also the more creative of us, and had a greater input in the concept and themes of the rooms.” 

Collaboration is key

They then led me to the rooms themselves and I got to see firsthand what a paying customer would face. The rooms are set up according to the theme: a classroom or a spaceship. It is up to the player to find the first clue, solve it, go on to the second clue, solve that… get the idea?

All the time I spent in both rooms, I was trying to identify clues. I was planning to come back with my newsroom colleagues or some of my family, and I wanted a head start. But I did not get it.

Jeanice and Riccardo refused to give me any hints, no matter how much I pleaded or cajoled.

And for the sake of sportsmanship and fun, I will not say any more, except to encourage everyone to try this. Visit the company’s website canyouescapemalta.com and see for yourselves just how enticing this is.

Let’s face it, Jeanice and Riccardo did not re-invent the wheel here, and they are the first to say that.

And that is how it is all around the world. But people are attracted by the idea of having to use their minds to solve a couple of puzzles, while in the company of family, friends or work colleagues.

For it is not only groups of friends that book an hour to tackle one of the escape rooms.

“We also get bookings from companies who use this activity as a team-building exercise,” Jeanice explained, “and we also get couples on dates, families and birthday party groups coming here.” 

At €18 per person for teams of two, down to €12 or €14 for teams of six, it is money well spent for an hour’s fun activity that also encourages players to engage others and use their minds.

And if you are faint of heart, don’t worry. There is nothing scary or intimidating about the games or the rooms themselves; nor do they require any particular strength or fitness.

Now, my 60 minutes are nearly up and I still don’t see how I can get out of here.

Do I ask the game master for a clue? Or do I try this lock one last time? What do I do?

Tick, tock … tick, tock …

Dang it! My time’s up.

Some tips before you try your luck at escaping from the rooms

•     Communicate openly with everyone else in the room and share clues you’ve uncovered. 

•     Follow the rules the staff will review with you before you begin. 

•     There is no need to lift heavy objects or climb on top of furniture; if something seems secured in place, it is.

•     Don’t guess random combinations, try to pick locks, or use force to try opening locks.

•     Cell phones and other electronic devices must remain off and cannot be used inside the room.

•     Plan to arrive a bit early so you will be relaxed when you are locked inside the room.

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Paul Cocks joined MaltaToday after having spent years working in newspapers with The Times...