Ever had the urge to rob a bank? How about derail a nuclear war or break out of jail? If your answer is yes, don't worry, we won’t judge. And anyway, there are now a handful of companies in Los Angeles offering you the chance to fulfill those fantasies. They’re called escape rooms, and they're a ride you can take with anyone, from your grandmother to your boss.
The clock is literally ticking for the vacationing Fitzpatrick family. Stuck in a three-room bank office, mom Julie, 13-year-old Danny, and grandmother Nancy are desperately trying to crack one of the last puzzles that’ll lead them to the final prize. This game is called “Central Bank.” The object: Crack the safe and steal the pretend diamonds in less than 60 minutes.
“It’s fun to use your brain and get a reward by moving on,” says Danny. “Finding clues and stuff. It’s different from school, less boring.”
It’s also different from a video game. The bank room is a real room, the safe is a real safe (mostly) and the players are real people, physically interacting with each other.
“Everyone has a role to play, and you have to work together,” says Julie Fitzpatrick. “You can’t say I’m doing it all by myself, or it’ll never happen.”
Central Bank is one of two immersive games at Room Escape Los Angeles. In a two-story office building on Sunset Boulevard, players pay $33 each to try to crack the codes and solve the puzzles that get them to the next clue or open the next door. With dim lighting, piped-in police sirens and some heavy breathing, it gives you the feel of something more real than you might like to admit.
“The game itself causes an adrenaline rush, which people love,” says manager Jo Manojlovic, who watches over the players from behind a bank of security monitors. “When I did this for the first time, I was just addicted to the feeling, and I wanted to try all the games all over the world.”
Jo’s job is to make sure people don’t start tearing fixtures out of the walls looking for clues and to offer little nudges in the right direction when nerves overtake logic. Of course, for some players, no amount of hinting will help. “I will not lie,” she says with a laugh. “We do have some groups—" A discreet pause here. "I would recommend not coming high or under the influence of anything to Escape Room. It doesn’t work well, that’s for sure.”
Now even Hollywood has seen the potential of these games. In a handful of theater lobbies where they’re showing the latest "Mission: Impossible" movie, you can sign up for and play the "Mission: Impossible" escape room, where you have just 20 minutes to puzzle your way free.
Anecdotally, it seems to be a hit, says Megan Wahtera from Paramount’s interactive marketing department.
“I’d like to say an emphatic yes, but it’s always hard to formulate what works and what doesn’t," Wahtera says. "We definitely saw an uptick in ticket sales in those theaters. We’ve had some people say they drove over two hours just to make it to this one theater to experience it based on what they heard, so it’s been great overall.”
The escape room trend started with a computer game in Japan, became popular in Europe and has now spread to North America. There are at least 11 companies offering escape rooms in Southern California alone. At this location, they are averaging more than 20 groups a day, drawing locals and tourists, families and companies, all looking for the next thing in team-building. They're like trust falls, but with puzzles.
Now, if there’s a problem with these franchises from a business point of view, it may be this: Once you’ve done a room, you’re probably not going to come back and do it again. Which means the owners always have to create new attractions to keep the customers coming back. Look for Zombie Lab and Prison Break coming to this location soon.
By the way, the Fitzpatrick's did manage to crack the vault — with two minutes to spare.
“This one was very special because it was fun to see Danny so excited about doing something and wanting to do it again!” says proud grandmother Nancy. And when asked if this was the least lame thing he did with his mom and grandmother on his vacation, the teenager replied with an almost embarrassed “Yeah.”