The Great Escape
On a cold, rainy afternoon in March, an intrepid team of four Fly Magazine staffers entered into a blocky building on West Philadelphia Street in downtown York. Why? Because Michelle Hill and Steve Shellenberger wanted to lock us in their living room.
It’s not a new, HGTV-style living room, either. This one is straight out of the ’70s – a big console TV, a plethora of old games and toys and more yellow and orange in the color scheme than you’ve ever seen (unless you actually remember the ’70s, in which case it’s all a giant flashback).
There’s nothing sinister about this day, though. We’re here by choice, and when the door closes behind us, we’re as giddy as kids in a candy store.
That’s because this whole thing is a game. Hill and Shellenberger are the owners of Escape Games Live – the just-opened attraction that puts York on the map for fans of a cool, new interactive entertainment trend. Room escape games take their initial cues from the world of video games (specifically, the type of puzzle-based adventure games that arose in the ’90s in the wake of the massively successful Myst).
Now, of course, you can play any number of room escape games on your smartphone. But there’s something much more gratifying about solving puzzles in real life. And when you add in the social aspect of playing such a game with a bunch of friends, family or coworkers, it’s no wonder Hill and Shellenberger are taking reservations for their games as quickly as they can schedule them.
As far as I can tell from Google and Wikipedia, live-action room escape puzzles began in Silicon Valley in 2006, when a group of programmers put together an Agatha Christie-themed room that became a minor tourist attraction. Massively popular escape rooms then opened in Japan (2008), Singapore (2011) and across Asia in the years since.
In the last two years, they’ve become a bit of a craze in the U.S. as well – cities coast-to-coast have escape rooms tucked away in their nooks and crannies. But until March, the closest ones to Central PA were in D.C. and Philly.
“Hill and Shellenberger aim for an escape rate of 50 percent with an hour time limit. As they’re watching the whole process on closed-circuit TV, they can slide clues under the door when people get stuck.”
Those are the ones Hill and Shellenberger tried out. And though they enjoyed them, they thought they could do better.
“Things were not intuitive,” Hill says. And that led to an escape rate of about 15 percent – meaning 85 percent of people who signed up weren’t able to solve the puzzles.
Hill and Shellenberger aim for an escape rate of 50 percent with an hour time limit. (Spoiler alert – they nailed it. Team Fly played both rooms during our visit, and we ended up with one win and one loss.) And as they’re watching the whole process on closed-circuit TV, they can slide clues under the door when people get stuck.
“We try to make it so they get out at 59 minutes and 45 seconds,” Hill says.
Shellenberger is a little less forthcoming with the clues.
“When people get stuck,” he says, “if you just give them another minute or two, more than half the time they’ll figure it out.”
Escape Games Live has two rooms at the moment – the aforementioned ’70s living room and a Dragnet-style vintage police precinct office. Both are brilliantly decorated with tons of period knick-knacks, and both are packed full of clever puzzles to solve. A third room – themed around Sherlock Holmes – will open in May.
As we finish chatting with our hosts, we’re antsy to get started. We step into the ’70s living room, and …. Well, spoilers prevent me from telling much more. (Hill says it takes three months to set up a room with a natural flow and the right props to get a coherent set of puzzles that can be solved in an hour. There are surprises built into this process – and as each room’s puzzles are the same every time, telling would be spoiling.)
But our time at Escape Games Live did provide us with plenty to talk about over beers afterward:
Jed Reinert (content editor): So I’ll just get this out of the way right off the bat – the escape room was ridiculously, wonderfully, amazingly fun. I was expecting fun out of this excursion, but I got more fun than even I was counting on. A bumper crop of fun. Ten pounds of fun in a five-pound bag.
Mike Haas (art director): I really didn’t know what to expect. Thinking about the ’70s room, I kept thinking about That ’70s Show, which is from the ’90s, and hanging out in Eric Foreman’s basement. The room itself was very nostalgic. The clips of ‘70s TV shows and commercials – I remember watching those when I was a kid.
Emily Ahnert (workflow manager): I feel like we could’ve gotten out of the second room, too. We just needed five or 10 more minutes. We were so close!
JR: They did give us more clues for that one.
EA: They were a blast, though. I can’t wait to come back and do the Sherlock Holmes one. And I still can’t get over the clue we all clearly walked in front of.
JR: Right, the clue that was right in front of us! Nobody saw it. We’re solving all of these complicated puzzles, and there’s something literally directly in front of us, and we ignored it. I have to believe Steve and Michelle were just facepalming out there. Like, “These guys seemed so smart an hour ago, but they’re clearly idiots.”
Michael Yoder (features editor): I’m sure Steve and Michelle are facepalming all the time from the other room.
MH: Anyway, we all worked well together. There wasn’t one person running the game; there weren’t people fighting with each other.
“I like how they tailored the clues to us. Even though the puzzles and outcome are the same for everyone, we had a unique experience. By halfway through the first room, they got a sense of our personalities and our abilities.”
JR: Because we’re awesome, right?
EA: I think a lot of it was in the planning of the room. Everyone had something to do at all times, and everyone felt truly important. We all had little wins.
JR: Exactly. One thing that really surprised me was how many puzzles there were in each room. Going in, you know the drill – find the key. Specifically, find the code to open the numeric keypad lock on the safe that holds the key. But there were so many smaller puzzles that led to that big reveal. They recommend a party of 6-8 people, which makes sense. The rooms aren’t huge, so more than eight would be too crowded. But there’s no way you could get through everything if you just went, say, as a couple.
EA: I like how they tailored the clues to us. Even though the puzzles and outcome are the same for everyone, we had a unique experience. By halfway through the first room, they got a sense of our personalities and our abilities. And once you get on a roll, they allow you to run with it without interruption.
JR: So, Yoder – you were really getting into the spirit of this thing. There were a few times when you just got super-focused, like going through the World Book Encyclopedia in the ’70s, or doing the map puzzle in the precinct. Are you generally a puzzle fan, or did this put you in an unusual mindset?
MY: I’m generally a fan of puzzles. Word puzzles are my favorite. I’m also a fan of detective work, so a lot of what we had to do played right into that. And I also miss using encyclopedias.
JR: So let’s come to a conclusion here – other than the obvious; that we all liked it. Let’s say Escape Games Live was BYOB – would it be a good drinking activity?
MH: That sounds awesome. It might loosen your mind up to get you thinking differently.
MY: I definitely don’t think it’s a good drinking activity. Unless you’re watching from the outside – then it would be pretty funny.
EA: I can’t wait to try this slightly tipsy. Bad idea if you’re an angry or over-competitive drunk, but great idea if you’re a mischievous or nostalgic drunk.
JR: I can’t decide about the booze question. You are required to think logically and do word puzzles and math problems. Still, it’s a fun thing to do with friends – and those are generally improved by the judicious application of alcohol.
• 147 W. Philadelphia St., York