60 minutes of spy games: My (failed) mission to escape Escape MKE
Getting locked in a room and having to solve puzzles and find clues in order to escape while an ominous clock ticks down is not usually a sign things are going well. Under most circumstances, it probably means you're living in a "Saw" film, and it's been nice knowing you. But that's exactly the experience I, along with four of my friends, signed up for recently at Escape MKE.
And in the end, we not only made it out alive, but we had a blast.
Escape MKE, which officially opened last Friday at 3333 N. Mayfair Rd. in Wauwatosa, is the latest entrant in the growing trend of called escape rooms. Over the past few years, the interactive game has become an international sensation, playfully locking people up across Asia and Europe. That's where Matt Ames, a Minneapolis-based small business owner with an interest in immersive entertainment experiences, originally found out about the idea.
"I took a three-month trip around the world last year, and I did something similar to this in Athens," Ames recalled. "I was looking for my next thing, and I thought, 'This is awesome!' As soon as I got done with it, I talked with the owners over there and picked their brains about it a little bit."
It was only a matter of time before the game made its way across the oceans and landed here, causing a stir in cities like Los Angeles and New York. And now it's made it to Milwaukee, with Escape MKE marking the second newly opened location in the city – the other, Escape Chambers, found in Grand Avenue – locking away folks for fun.
"Honestly, it's a puzzle, and how long have those things been around?" Ames noted. "It's like a natural evolution."
The premise is fairly simple: A small group of people, usually around four to 10, gets locked in a room. There, the group must complete an objective – sometimes it's simply get out of the chamber; sometimes it's more complicated – by solving puzzles, gathering clues and unlocking secrets. All the while people are milling around the room, hunting for clues, a clock ticks down.
How does Ames create Escape MKE's intricate webbing of mystery? Over drinks, of course.
"It was me and my partner Ryan just thinking, coming up with a scenario and a theme," Ames said. "We figured out a theme and worked backwards. We literally have a process that we follow now. We know there's certain elements and things that we want to put into it. Our big thing is clocks, locks and secret passages … but I don't want to give too much away."
And when that clock hits zero … you're stuck there forever? You get gassed and wake up in a ditch miles away? You simply feel great shame? I was off in search of answers.
In case the idea of being locked in tight conditions with friends – or worse, co-workers – wasn't horrifying enough, Escape MKE's location – an almost creepily mundane suburban office complex – might set off some additional early alarm bells. Driving up around 6 p.m. on a Friday for our session – there are no walk-ins; you must preregister for a time slot – the parking lot was almost entirely abandoned, and the building itself showed few signs of life. At best, I was walking right into a real-life version of David Fincher's "The Game"; at worst, a "The Leftovers"-style reckoning took everyone off the Earth.
After nervously following the signs for Escape MKE around the building, we walked into … a peppy office with two employees wearing tuxedo t-shirts playing today's pop hits. We hadn't been duped; we hadn't accidentally walked ourselves into a remarkably intricate organ theft scheme. So phew to that.
After signing some quick wavers acknowledging the risks involved – though the room isn't claustrophobically tight, and there is a panic button in case of emergencies – and a glance through the dossier of rules (the first rule of Escape MKE is that you don't talk about Escape MKE, which ... crap), the lights dimmed. The pop songs turned into the "Mission: Impossible" theme and Ames transformed from working the desk into M (albeit an M wearing in a tuxedo t-shirt), briefed our group on our mission and objectives: We were CIA agents, given the task of snooping around the office of shady businessman Mr. Dupree. Our goal was to find evidence of misdoing – tapes, hard drives, etc. – the time and location of a dubious meeting and then get out. Also: tidy up afterwards so as to cover our tracks (and probably to make the clean-up for the next group easier).
We placed our phones and bags into an Escape MKE-provided locker, and then it was off to our hour of solitary confinement. The door closed, the digital clock on the wall started ticking down and the hunt for clues was on.
And for the first ten minutes, our team sucked.
To be fair to us, we found a lot of clues: a suspicious calendar listing here, a blacklight there, a Master Lock inventory's worth of locks. Like a hoarder, we were great at collecting random stuff; we just had no idea what we should do with it. So the first few minutes or so were somewhat awkward, aimlessly slapping potential ideas together and fiddling with locks like the most ill-prepared burglars in history.
Luckily, the room is bugged with a camera and microphone, so the Escape MKE crew outside the room knows when you're struggling – which we clearly were – and kindly pipes in hints on the digital clock screen. After minutes of fumbling around, we got our first vague but helpful hint, and we managed to solve our first clue.
I'll be honest: It was a goddamn giggle-inducing thrill.
Once you start figuring out the puzzles' logic and linking together a chain of solved riddles, the adrenaline gets pumping, and the escape room becomes a rush. I evolved into a manic Sherlock, scouring every clue and yelling, "A ha!" whenever possible. There was a part where I found the switch to a hidden passage, and I felt like I won the Super Bowl, the World Series and a lifetime supply of French Toast Crunch. According to Ames, one of my colleagues in confinement and I both took our jackets off around this time. Our brains were cooking now. The temperature was rising. It was mystery business time.
Perhaps we were just dumb (which, yeah, that was probably it) but after the initial clumsy awkwardness, Escape MKE was a blast, trying to figure out puzzles, uncovering new clues and praying to the unseen hint gods for another tip from the heavens.
We did suffer several hang-ups. Some were our fault, like not knowing how to figure out longitude and latitude (I'm so sorry, every geography teacher I've ever had). But, if I may weakly excuse ourselves, the longitudinal numbers aren't located where you'd expect. Also, some of the locks are a little finicky, especially one single-dial padlock whose instructions stumped us for a solid chunk of time. Turn four times clockwise for the first number; turn three times counter-closkwise for the second number; spin the dial 15 times, then pass the second number twice and land on the third digit. I had nightmarish flashbacks to struggling with my middle school locker, and even the hint screens seemed frustrated by our incompetence.
Eventually, we managed to get the combination right, but by that time, we'd milked away much of our time. With two minutes left, we scrambled to gather more clues and picked anxiously at locks. Two minutes turned into one minute. We found out the day and location of the meeting, but the door was still locked. 30 seconds, utter chaos. 15 seconds, resigned to our failure. 3 … 2 … 1…
There was no gas or explosion or permanent lock. Instead, the door popped open, with Matt Ames walking through to tell us that we failed our mission and walking us like kids through the remaining clues we hadn't gotten close to touching, much less solving. I was so ashamed, I would've preferred a gassed-up drop into a ditch.
Even though we failed, though, Escape MKE makes sure the session still ends on a fun high note. We didn't escape the room, but we did score points for the discs and drives we found. Ames also gives you an amusing play-by-play recap of the go-around, letting you know about each individual team member's contributions, whether funny or actually helpful. He then had us write our team name on a whiteboard and take a photo – along with our mission failed sign, our badge of dishonor.
Ames tried to console us, saying that five people is on the low end for a team. He notes the optimum number for a team is between six and eight (he doesn't recommend 10, saying communication can get intense and unwieldy). Even he admitted our troubles with the map were frustrating to watch, and he said, "Honestly, you didn't do that bad," with the same over-enthusiastic tone one would tell a friend, "No, your one-man piccolo-only tribute to Justin Bieber was totally great!" Who could blame him for calling a dumpster fire a dumpster fire?
Still, after we left the office, all of my friends agreed: Our first escape room experience was actually a lot of fun. Once you get past the awkwardness of the first few minutes, hunting for puzzles and clues becomes exhilarating, and thankfully, they don't follow convoluted PC adventure logic, where you have to collect a fish and a wad of paper in order to make a key to unlock a door or something.
Combine a barrage of problem solving with the tense time element, spy details and a bit of theater from Ames and company, and you wind up with a pretty addictive rush, one that lasted well into our drive away from Escape MKE. We even noted the at-first leery location was a plus, a little extra character for the experience.
The big problem, of course, is replay-ability. Unless you're an obsessive completist, tragically desperate for a high score or the kind of person who enjoys reading the end of a book first, there's no real reason to play a room again. The mission and the clues don't change, so even with a new group of friends in tow, you'd just be the jerk solving everything or annoyed that everyone else is so slow.
However, Escape MKE has planned for this predictable problem. On Wednesday, it opened its second room in which a team must escape their handcuffs and deactivate a bomb in the middle of the chamber within an hour to pass the mission. Ames noted that after one room has run its course, Escape MKE will flip it out with a new mission or concept. And judging from the hundreds of escape rooms scattered across the gobe, there are plenty more options and ideas out there, from zombie-themed locked rooms to chambers with almost no guidance at all – just people locked in a room, having to escape somehow.
Ames and Escape MKE will get to that, however, when the time comes. For now, their mission is simple.
"How do I get you to remember something?" he noted. "Memories are the most powerful thing we have as people, and how we provide memories is through emotion. If I'm going to give you a memory, I have to make you feel something."
So at least somebody passed their mission Friday night.
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