Weird things at the bottom of the garden
When Melbourne’s first escape room opened back in 2014, it sent an electric current of rumour through the city. What even is an escape room, we asked – and are they all situated in granny flats in the back of someone’s mum’s garden?
This one sure is. Intrigue builds to slight unease when we rock up to a house in suburban Flemington, but sure enough, we’re greeted by puzzle-master and psychologist Owen Spear.
He leads us through his mum’s home and all the way to the bottom of her garden. He explains that, together with his girlfriend Ali Cheetham (also a doctor of psychology), he converted the space into an escape room after falling in love with the concept on a trip to Budapest. Handing us one walkie-talkie, he gestures to the door, wishes us luck and reassures us that he’ll be watching us “the whole time”.
The room is pitch black and eerie cello-driven music rises from an unknown source. Torchlight captures glimpses of our surroundings: a dusty book; a feather-filled birdcage; a locked trunk.
A crinkled letter sits on an antique table. It’s a message from our uncle, who has left us a series of clues that we’ll need to solve in order to return to reality.
The clues are nowhere, and everywhere. Nothing looks out of place, but hidden within objects and paintings are clues that lead us deeper into the mystery. Like children we’re soon completely lost in the story, pacing excitedly, talking in whispers, barely aware of the time that is slipping away. The puzzles are intricate and challenging, but there’s nothing that can’t be solved with persistence and logical thinking (plus one or two prompts over the walkie-talkie). The experience doesn’t rely on shock tactics or complex mathematics: at its core, Escape Room is grounded in a deep curiosity about human behaviour. When we finally do escape, we emerge grasping each other by the arm and squinting into the sunlight. Owen congratulates us and receives our stunned faces with a knowing look. He’s seen this reaction before, and we're sure he'll see it many times again.
Creativity of puzzles: 5/5
Best quote: “There’s no way this code will work oh my god it works.”
Our tip: When you find something that doesn’t seem to fit with anything else, don’t despair; it’ll come in handy later. Unless, of course, it’s a red herring…
A mother lode of intrigue
Months after creating Melbourne's first escape room in Flemington in 2014, Owen Spear and Ali Cheetham opened a second one inside a converted factory in South Melbourne. The couple meets us out on the street, then leads us down a dark corridor. We stop at an unassuming door, grasping torches and a walkie-talkie. Deep breath – here we go again.
The door clicks shut behind us and instantly we’re transported to the control station of an old mine. Low, yellow light picks up a typed note sitting on a desk, warning us that there’s been a blockage inside the mine: our mates could be inside. We must locate the source of the fault – or else. At times our three-person team ponders puzzles alone, but at others, we’re huddled over a rock, a jar, a map, waiting for that moment when the answer comes to one, two or all three of us at once. We encounter audio-based clues, physical challenges and strange symbols. Eventually, it all comes down to a final code that we’ll need to save the mine. With sweaty palms, we punch in the numbers for the third time… and we’ve done it! We’re safe, and our puppet masters enter the room with smiles on their faces. These guys have as much fun watching us as we do solving their puzzles.
Creativity of puzzles: 4/5
Best quote: “These rocks are trying to speak to me.”
Our tip: Look outside the box. Look outside the room. Look… outside.
Try not to scream...
If you’re not a fan of horror movies, then you might want to steer clear of the ‘Leaper’ escape room at Woodbury in South Melbourne. If you are a fan of horror movies, then you might still want to consider whether you really want to take your enthusiasm to the next, immersive level.
‘Leaper’ is the fourth in Woodbury’s series of rooms, and the highest on their ‘Difficulty’ and ‘Fear’ scales (their other rooms span the wild west, abandoned toys and island mysteries). Buoyed by recent escape successes, our team decided to take it on. After all, the concept is brilliant: we’re detectives in the future who can ‘leap’ into the minds of criminals using experimental crime-fighting technology. The only problem is, if we don’t get in and out in 60 minutes, we could stay trapped in his mind forever.
Filled with nervous tension, the four of us are blindfolded and led, sweaty palm to palm, into the room. The timer begins, the blindfolds come off, and we realise that we’ve been separated into teams of two. We’re locked in separate rooms, and in the gulf between the rooms is a (mannequin) woman bound to a chair. For a moment, we feel as helpless as she looks. Quickly, it dawns on us that to be reunited, we’re going to have to solve puzzles by yelling verbal instructions to each other. Once we find our way out and into the next room, we realise that things are only going to get scarier.
It’s one thing to fill a space with creepy props and fake blood; it’s another to create genuine, heart-stopping tension. ‘Leaper’ packs plenty of horror movie freak-out moments (always when you least expect them), and cleverly saves some of the biggest reveals until last. Challenges are surprising and varied and more plot unfolds as minutes melt away. Some particularly fiendish puzzles mean that we’re left scratching our heads for a bit too long – and when our time is up, we’re informed that no one has successfully escaped the room in time. Still, as far as escape rooms go, ‘Leaper’ is the biggest adrenaline rush we’ve had yet. Try it, if you dare.
Creativity of puzzles: 5/5
Best quote: “I don’t want to get trapped in his evil mind forever!”
Our tip: Communication is key at the beginning – you won’t get far without finding a way to contact your lost teammates.
Spy on Soviet agents at this Cold War-themed escape room
As far as escape room themes go, we can hardly believe that it’s taken this long for one of Melbourne’s many puzzle-masters to head back in time to the Cold War. With its double-agents, impenetrable codes and the constant threat of mutually assured destruction, this period makes for a nail-bitingly thrilling theme.
Our team of four steps into Trapt’s underground ‘Espionage’ room with trepidation. We find ourselves in an office, and are informed that tensions between the US and the Soviet Union have never been higher, and that as US counter-intelligence agents, it is up to us to uncover a Soviet double agent before it’s too late. International clocks line the walls, a desk is covered in newspapers and a bookshelf is filled with folders that scream ‘highly classified’. The overall effect is one Martini short of a Sean Connery-era James Bond film. Quickly, we’re sucked into a plot that involves decoding a Russian dictionary, finding fake passports and discovering who are allies really are. Many of the best escape rooms offer exciting reveals and secret rooms; and not only does ‘Espionage’ deliver on that front, but it also keeps some of its biggest surprises for the very end. This is a pleasingly plot-driven room with a storyline that thickens with each new puzzle; some of which will require the combined brain-power of your entire team (and in all likelihood, the help of a staff member more than once).
With just seconds to spare, our team cracks the code and makes it out to fight another battle. And at Trapt, the biggest incentive for beating the clock is getting to the cocktails in the adjoining bar. The low-lit basement bar is a speakeasy-style den; all exposed brick walls, dark wooden columns and leather couches. Cocktails are sorted by each escape room theme, so ‘Espionage’ escapees can enjoy a Behind the Red Curtain, made with Four Pillars gin, Plymouth sloe gin and Dubonnet. Take your time when deciding what to order; the menu offers page after page of classic cocktails, as well as an impressive selection of whiskies and a mostly local range of craft beer and wine. Sticking around for a meal? While Trapt doesn’t do food, they’ll let you order a Crust pizza from upstairs to eat in the bar.
Creativity of puzzles: 4/5
Best quote: “This dead guy’s jacket is super comfy!”
Our tip: Don’t slow down when you suspect you’ve almost solved the puzzle – the hardest challenge is yet to come.
More enigmatic than Mona Lisa’s smile
If you think about it, escape rooms and Dan Brown’s detective thriller The Da Vinci Code were made for each other. The puzzle possibilities are endless, and fetching Renaissance paintings, Vitruvian men and eerie Illuminati eyes immediately incite curiosity. Each of the three rooms at Rush are loosely based on fictional stories (Lost, Mission Impossible and The Da Vinci Code) and require logic, teamwork and lateral thinking to escape before time runs out.
The wooden door slams behind us, and our eyes begin to adjust to a low-lit room lined with dusty tomes, sketches and paintings. A letter on the table reveals that this is the studio of Leonardo da Vinci himself, and that we have one hour to recover a map to the location of his secret inventions before a super-villain beats us to it.
The pressure is on. As a team of four, the first thing we realise is that some of us are better at different aspects of puzzle-solving than others: some of polymath Leo’s puzzles require a more mathematical brain; others call for left-field ideas. Together, we’re decoding hidden clues in paintings, unlocking chests and (when we’re really stuck) calling on our gamemasters for clues through a walkie-talkie, which they offer in hushed and mysterious tones. Minutes fly by as we bend our minds to these Renaissance riddles. Unfortunately, the secret map storyline has more or less fallen to the wayside; a few more references or plot revelations would’ve made the experience even more gripping. Still, by the time we’re placing the last few letters into a lock with white-knuckled anticipation, there’s no question that Rush has done da Vinci proud. We make it with just seconds to spare, satisfied that the secret map is safe.
Creativity of puzzles: 4/5
Best quote: “I feel like I’m in the Da Vinci code but with more UV torches.”
Our tip: Case the joint carefully – one small oversight could cost you precious minutes.
There's no guarantee of happily ever after
There are four rooms here at the Mystery Rooms, and the fourth, A Grimm Finale, is the culmination of the previous three. You are only allowed to book the fourth room once you've completed the others, and it's in the briefing for this one that we learn what the purpose of those quests was. In the previous quests, we picked up three precious objects, which will help us defeat the evil Snow Queen, the ultimate boss in A Grimm Finale.
We start off in the Big Bad Wolves' headquarters, temporarily empty as the wolves have gone off to do some sort of evil mischief. There are fairytale objects galore – we spot things from the Three Little Pigs, the Princess and the Pea, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Princess and the Frog, Pinocchio, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Rapunzel and Cinderella.
There's a magic mirror on the wall, who will offer help if we get really and truly stuck. Symbols help us determine which clues go with which locks and puzzles (eg the picture of Pinocchio goes with the Pinocchio doll, and really pay attention to where all those frogs are). Often the clues and the puzzles are on opposite sides of the room, so we need to work together to call out what we're seeing. The room has three levels (a main level, an upstairs and a subterranean dwarf mine), and there's a clever communications device to help you talk to your teammates on a different level.
The Mystery Rooms advises you to bring a warm top with you, and it's advice you should follow. If you escape the wolves' lair you'll end up in Narnia, which has been taken over by the Snow Queen. And, well, they don't call her the Snow Queen for nothing.
Outcome: Success! (Well, technically we were one minute, 35 seconds over, but what's a few seconds between magical friends?)
Creativity of puzzles: 5/5
Best quote: “What do I do with all these frogs?”
Our tip: Try all the buttons, doors and objects when you first get in – the whole room could be useful, and you need to know what you can open before you begin.
Not your average trip to the museum
There are now so many similarly named escape room venues in Melbourne that these days, what really sets them apart is the creativity of their themed rooms.
So imagine our excitement to discover Escape Hunt: one branch of a huge global company that changes up its four rooms every nine months on average. In the majority of rooms, willing captors are cast as detectives, hired to solve everything from the thief of a secret beer recipe (‘Secrets of the Brewery’) to the murder of our colleagues (‘Law and Disorder’).
This time around, we decide to go for ‘Odditorium’ – an experience set in a spooky museum. In the comfortable waiting room, our friendly hosts informs us that our four-person team has been hired to find out why employees of the Odditorium have been mysteriously disappearing. The current curator Oliver has begun acting strangely; how long will it be until he vanishes?
We step into the small, dimly lit space, and begin to let our eyes adjust to our surroundings. We’re surrounded by bookshelves, with shelf after shelf filled with statues, books and other oddities. So far, so normal (if a little bit creepy). It’s only until ten minutes later that we realise that this room is just the beginning of a much larger journey.
As consummate puzzle-masters, Escape Hunt know how to weave a devious plot through the entire experience. Slowly, the mystery of the Odditorium unfolds, and it’s much darker than we imagined. As we venture deep into the occult, there’s a thrilling feeling that anything could happen – not to mention a genuine sense of growing uneasiness. The farther we go, the more often we need to ask for clues through our walkie-talkie; the combination of visual, logical and mathematical puzzles means that we’re constantly on our toes. Unfortunately, a major prop in the centre of the final room turns out to be a red herring; not intentionally, but because the game-makers have shifted things around, and it’s no longer part of the game. It’s the one disappointing point to an otherwise devilishly difficult escape room that is full of surprises. When the Odditorium changes guise and a new room opens, we’ll be there.
Creativity of puzzles: 4/5
Best quote: “These dolls are going to haunt my nightmares.”
Our tip: There’s a lot to get done if you want to make it out before time is up. Sometimes, you’ll need to split up and work on several puzzles at a time.
Update: The Slaughterhouse room is no longer open, but Orz Escape has three escape rooms to choose from, including The Vanished Carnivale.
A matter of life and death
Does anyone love escape rooms more than Eric Tse, co-owner of Orz Escape? He’s a graduate from Hong Kong with an obsession for board games. He has visited escape rooms all over Asia. He dreamed of starting Melbourne’s first. Others may have beaten him to it, but he’s not letting that get him down. So long as he’s leading teams into his deviously difficult rooms and watching their every move through the monitor, he’s living his dream.
We arrive, panting, on the third level of a skinny Bourke Street building. Faced with the choice of the trippy-looking Endless Dream or the blood-soaked Slaughter House, we opt for the latter. Chuckling to himself, Tse lets us put on our own blindfolds and handcuffs, then leads us like fretful chickens into the room. The door squeaks shut. We shrug off our blindfolds, and realise we’re in the holding pen of a crazed murderer. The low light flickers, and we catch a glimpse of a shoe, a leg, a dusty jacket. Dead or alive – we don’t want to know. Right now, all we can think about is cracking the number combination to the handcuffs binding us together.
Sure, other escape rooms can do eerie ambience. What’s much harder to inflict are those sudden, horror-movie moments of shock. If you’re thinking severed limbs, you’re on the right track. The pace slows somewhat when we come across riddles so obscure that they’re practically unsolvable. When Tse inevitably provides hints, we’re genuinely baffled as to the obscure thought process behind the methodology.
As the time ticks away, and we realise that this room has bested our abilities, we sort of hate him for the creaking, rumbling noises rising around us. But while we may have become dead serial killer meat, we step into the light feeling like we’ve faced our darkest fears. And we loved it.
Creativity of puzzles: 4/5
Best quote: “I thought it was my hand but it’s not my hand!”
Our tip: Trust your intuition. The first method of solving a puzzle might seem too obscure – but that’s exactly how the puzzle masters designed it.