PEOPLE WHO GET into escape rooms really get into escape rooms.
Take David Linder and Christina Esteban. The couple has done more than 150 of them together so far, in multiple states and countries.
Part of the appeal is the thrill of the hunt. “I like being able to figure things out and to have that ‘Whew! I did it!’ feeling,” Linder says. They work well as a team, making the most of their individual strengths. Esteban is fearless, creative and observant (“I’m very good at I Spy,” she says); Linder is analytical and organized.
For the uninitiated: In an escape room, people work together in a room or series of rooms to find clues, solve puzzles and open locks to reach a final goal before time (typically an hour) runs out. Each room has a different fictional theme — you might be playing spies who need to decipher a code to defuse a bomb, for example. Employees in a nearby room can offer hints.
The puzzles require all your focus, and the time element adds intensity. “It’s a way to feel danger safely,” Linder says.
When the pandemic struck, escape rooms around the world — including the 20 or so in the greater Seattle area — had to close. To stay alive, they got creative. By mid-April, Seattle-based Puzzle Break had launched its first virtual escape room. “We had to learn a whole bunch of design lessons really fast,” says CEO Nate Martin. The format has been so successful that he’s had to hire more people to fill the demand.
Most of the area’s escape rooms now offer some sort of socially distanced option. Those include online versions — some built from the ground up, others based on existing in-person rooms. Some feature employees with cameras who move through spaces following players’ directions remotely.
As with in-person games, teamwork is a big part of success. “You’re working together — you’re doing problem-solving with each other, not relying on your phone or Google,” says Brenda Luper, owner of Bellevue-based Reality Break Escapes.
Esteban and Linder and a couple of escape-room newbies joined me (from their houses) to play some local companies’ games online.
During a Puzzle Break game, we all shared the same screen and worked on the same puzzles at the same time; the atmosphere felt a bit like a cooperative video game. The Reality Break Escapes room was a virtual version of one of their in-person rooms, with players able to “move” through different parts of the room and solve different puzzles at the same time.
Together, we tackled mazes, picture puzzles, word games and numerical clues. Each format had its strengths, and we were impressed with how well the games translated the kinds of puzzles a real-life escape room would involve into the virtual realm.
Even as in-person rooms reopen (with limited numbers, extra cleaning and mask requirements), companies say they plan to keep the remote options — both for people who don’t feel safe doing in-person events and because online versions have opened up new possibilities.
Escape rooms’ cooperative aspect goes beyond individual rooms. Luper says the escape-room community has pulled together over the past few months, supporting one another and sharing ideas as they come up with new ways to present their games. “We have a phenomenal support group among Seattle owners that’s just tremendous,” Luper says.