“The first thing to do when you walk into an Escape Room is look around,” says Stefan Vargolici. And he should know. He and his company design and create rooms for a living, including at the recently opened Breakin’ Escape Rooms location in London.
“Many walk into the room and don’t look around enough. Lots of things are hidden in plain sight, and it’s worth paying attention.”
An Escape Room, if you’re unfamiliar, is pretty much what it says. A room that you get shut into – usually with a team of people to work with – and you have 60 minutes to get out. The Breakin’ venue that your intrepid Den Of Geek adventurers visited – and you can read more on our, er, ‘efforts’ a little later on – features rooms called Blackwing’s Cave (replete with no shortage of Batman nods), Sherlock’s Despair, The Flying Dutchman (pirates ahoy!), War On Horizon Alpha (space station-themed), Butcher’s Lair (horror themed) and Heist Plan: The Garage (where you have an hour to fix a broken car that you plan to use in a bank robbery. Bank robbery not compulsory).
“We’re all geeks,” grins Stefan, as we ask him where the inspiration comes from. “We’re huge nerds when it comes to movies and games, and whenever we choose a theme we tend to get inspired by those.” It’s why the rooms the team design come with no shortage of Easter eggs too. At the London venue – and you can find Breakin’ rooms in four countries so far – you’ll find hat tips to the likes of Batman, The Silence Of The Lambs, Star Wars and many more. If you’re not too busy solving the often-devilish puzzles.
What struck us, on reflection, was the production design involved. The lighting, quality of build and – spoiling nothing – quality of surprises we found ourselves up against was terrific.
“The rooms used to be more basic,” Stefan said. “But we’ve expanded them more, invested more, and the design has escalated.” As such, tackle The Flying Dutchman, so to speak, and you’re set to face what you might expect on a pirate ship. Cannons, fishing nets, a treasure chest, for instance, “and then objects suitable for the theme that suit the puzzles”.
Once designed, they’re thoroughly tested too. Players are recruited to give them a once-over in effectively beta form, and their feedback shapes the final room. It’s a delicate balance getting things right, and that in particular applies to the puzzles themselves. Stefan wouldn’t give us exact number of brainwreckers that you get in your 60 minutes, but he did tease that some are designed to take longer than others. Also, they’re specifically tailored to teamwork. Not that he’s trying to defeat you. “The perfect balance is when players manage to escape with no hints, they’ve worked together, and it’s taken them about 55-60 minutes to do. They’ve managed to get out just in time.”
Er, don’t judge us when you read how we got on.
If you want to have a go at the Breakin’ rooms yourself, then you can find all the details you need at breakinescaperooms.co.uk.
Without further ado, we’ve a sorry story of our adventure to tell you…
If we were to tell you what really happened when Den Of Geek took on the Blackwing’s Cave escape room, we’d have to kill you. No, really. Our performance, we were told afterwards, was so staggeringly prodigious that if news of it got out, they’d have to shut down. Not just that escape room, all escape rooms, everywhere.
It’s for your own good then, that instead we relate the following entirely fictional account of four entirely fictional people with no links to Den Of Geek whatsoever. These losers (made-up, remember, nothing to do with us) stumbled at more or less every hurdle, then at the end of the allocated sixty minutes’ escape time, found themselves still very much in the room, un-escaped. Get this – the man had to come in and rescue these flops as if he was their mum or something. Imagine the indignity of that! We have to, because they definitely weren’t us.
Escape rooms are brilliant. Even failing at them (we hear) is more fun than succeeding at most things. When else but when you can’t find your passport and the airport taxi is idling outside are you allowed to run around emptying shelves, rifling through cupboards, tipping full drawers upside down and crying? Exactly. They’re brilliant.
Escape rooms are also the fastest way to unveil someone’s true self. Are you an angry person? A panicker? Someone who tuts? Are you liable to get snippy under pressure, forget workplace hierarchy and snatch objects irritably out of your boss’ hands saying ‘NO. YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG SIMON’? Escape rooms will reveal all that. They’re quicker than therapy. You may also require therapy and/or a new job after taking one on, but it’ll be worth it.
Being set in an off-brand superhero lair, the Blackwing’s Cave room in Islington isn’t big on shelves, cupboards and drawers. Not that you’d realise that upon entering. What you do realise upon entering is that it’s dark (as dark as a knight, you might say). It’s so dark, in fact, that quartet of duds I was talking about earlier wandered in and spent a good portion of the allotted sixty minutes patting their way around the walls and tripping over their feet before discovering their first task.
Solving the first task involved using a skill these deadbeats hadn’t reckoned on: the skill of paying attention. After ‘don’t put your water bottle in the way of the bit of wall that moves thus jamming the mechanism until it makes the noise of that dying triceratops in Jurassic Park’, paying attention is the first rule of escape rooms. Within those four walls, everything you need has been provided for you. Apart from the power of logical deduction, the ability to successfully press a button and the maths skills of your average eight year old. You’ll need to bring those along yourselves.
Ordinarily, attempts to solve the series of ingeniously plotted problems in Blackwing’s Cave are accompanied by a thriller-style soundtrack to ramp up tension. If though, that all gets a bit much and interferes with a team hearing the ample provision of available Walkie-Talkie hints however, it can be turned off. For this lacklustre lot it was turned off so they could hear themselves think.
Thinking didn’t help.
More games and tasks followed, some impressively high-tech, some only requiring proficient use of a Biro. You can guess how they all went: flapping, babbling, random jabbing at the (wrong) solution. Every so often, inspiration would strike and a correct answer would be stumbled upon. From the control room, it must have been like watching that ape from the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey kill that pig.
Eventually, the clock having run out, battle-worn and weary, the four also-rans pressed their sweaty thumbs on the Walkie-Talkie for the last time and conceded defeat. The kind man came to their rescue and assured them that no, that wasn’t the worst performance he’d ever seen in the entire time he’d been doing this job. Really, it wasn’t. Honestly. Had they at least had fun?
They had. A great deal of panicky, hysterical fun. But they weren’t about to give up their day jobs running the UK’s premier modular shed comparison website. What? I said it wasn’t us.