by Angelique Caffrey, Photography by Kelly Ann Shuler
A door closes, and the time begins ticking down on a large TV screen.
Fifty-nine minutes. Fifty-eight.
You and a few of your BFFs are faced with a perilous situation: How to save humanity in less than an hour. Suddenly, 60 minutes seems very short.
You’ll need your wits, creativity and logic to avoid certain doom. Locked together in a room filled with all manner of clues, your teamwork and coolness under pressure will be put to the test.
Will you beat the clock, or bring about the end of civilization?
No, it’s not a video game or an interactive program for your iPad. In fact, it flies against the current Pokémon Go-obsessed culture. It’s basically a reality show, and you’re one of the primary stars. This is a device-free, face-to-face, utterly intense experience, and it’s become a complete obsession around the world, as well as in the midstate: the escape room.
Escape rooms popped up during the last decade in Asia as a unique way to interact in a high-stakes – yet totally exhilarating – game setting. The premise is simple: You are part of a group that is locked in a room. Your group must complete a series of tasks in order to solve a fictional problem. In the past couple of years, escape rooms have begun to invade North America, spawning interest from families, buddies, couples and co-workers seeking novel ways to explore unplugged activities.
Each escape room has an overall challenge, and the challenges are intricate and innovative. They also demand complete attention and as much collaboration from the attendees as possible. Games vary from place to place, which is why escape-room enthusiasts who become totally engrossed in the process travel frequently to find novel adventures in cities around the country. One look at escape-room testimonials from all the corners of the globe shows that people who love them really love them. There’s no humdrum response from devotees of this stimulating pastime.
Downtown Harrisburg’s Outside the Box Escape Room opened its doors this past spring in an effort to provide locals and tourists with a new place to test their mettle in a locked-down setting. It’s now one of several escape rooms in the region, with other escape-room spaces in Lemoyne, Lancaster and York. Located at 717 N. 2nd Street across from the East Shore YMCA, the three-story, 4,000-square-foot, remodeled facility owned by attorney Ben Andreozzi, Esq., offers three games: Outbreak (the game that inspired the first paragraph of this piece), Wanted and Special Ops. Outbreak is especially popular, says Sean Michael Kelly, operations manager, although all of the games have their fans.
For the uninitiated, it may seem odd that people of all ages (the youngest participants are usually in their early teens) will pay to be locked up – sometimes with men and women they don’t even know – and put under tremendous, self-induced pressure. Yet it’s actually a way for individuals to let off a little steam. It can also be a method for corporate departments to encourage friendly, spirited competition among teammates. Outside the Box has the capability to pit teams against each other in real time thanks to duplicate game rooms. It’s a fast, cost-effective way to see which departments or colleagues will get bragging rights when they return to the office setting.
So what’s the basic secret to mastering any of these escape-room games?
Kelly explains that it’s to proceed simply and logically, and try not to over-think the situation. He’s seen many players overlook clear clues in an attempt to be too clever, or try to pry items off the walls, thinking that they’re being misled into believing that everything they need is in plain view.
“The obvious becomes more difficult,” he notes.
During the playing time, groups can request hints, which Kelly sends through the TV monitor in the room. This allows the players to move forward if they’ve hit a stumbling block.
At the end of the hour, the group leaves the room, whether or not they have been able to solve the riddles presented. Usually, what they take away is a deeper understanding about themselves and their abilities to work with others. In fact, leaders usually emerge during the games, and they aren’t always the individuals who walk in with front-runner status. Kelly, who monitors all the games remotely to ensure quality and customer service, has witnessed a plethora of different personalities and reactions.
“You get to see many different aspects of the people in the room,” he says when describing his experience as their game host and liaison. “They have to deal with frustration. Some stop participating or say nothing the entire time. Others just want to be funny or silly. It’s a look into human psychology. You see what people are really like at their cores.”
Sound like an interesting way to spend an afternoon or evening?
Get some people together, and go online to outsidetheboxescaperoom.com to register for an upcoming game. Rates are reasonable, and times are flexibly offered most days of the week. Just make sure that you don’t have too many people for your preferred game. For instance, the Western-themed Wanted is meant to be enjoyed by a maximum of five players. Have a larger cadre of folks? Outbreak can accommodate almost a dozen. A quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org can answer other questions you may have about the process.
For the record, no one is really locked in during Outside the Box game play. To keep up with building codes and related regulations, the door is always open, just in case someone has the urgency to flee. But it’s fun to pretend, just for an hour, that the fate of the world is resting on your shoulders…and the openness of your mind.