A locked room, a mystery to solve, team work and a little magic. Over 80 escape rooms have popped up across Australia in recent years, so we talked to Chris Krajacic — one of the owners and game designers at Canberra's Riddle Room — to find out more about them.
The idea behind escape rooms, like the Riddle Room, is simple: a group of people are locked in a room for an hour and must solve a series of puzzles to earn their freedom. Every group is remotely watched by a game master who gives clues as needed and tries to stop the players from doing anything too silly or destructive.
Some puzzles are as simple as finding a key and the matching lock. Others are far more devious; involving moving between rooms, solving complicated logic puzzles or working out how to use ingenious mechanical devices.
"If you put an item down somewhere and something happens on the other side of the room it feels magical and that's what escape rooms are about," says Chris Krajacic, one of Riddle Room's owners and game designers.
Krajacic first found out about escape rooms after his girlfriend took him to one in Sydney. She had just returned from a trip to Thailand, tried a room there and thought he would enjoy them too.
She was right. One escape and Krajacic was hooked.
Krajacic suggested starting an escape room to his friend — and now business partner — Jesse Mount, who was immediately on board with the idea.
The pair went on multiple research trips to Sydney where they would escape from three to five rooms in a day, trying to find out everything there was to know about escape rooms.
"We wanted to see what kind of things were out there. Talk to owners, and maybe get a behind the scenes tour to see what technology ran the rooms."
With their brains full to the brim with ideas, the pair set to work on designing a number of puzzles to use in their own escape rooms. "We didn't really think too much about story and we just had a bunch of individual puzzle ideas — from a laser maze, to pressing buttons, to overlaying transparent sheets."
Trying to turn these plans into a reality, Krajacic and Mount took to Kickstarter and fell short of their funding goal.
"We were disheartened for a little while, although the ideas still kept coming in. I really wanted to make it happen so we thought we could run it from home."
There was space in their garage to make one room so Krajacic and Mount built The Nightmare, a room combining ideas from the two designs they took to Kickstarter.
Opening in January 2016, The Nightmare was an immediate success with the first few weeks almost selling out. Chris and Jesse had already quit their jobs to pursue a music career but the business quickly took over. Soon after they were able to raise the money to move to a commercial space in Mitchell, an industrial suburb in Northern Canberra, where they've been operating from ever since.
Now working on their fourth escape room, Krajacic and Mount "use a variety of technologies to make puzzles feel magical, or create something unexpected."
The design process starts with the pair bouncing ideas off of each other.
"It can sometimes lead to frustration and arguments when I think something should be done a certain way but Jesse has something different in mind. But ultimately, I think the mix of ideas between us creates something better than what either of us could develop on our own."
For earlier rooms, these ideas were turned into paper prototypes that were tested on their friends and family. As the pair has become more confident in their design skills, puzzles are built directly into upcoming rooms.
"When you make a puzzle for the first time, there's no way of knowing how the player will react or interpret what they’re meant to do. As a designer you know what you think will happen or you know what you’d like to happen but then a player will do something completely unexpected, or not get it at all."
To achieve this, a range of technologies from reed switches to magnetic locks are used — although escape room designers do their best to hide this.
Designing a room is a lengthy process taking three to six months. Creating a satisfying challenge for players is just one part of the process, too — considerations have to be made for safety, limitations of the commercial space and people flying in the face of common sense.
As fun as it would be to have doors close behind players or have the walls shift, sometimes it's just not possible. Rooms have to also be robust, since these are commercial products that are (ideally) identical for every group that plays them.
"Customers can be pretty rough, and some of them also get really creative with what they think the solution might be.
"We've had people try to fit things where they clearly don't go, we've had people kick walls, we've had people climb on each other, rip up carpet tiles, rearrange heavy furniture, throw things, rip things off walls, smash glass, stand on tables, kick down a door, you name it... it's probably happened."
Chris Krajacic and Jesse Mount will be part of the Escape Rooms: Behind the Hidden Door panel at PAX Australia on 28 October 2017.