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Stuck in the middle with you: The lure of ‘escape rooms’
Find your way into the most fun entertainment you'll ever have without your phone
The door slams shut and the realisation hits: we’re trapped.
It’s dark in the wooden cabin and it’s difficult to find our bearings with just two torches between the five of us. The cabin creaks as the wind blows outside. It’s creepy, thanks in no small part to the ghoulish photos on one wall.
Inside the room there’s a couch, a table, a few cupboards and the skull of some beast. Our lives depend on finding our way out. And we have just an hour to do it.This is the premise of one of the most fun afternoons I can remember having. My wife, my sister-in-law, two friends and I were at Brainstorm Escape Room in Durban trying to, well, escape from their “Cabin in the Woods”.
If you haven’t heard of an escape room before, the premise is simple: use your logic, lateral thinking and no short dose of cunning to solve a series of puzzles, ciphers and riddles that will, if you’re lucky, give you access to keys and information that will lead you outside and, ultimately, to safety.Escape rooms are a growing entertainment trend that seems to fly in the face of a pop culture that wants us looking at as many screens as possible, and as frequently as possible. For an hour your phone is nowhere near you. It’s you, your wit, your brain and your friends against a room trying its best to thwart your every move.
Rooms are popping up all over the place. There are at least three in Durban, and as many as double that in both Johannesburg and Cape Town. Each has its own theme, challenges and feel.
At Brainstorm, in Durban’s Riverhorse Valley, the focus is more on clever than scary. Our adventure starts with a briefing by owner Clint Green, who runs through the rules and outlines the challenge in front of us. We’re given two hints (neither of which made any sense), told we’re allowed to ask for help and informed we’re going to be watched at all times.And then we plunge ambitiously into the dark cabin.
Very quickly we find the light switch, but it’s padlocked off. We find a cabinet but it too is padlocked. We find a bloodied, torn T-shirt, but it leads us nowhere – at least not yet. The clock has ticked over and the first minute has passed, yet we’re still in the dark and haven’t solved a thing.
Eventually we get the key to the light switch, and then the reality of the situation hits. We’re nowhere near getting out … and five minutes have gone.There’s a beep, and a message appears on a screen in the corner. We have our first hint.
Green and his team watch every group as they make their way through the cabin – and also through a second themed room, “Saving Sherlock” – and offer advice to ensure that you’re not so clueless that you end up frustrated.
Green said his favourite part is watching the “sheer excitement” and celebrations of teams cracking the puzzles.
“Also, the moment the penny drops, the facial expression of the player when they finally make sense and figure out what they need to do on a puzzle, is just brilliant!” he said.
We had loads of those moments, but sadly they came too late. Our team finished the room and escaped … but took 90 seconds too long. One hour, one minute and 30 seconds. We didn’t even get our name on the leaderboard. Surprisingly for a bunch of competitive people, the fun overpowered the disappointment of just missing out – and that, said Green, is exactly the point.“For me, escape rooms really are a welcome break away from your normal life and take your mind off reality for the hour. For one hour you are transported and are completely submerged into this world that we have created – a world where we pay careful attention to detail, where you and your team need to solve the mystery and complete the mission,” said Green.“The mental challenges and secrets that an escape room provide, there is nothing quite like that feeling of escaping the room just in time, the adrenaline pumping and high-fives being shared between yourself and team mates,” he said.
We might not have made it out in the hour, but we high-fived anyway.