You Got to Get In to Get Out
by Mark Hunter
Want to make time fly? Have yourself locked in a room with a group of friends and try to solve a series of puzzles, riddles and brain-twisters with the goal of getting out of the room in less than 60 minutes. Not only will you witness time move faster than when you are facing a deadline, you'll discover just how smart, or dumb, you and your friends are and how well you work together as a team.
An increasing number of people are doing just that, and not just with friends. Families test the adage of blood being thicker than water. Coworkers confirm who on the team is a leader and who is a follower or a leech. And it's likely a better way of judging compatibility with your betrothed than taking a canoe trip on a winding river in the rain. With liquor.
Escape rooms are the fastest growing physical adventure games in the world. According to a July 2015 report by MarketWatch, in 2010 there were no permanent escape rooms anywhere in the world. The concept originated in Japan and quickly spread through the rest of Asia, then Europe and the United States. As of the date of the report, there were at least 2,800. And that's not counting the five that have sprung up in Fort Wayne since mid-2015.
The list, in no particular order: Escape Fort Wayne, The Chamber Escape Room, Room to Escape, Fort Wayne Escape Room and Hysterium Escapes. Each has multiple, differently themed rooms. Each has its own twist. And success is not guaranteed.
On a recent Friday evening, a group of five friends entered Escape Fort Wayne, located above the Fort Wayne Visitor's Center on Harrison, with the sole purpose of getting back out. Locked into the Star Wars-themed Escape from Tatooine room at around 6 p.m., the hopeful yet ultimately hapless quintet was still in the room when time ran out.
The interim was spent puzzling over puzzles and fumbling with locks. With a few helpful hints from co-owner Bill Collins, who monitored the group's efforts with cameras and microphones, progress was made. Math problems were solved. Codes were decoded. Safes were opened. Keys were found. But as time ticked into oblivion three obstacles remained.
"We have about an 80 percent failure rate," Collins said, attempting to soothe bruised egos. "But you did better than some."
Like others in the room escape game, Cara Bouchard, who co-owns Escape Fort Wayne with Collins, her stepfather, said the idea to start one came unexpectedly.
"We were watching a show on the Science Channel, and my daughter said I should do it," Bouchard said. "I was like yeah, right. But the next day I couldn't get it out of my head. We started looking at properties a week later."
Bouchard and Collins decided in August of 2015 to move on the idea; they closed on a property in September and opened their doors in mid-October. They've been busy ever since.
All escape rooms follow the same basic setup: you've got to get in to get out. The game requires intense focus, a variety of problem-solving skills and the ability to work with others. Which makes them perfect for corporate team-building.
Corey Ford, owner of Fort Wayne Escape Room on East Wayne, said corporate interest was unexpected.
"When we opened we didn't really anticipate the number of corporate events we would do," said Ford, who also owns Sport Wayne, Inc. "It seems like companies are really desperate to find something unique for their employees to do where they work together instead of going to a bowling alley or drinking at a bar. Departments that don't usually work together get a chance to form a team."
They also get the chance to be themselves, for better or worse.
"We had a whole entire Sheriffs department, and they're used to having search warrants, battering doors down," Ford said. "The very first group of Sheriffs, they pried one of the doors open that had a lock on it. It didn't break anything, but you can see people's personality really come out in the room. But they completed their mission."
Brett Molitor of Hysterium Escapes, located at the site of the Hysterium Halloween haunt on Arden Road, takes the personality aspect one step further by offering in-depth assessments of team-building escape attempts. Molitor, who has corporate experience in human resources, offers analysis of teams using Myers-Briggs Type Indicator surveys filled prior to entering the game rooms.
"I have 10 years of experience in corporate training," Molitor said. "I'm certified in team process and team building. It's a facilitated team process approach. I take their survey results and observe them in the rooms. Afterwards, I debrief the teams and send the company a report. I try to keep it positive. Some companies really dig into that."
At Room to Escape, on Allen Drive, owner Jay Hatfield also takes the time to let players warm up with practice puzzles and then, after the hour is up, debriefs the teams. Hatfield said it's important to help the players understand what they just did, or tried to do.
"We have about 15-20 minutes before where we do warm-up exercises to get your mind thinking outside the box," Hatfield said. "After the game, we do a debriefing. We explain how to do everything. We talked to a psychologist about this. We take this seriously. If they don't know what the outcome could have been they get frustrated. We tell them what they missed and how they could have solved it. It's a pretty intense hour. We want people to have the full experience."
While corporate events are the icing for most escape rooms, the multi-layered cake is the groups of serious gamers and families. Jennifer Rau, of Chamber Escape Rooms in Riviera Plaza, said the main thing is to have fun.
"Our demographics are pretty wide," Rau said. "We've had people bring infants in carriers, but we don't recommend that. We have families with kids as young as five. The kids do surprisingly well at some of the tasks. We had a family hold a birthday party for their 82-year-old mother. She had a great time."
Rau and her partners come up with the puzzles and clues for each room, as do the other escape rooms in the city. And no matter the question or riddle, the solution is close at hand.
"For instance, if you need to know Barbara Bush's birthday, it's in the room," Rau said. "We asked people to leave their cell phones outside. They're useless anyway. You can't Google your way out of the room."
Most of the escapes change room themes every so often, just to keep things fresh. The others try to sustain them indefinitely. Some use red herrings to trip players up. Others try not to send people down dead ends. Some of the escapes use linear clues where one follows the next until the final key is exposed while others take more of a matrix approach, where multiple clues eventually combine to produce the resolution. Molitor compared the various escape rooms in the city to golf courses: each has its unique sand traps and water hazards, but they all demand that you keep your eye on the ball.
Repeat customers are common. Escape Fort Wayne players Brienna and Heather Biebrich on a recent Friday were back with their friends to tackle Escape From Tatooine.
"We did the military room last time, and we got out," Brienna said. "It's a lot of fun."
"The more people you have the better it is," added Heather.
With that, the rules were explained, the group entered the room, the door was locked and the countdown began.
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22nd Annual Valentine’s Invitational — Works from local and national artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru March 31, Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568
2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards — Award-winning works from northern Indiana and northwest Ohio middle and high school students, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Afros: A Celebration of African Hair by Michael July — Contemporary photography exhibit by Brooklyn author/photographer, daily thru April 14, D’Agostino Art Gallery, Indiana Tech, Fort Wayne, 399-8626
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