Escape games: A real-life adventure

You've found yourself trapped in a room with a few other individuals you may or may not know. There's barely enough light to see your hands in front of you. There are no cell phones and no connections to the outside. You try to open doors but they're locked, and then... a glimmer of hope in the form of a key tied to a puzzle that you and your group have to solve to figure out any means of escape.

This may not seem like a fun way to spend a Saturday night but the LA horror-attraction, Maze Rooms, has changed that.

Real-life escape rooms, or simply escape games, are a type of physical adventure in which a group of people are confined to a room and must search the surroundings for clues, solve puzzles, use gadgets to find items, unlock doors, and escape within a time limit.

The concept has its origins in video games and first gained popularity in Asia and Europe before coming over to the U.S. This phenomenon has just started gaining popularity stateside as there are now 20 escape rooms in Los Angeles alone.

My expectations were blank, as I had only just heard of escape games and had no idea that there were even any within the city limits. Erin Coplan, who manages Maze Rooms, greets new players as they arrive and enter an unassuming lobby with cobweb-covered wooden doors at one end of the room and a board with the probabilities of success written on it at the other. Players must sign a waiver, surrender their phones or cameras, and have the ground rules explained before they can play the game.

In the “Castle” escape game, players are trapped in the domain of a deceased king where the vengeful spirit of a dark magician haunts its halls. Armed with only a lantern and a walkie talkie to occasionally ask for help, your group works together to try and escape the room within 60 minutes. This may seem like a long time, but once inside, it seems to pass by in an instant.

The dimly lit room’s decor boasts a crown-wearing skeleton seated in a throne at the center of the room and the only source of light is a fireplace. A sense of confusion and wonder at the environment is replaced by the mad scramble that ensues once you are left alone inside. Communication is everything as being able to adequately solve puzzles and keep track of clues is a key to success.

Players are essentially clueless in the first few minutes of the game but with a little exploration and a keen eye, clues can be found and seem to fall into place one after the other. There’s a real feeling of satisfaction gained from unlocking a padlock or finding a hidden compartment that leads to more clues or a key.

Throughout the game I was drawn to items like suits of medieval armor, tables with symbols and glyphs etched on the surface, and mechanisms which all served as clever clues and worked within the castle theme of the room. Exploration was just as key to success as communication. Things that seemed unassuming or unimportant, like candelabras or books, turned out to be crucial items.

Ruslan Balashov, co-owner of Maze Rooms, demonstrates one of the puzzles used in the "Castle" themed maze at the South La Brea location on Tuesday in Los Angeles, California.

One of the most memorable moments from the game came from a jump scare that was activated after a series of glyphs were arranged in a certain way around a table. After the glyphs were set up, an eerie sound like someone cranking a rusty bike came from the adjacent room and was immediately followed by a skeleton flying into the room through a window. The skeleton itself held a key in its grasp, which made the scare that much more exciting.

As the hour came to a close, it became apparent that there were still many clues left to discover and time was running out quickly. It turns out time management was the essential element which we overlooked.

The eventual passing of the hour marked the end of the game. The lights were turned on and staff members began to explain what clues were left to discover to ensure a successful escape. Even though the attempt at escape was unsuccessful there was no feeling of disappointment, but rather a desire to come back and try again.

The escape game experience was a fun and unique new activity to try out with either a group of friends, family or coworkers and has the qualities of an adventure brought to life.

“I think that people are always craving something interesting and want something different,” said Coplan who along with running the day-to-day operations, works with the engineers to design the rooms and gadgets used during the experience.

Most escape games require you to book your adventure in advanced and have a group pre-arranged when arriving. There are some facilities which pool you into a group of 12 with random strangers, but I recommend staying with the smaller prearranged groups of six or less for a more intimate and balanced experience with familiar faces.

There are currently four Maze Room locations throughout LA and pricing for the Maze Room escape games vary depending on the size of the group. Groups of two to three start at $90, with another $30 tacked on for every person added. If you enjoy cooperating with teammates, solving puzzles, and high-pressure situations then an escape game may just be the adrenaline rush you didn’t even know you were looking for.