Great Escape: a look at the region’s newest entertainment trend

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Having made our way into the throne room my friends and I desperately sought to break the code that would bring us one step closer to the Holy Grail.

Time was ticking. If we did not make it out of this castle within the hour the doors would seal us in forever.

Escape rooms, like Medieval at Exit Edmonton, have become an international phenomenon.

Combining elements of gaming, haunted houses and immersive theatre, the live action games require players to solve a series of puzzles within a time limit to unlock the door and escape the room.

The trend began in Japan in 2007. Takao Kato, founder of SCRAP Entertainment, held the first Real Escape Game in Kyoto after seeing a classmate play a computer game that required players to escape a seemingly empty room. These events were held in unique settings, such as ruined hospitals, amusement parks, schools, churches and stadiums throughout Asia.

Since then the trend has spread across the globe – most recently to North America, where it has become a corporate team building favourite.

The games have become so popular they have even warranted their own world championships – to be held for the first time in Budapest, Hungary, March 23 to 25.

There are 16 escape room facilities in Edmonton. Exponential growth in the capital region has made the scene extremely competitive – much to the benefit of players.

“It creates a really high-tech, state-of-the-art environment,” said Aberdeen Hill, the mastermind behind the Medieval room my friends and I (unsuccessfully) attempted.

Like many escape room aficionados, Hill was obsessed with the point-and-click games that inspired the trend. As a child, he would spend countless hours on his PC searching for hidden objects and solving logic puzzles.

When he found out that the concept had been brought to life, he was ecstatic.

“I didn’t believe it,” he said. “How could they do these cool things in a physical environment?”

Escape rooms have come a long way in the past decade. While some still mimic the single-room PC environments from which they were born, today’s rooms have more in common with small-scale theatrical productions.

Professionally decorated sets, complete with audio and sometimes olfactory elements, provide the backdrop to a 45-minute immersive experience.

Backstories range from prison breaks to bomb diffusions to bank heists.

Some rooms draw their inspiration from adventure movies and mystery novels, such as The Da Vinci Code or Sherlock Holmes; others are rooted in horror.

In Medieval, my friends, Chris, Tom, Erin, and I were minstrels travelling through the enchanted kingdom of Camelot, when a cloaked figure tasked us with recovering the Holy Grail and discovering the truth behind King Arthur’s demise.

While puzzles and riddles remain at the heart of escape rooms, the elaborate storylines drive players forward by keeping them focused and engaged, said Hill.

They also help provide a sense of closure once the final clue is solved.

“The feeling of satisfaction when you do exit, if you are successful, is so awesome,” he said. “It’s one thing if you beat a video game or finish a book, but when you’re playing an escape game and you physically walk out of the room, it’s a really good feeling.”

The use of technology has also brought escape rooms a step closer to your favourite adventure or sleuth film.

Even within Edmonton, early escape rooms were lock heavy. Players would move from locked box to locked box in search of clues. Now according to local blogger Jason Lee Norman you can complete a room without ever seeing a lock.

Instead, game designers use technical wizardry to create everyday special effects. Fixed walls slowly move away on tracks, giving way to a second room; drawers pop open (using magnetics) when objects are placed in the right order.

For Norman, who writes YEG Escape Room Roundup with his wife Lamya Assif, this is the best part of his newfound hobby: not knowing what he will uncover next.

“I felt like I was a rat in a maze. If I did the right thing I would get a satisfying reward,” he said.

But I can attest that even getting the code right on a simple combination lock after collectively flexing your brain muscles is extremely gratifying.

Escape From The Library

In January, Forsyth Hall was successfully transformed into St. Albert’s first escape room. Escape from the Library: The Professor’s Office saw players trapped in their paleontology professor’s office searching for the plans to bring dinosaurs back to life.

Drawing on the library’s collection, the professor’s bookcase was stocked with volumes on geology, paleontology and chaos theory. Other subtle nods to Jurassic Park were scattered throughout the room.

Escape from the Library: The Professor’s Office will return to the St. Albert Public Library beginning March 16, with dates for both adults and youth. Visit sapl.ca to register.

For adults:
March 16, April 12
5:30 to 6:30 p.m. or 7 to 8 p.m.


For grades 5 to 7:
March 24, March 30, March 31, April 1
10 to 11 a.m.
March 27
10 to 11 a.m. or 2 to 3 p.m.

For grades 8 to 12:
March 24, March 30, March 31, April 1
2 to 3 p.m.

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Michelle Ferguson