We know the solution has something to do with the dogs, lighthouses and books with symbols ciphered on their edges. We know our escape is hidden among the tchotchkes on the shelves, the photos on the windowless walls, the strongboxes and safes on the ground. But for a moment, we don't know where to begin.
Three INDY editors are trapped in what seems to be a child's playroom with excessive home security—locks are everywhere. A timer on the wall counts down from 60 minutes. A walkie-talkie occasionally squawks. We can use it to ask our captors, who observe us remotely through a camera feed as if we were specimens in an experiment, for three hints. A keypad locks the only exit. We're trying to discover the code before time runs out.
As we search the room, we talk about what we find, and motifs emerge. Groups of items with digits written on them start to coalesce, and riddles and logic puzzles suggest orders for the digits. Lockboxes spring open, divulging more clues. Each one brings us closer to escape.
We have been in the room for only half an hour, but we've come a long way since Mike Horan started us off with this set-up: "Congratulations. You are the new assistant to the director of the tourism board of North Carolina. Your first assignment is to publish the North Carolina state tourism guidebook. You have one hour to get everything in the mail to the printer. Your boss just called and said the photographer canceled. Your job is to travel the state of North Carolina, gather the photos, and escape the room in order to get them in the mail."
Sure, this isn't the most exciting meta-game ever devised (it sounds a lot like my real job). Yes, it completely neglects the fundamental question of the scenario: "Why are we locked in this room, anyway?" And fine, it actually muddies the contextual waters with the metaphysical concept of traveling the state in a locked room, which I like.
But none of that reduces the immersive quality of the game, any more than the humble setting does. It fades from mind as we become absorbed, decisively separating things that matter from things that don't, feeling patterns taking shape in the darkness of the unknown. Curious journalists no more, we are amateur sleuths now, and time is passing very quickly. At a pivotal moment (this is an experience with spoilers), one editor screams in shock, which swiftly turns to delight.
Cipher Escape, a five-month-old live escape game in a Morrisville office park, is the passion project of Mike and Lynn Horan of North Raleigh. Mike, a telecom engineer, has a gracious manner and a pealing laugh. He does most of the couple's talking, in a warm, rapid patter. Lynn is a real estate appraiser. They first experienced live escape games in Orlando and Nashville. "We just looked at each other and said, 'We're going to do this,'" Mike says.
The concept grew out of a genre of videogames called room escape games. Descended from the point-and-click adventures that ruled PC gaming in the '80s and '90s (think Myst, of which Mike is a fan), they combine scavenger hunts with logic puzzles in a single room. Their compact scale and mundane concept makes them easy to translate into real life, and Japanese company SCRAP created the first physical version in 2007. The trend spread through Europe, where there are now hundreds of live escape games, then Canada, Australia and, more recently, the U.S., where there are only about 50.
The Horans create their own puzzles. With help from their adult children, they run games Thursdays through Sundays (and by private appointment throughout the week), and hope to expand their hours soon. Corporate team-building parties and foreign travelers are reliable customers, and they saw a bump in business when an escape room was featured on the show The Big Bang Theory in February. But such a novel concept takes time to catch on.
"A lot of people visiting here have found us before people who live here, because they're very familiar with it," Mike says. "People from Turkey and Poland will look up [live escape games] when traveling for work."
Cipher Escape offers the NC Photo Hunt Escape room, which is for three to six players, and the comics-themed Geek Escape room, which holds up to a dozen. A beer-themed Brewery Escape room is in the works for June, and the geek theme is scheduled to be replaced by a horror one around Halloween. All the rooms will rotate, as they're basically one-time experiences.
The North Carolina room is snug, even at minimum capacity. It looks every bit like the generic office it is, with stark overhead lighting, white walls and gray industrial carpeting. The props are simple, including lots of thrift-store knickknacks and bargain-bin books, but they are deployed with ingenuity. There is more to the experience than searching duffel bags, punching keypads and spinning combinations. Binoculars, a radio and other paraphernalia come into play.
Though there is only one door, there are three ways out. You can solve the code, which, to me, clearly represents survival, not the successful publication of a tourism guidebook. Or you can be released when the hour expires, which, of course, represents death. You can also press an emergency exit button in case of claustrophobia or bladder distress.
There is no big payoff for beating the clock—just your picture on the wall and the chance to buy an "I Escaped" T-shirt sold only to winners. "If you offer a reward, you'll have one person who's just thinking about the reward, and totally miss the concept of the game," Mike says. He'll walk you through the solution if you fail, so either way, you get the complete experience.
Instead, there are layers of intangible compensation. One is the sheer fun of tearing apart a room like a TV detective, trying to remember not to pry open anything marked with the stickers that distinguish actual infrastructure from props (still, the Horans cheerfully expect, and receive, occasional damage).
Another is the camaraderie that grows among friends, coworkers or families engaged in cooperative problem-solving. "For parents and children, it gives them commonality," Mike explains. "The children can't do it by themselves and the parents can't do it by themselves, because everybody recognizes different things. The games are built for multiple talents."
And there is the satisfaction of accomplishment. For light entertainment, the game is surprisingly hard. The fastest anyone has escaped the NC Photo Hunt is 47 minutes and 2 seconds, and only 25 percent of players have made it out. Success in the larger room now belongs to an elite 12 percent, up from a measly 5 percent at the time we visited.
In the end, the editors failed to escape in time, though we were surprised by how close we came, and by how quickly the hour had passed. We were free again, excitedly talking over our highlight reel in the spring air, but part of me remained locked in a world reduced to a room. With just one more editor, I was certain, we could have gotten out.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Trapped in the closet."