A Seattle Times writer ventures out to try a couple of “escape rooms” — locked chambers full of puzzles that the participants have to race the clock to solve. Seattle is now home to several of these companies.

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As 10 strangers and I awaited the details of our mission, we were asked if we had any experience playing a game like this before.

We hadn’t.

“Well, it’s kind of like ‘Saw.’ ”


Escape rooms

The companies profiled in this story:

• Puzzle Break: 1423 10th Ave., Seattle; from $30 (puzzlebreak.us).

• Ninja Escape: 3800 Aurora Ave. N., #270, Seattle; tickets from $28 (206-257-4907 or escape.ninja).

Luckily, the game we were about to play was nothing like the bloody horror film. And with that ominous introduction, we were led into a room that looked like something from the Cold War, complete with floppy disks, a “War Games” VHS and some kind of analog radio device. It’s where our group had one hour to figure out a way to retrieve the $87 billion dollars stolen by (the fictional) Eugene Hancock and his organization, The Kraken.

What followed was a flurry of scouring for clues, decoding puzzles and opening locks before my team rerouted the money in the nick of time and a triumphant voice extolled through the speaker, “You win! You win!” over Nintendo-esque victory music.

First appearing in Asia and Europe, “real-life escape room games,” as they are called, have been gaining popularity in the U.S. and in particular, Seattle, where at least five locations have opened.

Though the themes and settings vary, the games typically involve 4-12 players who have one hour to solve a room full of puzzles in order to escape, or otherwise complete an objective in the context of a story and setting.

Success rates hover around 15-25 percent, which is the perfect number to coax your ego into thinking your team can win while providing a difficult enough challenge to prove you wrong.

“People love puzzles, even if they don’t know they love puzzles,” says Nate Martin, co-owner and CEO of Puzzle Break on Capitol Hill, one of the first escape-room games to open in the U.S.

In the beginning, Martin figured that Puzzle Break would attract a flock of young, male, tech or engineer types.

“We have been proved very wrong,” he said.

It helps to be located in a city like Seattle.

“People here love games,” said John Harlacher, co-founder and game designer of Ninja Escape, in Fremont.

Harlacher and co-founder David Hinkle worked together in New York City before moving to Seattle last December to open Ninja Escape.

“If something seems fun, people here tend to just jump in,” he says, in contrast to New York, where people can be more skeptical of something new to do.

Harlacher added that also unlike New Yorkers, where people book tickets individually or in a pair, Seattleites tend to go as a large group, lest they have to play a game with someone they don’t know.

The Ninja Escape founders have backgrounds in theater and visual effects. Martin has a video-game background and his partner is a former classics professor.

This kind of creative and technical experience has allowed them to open game rooms that offer more than just puzzles, be it an experience reminiscent of a spy movie, for Ninja Escape, or inspired by Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” which is one of Puzzle Break’s offerings.

Martin calls it an “immersive storytelling experience.”

“It starts with how you want people to feel, and what you want people to take away from it,” Harlacher said, and from there the story follows.

Hinkle says the goal is for the group to walk into the room unimpressed.

“They walk in the room like, ‘this is it?’ ” And from there using automated lighting, sound effects and hidden surprises — what they call the “aha” moments — what was initially a simple office becomes something totally different.

“So it builds towards these moments of discovery and difficulty,” Harlacher said.

Layering intellectual frustration and elation into the story is where the magic happens.

“It’s like a deep-tissue massage of your mind,” he said.

In such a new industry, the game designers said, there is a lot of uncertainty about how things will progress. Increased investment and new virtual-reality technology will likely have an effect.

However, it will always come back to the puzzles themselves.

“There’s a joy in accomplishing tasks, and that’s what this game allows you to do” Harlacher said.

“If you’re ninja enough.”