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How real-life escape rooms became a breakout form of entertainment

From evading mummies to defusing bombs, escape rooms allow you to live your video game fantasies. For millennials and corporates, they make for an unusual form of entertainment

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Apr 27, 2017 17:25 IST
Soma Das
(Illustration: Siddhant Jumde)

W e are at Kamala Mills, the corporate and F&B hub in the heart of Lower Parel. But we are not here to check out the latest restobar. Instead, we are brushing up on our Egyptian history and planning how to reach the inner tomb of a pyramid.

As we enter The Amazing Escape, a three-month-old escape room, we are taken to a sparsely furnished room with a locked suitcase, photographs of the Sphinx, and a set of Nat Geo magazines and world history textbooks. We spend the next hour hunting for keys, solving Egyptian-themed puzzles, and matching cryptic hieroglyphs with letters and numbers. We move from room to room, and manage to get through with more help from the on-call ‘Escapalogist’ than we’d care to admit.

An escape from a tomb is just one of several theme-based activities at The Amazing Escape (others include breaking out of prison, and entering a chamber of horrors). While the challenges are not too tough, they require effective time management (perfect for larger groups) and logical thinking.

Read: The wheels are turning: How Mumbai’s skateboarding scene took off

How it started

One of the first escape rooms to open in the city was Cluehunt in 2013, with outlets in Andheri, Bandra, Lower Parel, and Kurla. But the concept only picked up steam over the next few years. By 2015, two more escape rooms (Escapology in Ghatkopar and No Escape in Goregaon) had sprung up.

The set-up and even the clues are similar across escape rooms — only the themes differ. Popular scenarios include pulling off a bank heist and escaping a psychiatric ward/military base/pirate ship. Some of the more innovative ones let you locate a missing Bollywood actor or solve a murder mystery.

Escape rooms appeal to an audience who grew up playing video games. Moreover, they don’t require prior knowledge, and can be played by anyone between the ages of 8 to 80. “We saw player numbers grow by over 300% in our first year,” says Shraddha Sawant-Grindrod, director of Escapology. The rooms see most demand over weekends, and tickets are priced between Rs 500 to Rs 2,000.

A cryptex which contains a key and has to be unlocked with the right combination (Photo: Shutterstock )

If there is one demographic that every escape room is targetting, it is the corporate crowd that needs a break from the daily grind. They are now promoting themselves as “team-bonding exercises” (read: a fun replacement for the now common paintball and bowling sessions). They even customise sessions for brands. “We once designed a game for a paint company where, at the end of the game, they learnt about themes and processes,” says Presley Fernandes, founder of No Escape.

At a time when people are looking to go on a digital detox, escape games help you switch off — no cell phones or gadgets are allowed inside rooms; the only tools you use are blackboards.

The larger picture

Escape games are part of a global trend that started in Japan in 2007, and gradually became a rage across the world. They were devised by magazine publisher Takao Kato, who saw a friend playing Room Escape, a computer game where you find clues to unlock a door. Kato began to visualise how the experience might translate in real life, and invented the world’s first Real Escape Game (REG).

Today, escape rooms form a big part of popular culture. An episode of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory (The Intimacy Acceleration) showed the protagonists visiting an escape room. And in December last year, the then US President Barack Obama visited an escape room, Breakout, in Hawaii, where he and his family managed to completed the challenge with 12 seconds to spare.

Most Indian escape rooms are inspired by rooms and shows abroad, be it in terms of format or the clues. “Our biggest inspiration came from watching the BBC game show, Crystal Maze, which had creative puzzles. We normally try to match their design standards and apply those within our games,” admits Ketan Chhatpar, co-founder of Cluehunt.

But with so many rooms, isn’t there a danger that the games will become repetitive? “No two themes or clues are ever exactly the same, so each space is unique. And in India, there are only a few players in this market,” says Nivea Pagaria, founder of The Amazing Escape.

For entrepreneurs, escape rooms prove to be a moderate cost venture. Apart from setting up the premise, upgrading themes and technology are the only primary expenditure. “They are far more cost-effective than an F&B franchise,” says Grindrod.

While escape rooms might be at a nascent stage in India, it’s high on the novelty factor. In fact, most brands are now looking to expand and open franchises around the country.

For millennials, it’s an entertainment option that goes beyond the regular clubbing and dining out. It remains to be seen whether it will reach the stratospheric popularity levels escape rooms abroad enjoy. Game on.