- Bomb Defusal: Lead your squad through an evacuated Metro station to find and disarm a bomb planted by terrorists — who’ve left riddles to help you save the day! @The Amazing Escape
- Time travel: A deadly virus will soon be unleashed upon your city. Three antidote researchers have already been killed. Go back in time to their lab and retrieve their formula. @Clue Hunt.
- Mumbhaikar: A filmy underworld don has kidnapped the king of Bollywood. You must break into his kholi and find the star’s location without alerting him. @Escapology
In September last year, soft-skills trainer Rohan Mehra found himself and his wife Khushbu locked in a pirate-themed room at the Goregaon Sports Complex. It held all the material they needed to plot their escape. But 12 minutes in, they were clueless. Neither could make sense of the buccaneer posters, seafaring gadgets and shipwreck memorabilia.
“We had three helplines. We never imagined we’d use one to take the first step,” says Mehra, laughing as he recalls the experience. The clue, it turns out, was right in front of them – a pack of cards a numbered code that led to the next step and the next, and finally, the key to the door. “There’s a kind of exhilaration and thrill in solving a puzzle you’re part of,” he says. “But time flies inside that room. We extended the deadline to complete it. But we didn’t know where the one-and-a-half-hours went!”
Enthusiasts around the world have been bolting themselves inside theme-based, specially constructed rooms since the Real Escape Game opened in Kyoto, Japan, in 2007. In Mumbai, ClueHunt opened the first one in 2013 and operates 14 across Mumbai. Three other companies have set up their own trapdoors and combination locks. Teams of two to eight can try to pull off a bank robbery, thwart terror attempts on a Metro station, locate a filmstar kidnapped by a don, or save the city from a viral outbreak. If you’re so inclined, you can also work your way out of a psychiatric ward.
Tourists love escape rooms so much that TripAdvisor now lists them in a separate category. And that first game in Japan? It’s now a mass event with hundreds of players in one giant location. The phenomenon has spread to every continent. One company, Escape Hunt, with escape rooms in Hyderabad, Lisbon, Auckland and Jeddah, is now listed on the London Stock Exchange.
The Indian twist
Signing up for a locked room experience is pretty much the same around the world. You book a slot, show up with your team, surrender your cellphones, get briefed and get started.
But the rooms can be different. European rooms are notoriously complex, with puzzles within puzzles. The Japanese games rely on observational skills – one room is a plain red box, you must squint to find cracks and clues. Americans prefer to team up with strangers to create bigger groups. Indians like to do it family style.
They all have two things in common, though — a relatable backstory and challenges that will make players want to curse and congratulate the organisers at the same time.
In India, rooms operate across the major cities, and in tourist hubs like Goa.
- The clues are in the storyline: If you’re locked in a hospital, the clue is more likely to be in an X-ray than a painting.
- Jump right in: Many dawdle at the start and panic at the end. Don’t waste time.
- What stands out? Is there an object that doesn’t belong in the room? Or one that’s missing or misplaced, like a clock telling the ‘wrong’ time, or keys on a keyboard?
- Use your eyes and ears: Lots of rooms incorporate music, a tune or sound effect. So pay attention. And that random bunch of numbers or letters? It might help later.
- Collaborate: Two clues can solve a third. Communicate and delegate responsibility so you complete tasks faster.
- Hidden in plain sight: Thick books hollowed out to hide things, camouflaged objects, mirrors, magnets, collectible sets – nothing’s a coincidence. Investigate everything.
“On average, we have one or two rooms per game in India,” says Presley Fernandes, founder of No Escape, which also sets up escape rooms in hotels and offices.
“People like logical clues even if they haven’t been able to solve the puzzle,” adds Sandeep Mahendra, who runs The Amazing Escape.
Ketan Chhatpar set up ClueHunt in 2013, with a generic murder mystery. “In two months I realised people want to play the hero,” he says. Their second game had participants racing to defuse a time bomb. “One of our games, with a missing scientist, isn’t popular because it sounds dull,” he says. His solution: A Mr India-style makeover that debuts this month.
Kids won’t necessarily hold you back — Chhatpar remembers an eight-year-old girl who worked out a Roman numeral clues while her dad stood by flummoxed. But relationships might. Fernandes has seen couples bicker over who should have checked a clue box. “Indians come with bravado, mistakenly thinking they’ll be out in 20 minutes. Tourists tend to strategise better,” says Mahendra.
It’s a nascent market, so Indians have a lot of questions. The most common is, What do we get if we succeed? There are no prizes, of course. Another one: what happens to us if we don’t figure it out? Obviously, you won’t be trapped in there forever, but people worry. “We monitor our groups, and adapt our hints to push them along, particularly if they’re only a few steps to the end,” says Mahendra.
Chhatpar says many customers would ask to see the room before they decided to commit, “only because they had no idea what we were offering”. These concerns are still more understandable than some of the FAQ sections on American sites. “Will I be touched?” is apparently one common query. “Can we bring alcohol?” is another. And, for some reason, “Will the door really be locked?” Yes it will! Grow up.
- In Ljubljana, Slovenia, you can escape from a freezing room built to look like an igloo.
- San Francisco traps you in with a zombie. Every five minutes, his chain grows longer. If the zombie touches you, you can no longer move around the room.
- The Netherlands had a Nazi-themed room resembling Anne Frank’s hideaway. Amid outrage, it was, thankfully, closed down.