If you told us two years ago that escaping from rooms by solving puzzles would become the biggest craze since paintball in the ’90s, then we would’ve told you to go back to whatever bizarre virtual reality world you came from. But here we are. Escape rooms have made their way from parts of Europe and Asia, and they each revolve around a different theme – and all manner of phobias. Time Out took the challenge of visiting six rooms all over the city. Whether we got out in time is a different matter.
A mother lode of intrigue
Months after creating their Flemington room, Owen Spear and Ali Cheetham have 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.
Weird things at the bottom of the garden
When Melbourne’s first escape room opened back in April, 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 he’s about to see it a lot more.
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…
Curiouser and curioser
When you think about it, Strike – the bowling bar for grown-ups – isn’t such a weird place to find an escape room, given that both activities are designed to appeal to the inner child. On a recent trip to Singapore, Strike’s CEO encountered the country’s growing obsession with escape rooms, then immediately commissioned a Singaporean escape room company to fly down and design some for his QV location.
Three red doors await opposite the bowling lanes, each offering a different escape experience. There’s horror (Butcher’s Burrow) and crime solving (Forensic) – but we go with the family-friendly Garden room.
Astroturf crunches underfoot and we find ourselves at a sunny, Alice-in-Wonderland tea party. Plates and cups sit on a checkered rug and well-thumbed picture books rest atop the green hedges lining the walls. The room is about the size of a large walk-in wardrobe, and directly in front of us is a tall, locked door.
The situation, so we’re told, is that we’re three friends who are dreaming of a stroll through an enchanted garden. Suddenly, we realise this isn’t a dream; we’re awake, and the only way out is to solve clues left by a group of tricksy children. We’re sucked into the storyline, and the journey is full of unexpected ‘gotcha’ moments that occur just when we think we’ve cracked the big secret. There are hidden doors and red herrings; and, like Alice’s rabbit hole, there’s an off-putting feeling that something isn’t quite right here.
The atmosphere only suffers from the baffling lack of soundtrack, so necessary in cutting out the Muse and Major Lazer blaring from outside. Still, there’s a Harry Potter-like magic here. The puzzles sit at an almost perfect level of difficulty for us, and we’re moving through the game steadily, until one infuriatingly small puzzle conquers our powers of logic. When we run out of time, we demand to know what we were doing wrong, and the answer is so obvious it hurts. Addicted to the chase and thoroughly impressed, we immediately begin planning our victory over the other rooms. We’ll be back for them.
Creativity of puzzles: 5/5
Best quote: “I hate Shawn and his goddamn puzzle box.”
Our tip: You’ve got a better chance of escaping when you keep calm. Hold in that toddler tantrum, no matter how hard it is.
Enter the vampire’s lair
Gliding off the escalator onto the first floor of a CBD mall, we’re met by slick black-and-yellow branding and an army of busy, smiling staff. Posters and props spruik the six different rooms to choose from: a bandaged mummy beckons to an ancient Egypt room; a poster invites us to become art thieves in the Gallery. Then, we notice the Vampire Chronicles room and our hearts beat harder. Do we dare to enter the lair of an ancient bloodsucking monster? We’re told that it’s a four-star rated difficulty, but hey, we’re veteran escape artists, right?
Not exactly. In fact, we’re stumped almost immediately. The room is a dimly lit homage to Gothic horror (no sparkly Cullens here) in a palette of purples, reds and blacks. Our erudite prince of the night has trapped us among paintings and bookshelves. Slight claustrophobia sets in as we realise how small the space is. But wait a minute – what’s that gap behind the bookshelf?
From here onwards, our escape from the Vampire Room becomes an emotional rollercoaster of feeling totally stumped, then unlocking some of the most brilliant surprises we’ve come across (one had us shrieking, dancing and laughing all at once). Satisfyingly tricky (yet solvable) puzzles almost make up for a couple of frustrating bugs in the game; we’re reminded here of the importance of thoroughly testing the rooms. Ultimately, we fail because we leave a tool behind that we would’ve needed to solve the final clue – and really, in a game that’s all about persistence and lateral thinking, one small mistake shouldn’t doom the mission. But we emerge feeling like we’ve seen what the shiniest escape rooms in Asia look like. And we want more.
Creativity of puzzles: 4/5
Best quote: “I know these bats are trying to tell me something but what?”
Our tip: When entering nooks and crannies, make sure you bring helpful tools.
A matter of life and death
Does anyone love escape rooms more than Eric Tse, co-owner of Orz Escape? He’s a recently graduated student 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.
A conundrum to leave you gasping
The huge, black-and-white EXITUS billboard looms large in the industrial backstreets of Port Melbourne. Bold lettering asks “Can you escape? The clock is ticking.” Next door is a paintball facility owned by the same company. Walking into the reception area at this Strike-owned escape room (yes, the same people behind hte tenpin bowling joints), the atmosphere here is the opposite to the DIY-hobbyist model, and as Exitus co-owner James Miller tells us, the company encourages corporate groups to come in for team-building exercises and pseudo-psychological HR evaluations.
We’re tempted by the Apollo Mission room – which runs under the terrifying assumption that oxygen will run out in 45 minutes – but in the end, we decide to channel our inner David Caruso in the CSI room. We enter the ‘lab’, and for a moment, it’s all blinding white light. Our eyes quickly adjust to find a covered body on a stretcher and all the test-tube trappings of a laboratory. We’re told that if we can’t figure out who killed our fellow detective in 45 minutes, we’ll suffer the same fate as he did. A model skeleton grins at us from the corner.
The timer is bleeding precious minutes. We split up, disagree and shriek with glee every time we get a step closer. Miller is right: recruitment agencies a would have a field day in here. Any observer would realise that the biggest gap in our collective knowledge is mathematics – and unfortunately, most of the riddles are number-based. We’re intrigued by the shady cast of mug shots pasted to the wall, but the storyline is never really developed, and we crave more lateral thinking puzzles and visual clues. We catch our killer and emerge victorious, but freedom isn’t as sweet when you feel like a human calculator.
Creativity of puzzles: 2/5
Best quote: “I’m not touching that torso.”
Our tip: Look for a calculator as soon as possible, unless you’re some kind of multiplication-table wizard.