Written by Emily Glaser
It’s a far cry from the bouncy rooms of youth—or is it? The Western North Carolina escape and puzzle room industry is keeping people boxed in—and deeply entertained.
There’s a brewery in the basement of the Battery Park Hotel. You won’t find its ales reviewed on beer blogs or its bottles on grocery shelves, but according to legend, WunderBrugghen’s Brewing Co. is the maker of the best beer in history.
Descend the bowed stairs at the front of the hotel, and you’ll be met not with the reclaimed doors and cast aluminum signs we’ve come to recognize as hallmarks of Asheville’s regional brew industry, but, instead, by a hulking metal door crowned with a creaking peephole through which porters review visitors and pester them for passwords. If you’d like to tour the brewery, you’ll pass first through the Roaring Twenties era speakeasy, then into a holding room where you’ll receive ghastly news: The recipe for WunderBrugghen’s signature beer has gone missing!
And this—not a taste of that renowned WunderBrugghen brew—is what you came for. Together with your team of sleuths, you’ll canvass the brewery for clues and try to piece together a series of pertinent puzzles to solve the mystery of the missing recipe. The clock is ticking, counting down the 60 minutes before disaster strikes, but your friendly guide is a quick call away should you need guidance. Even with her help, it’s unlikely you’ll succeed—only about 25% of participants do—but the titillating adrenaline rush and brain-wracking teamwork is enough to satiate your quest for fun.
Of course, this isn’t actually a brewery at all; it’s The Conundrum, one of Western North Carolina’s half dozen privately owned escape rooms. The Conundrum, along with their riddle-peddling compadres, represents the current-day culmination of decades, if not centuries, of experiential entertainment, spurred by the compulsory hankering of our kind to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. It’s in these rooms that thrill-seekers find the kind of heart-thumping excitement we adults haven’t felt since the promise of a bouncy house or our first topsy-turvy turn on a rollercoaster. It’s all the more exciting for its immersiveness, especially at an enterprise like The Conundrum, where seasoned actors oversee the experience and proffer clues. For gamers and daredevils, team builders and tots, escape rooms offer intellectual stimulation, blood-pumping fun, and an escape from reality.
The Evolution of the Escape Room
Escape rooms and puzzle rooms are the apex of an evolution in escapism that can be traced back to the early days of the novel, or to Shakespeare’s engrossing stage acts, or to the performance of coliseum-packed Greek tragedies. As the public refined its palate for immersive entertainment, entertainers—first in the form of writers and playwrights, then movie-makers and game designers—elevated the experience, nudging the boundary of fiction closer and closer to reality. Movies gained sound, then color, bigger screens, and 3-D glasses. Games evolved from pixelated starships to hyper-realistic, adaptive gameplay that appeals to all the senses just short of smell. Theme parks and haunted houses plunk guests into the heated storyline of an alternate reality, as do virtual reality experiences like Better Than Unicorns, (“Operation Simulation” April 2018 issue of this magazine).
But for all of these immersive experiences, there’s long been an unnavigable handicap: the literal involvement of participants. Through the subtle sweep of thumb joints or optical illusions we impact the mirage, but it’s in escape rooms alone that players employ all of their acumen and senses to impact the gameplay. They aren’t just watching the set; they’re part of it, in all their physicality.
“I believe it’s the logical next step from things like haunted houses, video games, and even movies,” says Shaun Cardwell, owner of Boone’s Mysterium Escape Adventure. “I think we are moving past just being in the audience and watching. This is living those scenarios and enjoying it with friends, family, and coworkers.”
It’s a common sentiment among escape room enthusiasts and owners, like Ferrin Cole, who co-owns Asheville’s Fox-N-Otter Adventure Puzzle Rooms with his wife, Julie, and who notes, “Instead of going to the movies and sitting in a row in the dark with no participation behind watching the main characters go through the incredible story, everyone in our games gets to experience an amazing storyline where they are the main characters!”
Involving the audience in the storyline isn’t necessarily an innovation in itself (interactive theatre gained popularity at the turn of the 20th century), but the totality of escape rooms and the commonality of the games’ structure is unique, with a fairly short and easily traceable history.
It was in 2004 that the genre of escape games was popularized in Asia with Toshimitsu Takagi’s video game Crimson Room, following lesser-known point-and-click computer games with similar premises that preceded it. To capitalize on the increasingly popular medium, investors adapted the concept to live escape rooms, first in Japan, then across Asia, Western Europe, and finally Eastern Europe and the United States. Here, the concept found fertile ground, fructified by a dynamic video game industry and a hearty population of daredevil profligates tired of seeking adventure in movie theaters and theme parks.
Our communal enthusiasm for the new entertainment has stimulated a veritable boom in the industry: In 2014, there were some 22 escape rooms in the country; today, there are more than 2,000. Major cities boast the businesses by the dozen, and even smaller towns like our own Maggie Valley, Sylva, and Black Mountain host homegrown operations. Escape room enthusiasts track their goings-on with apps, discuss the merits of rooms in Facebook groups, and plan cross-country treks to rooms like Baton Rouge’s 13th Gate Escape.
The foundational concept of most escape rooms—the launching pad for distinct storylines—remains largely unchanged from their forebears and across independently owned and corporately franchised ventures alike. The premise is fairly simple: A group of two to eight (or, if you’re feeling really brassy, one) friends, family, colleagues, or even strangers band together their forces to unearth a trail of clues hidden within the escape room or rooms, solve associated puzzles (often to find keys, unlock safes, or proceed to the next room or puzzle), and beat the clock—usually set at an hour—before simulated disaster strikes. A game master oversees their progress from afar via surveillance equipment and is available for additional assistance through walkie-talkies, intercoms, or telephones installed in the room. Waivers are signed and cell phones surrendered before players begin, and escapees and prisoners alike emerge at the end of the experience to a photo opp.
It’s predictable, but no less thrilling because of it, in large part because of the do-it-yourself independence of the privately-owned ventures that, at least in Western North Carolina, largely outweigh their corporate, franchised brethren, a fact that encourages and capitalizes on unique permutations.
The Usp Of Wnc Escape Rooms
Within the standard, replicable escape room structure, ingenuity, invention, and creativity have bred a spectrum of experiences. In our region alone, escape and puzzle rooms range from family-friendly and funny to hauntingly spooky or whodunit mystery. Each room in each business (most local enterprises offer one or two experiences, though a few have up to four) establishes a unique plot at the outset that envelops participants and serves as the foundation for the ensuing series of puzzles and brainteasers. These stories—in the case of our local independent enterprises, conceptualized by the owners and designers of the rooms—vary from fantastic to blithely hokey: you’re a test subject at a Biotech company where things have gone terribly wrong; you’re competing for an explorer’s inheritance; you’re tasked with solving a murder or tracking down a missing moonshine recipe. Sylva’s 828 Escape, for example, capitalizes on local lore to set the tone for their rooms, populating their tales with figures like bootleggers and the ghost of Boone Harper. Other themes, like pirates or Jazz Age thrillers, are universally popular and readily adaptable to the model.
The stories that animate the rooms are unique by necessity (though you can buy room kits, complete with storylines, online), as are the methods the businesses employ to tell those stories, so that the entire structure that surrounds these enigmatic plot lines is as variable and adaptable as the stories themselves.
Take the way the story is introduced, for example: The Conundrum employs experienced actors to preface players’ entrance to their room, while Mysterium—like most escape rooms—plays a video at the outset that sets the scene. A-Escape operates somewhere in between: “Employees of A-Escape greet players, run through the rules with them (because people can get ‘creative’ when locked in a room for an hour), show them how to work some of the less-familiar locking mechanisms they may encounter in the room, and answer any questions players may have before entering the room,” explains Kyle Tharrington, who co-owns the business with his partner, Ashley Fox.
With unique puzzles, stories, and structures, each business offers a totally different experience, but they also foster a unique selling proposition (USP), a technique or advantage that sets them apart from the competition and appeals to a distinctive customer base. At The Conundrum, it’s their cast of actors who serve as employees. “We’re not the only escape room anywhere that employs an actor base to further the storyline, but we are kind of the only one in this area that I know of,” says Cary Nichols, manager of the downtown Asheville biz, pointing out a slew of directors, comedians, and costume designers who have been part of The Conundrum team since they opened some three years ago. “Here we refer to ourselves as hosts because we host them for the room, we’re all actors, and we all have a character.”
At The Conundrum, the variety of actors employed cultivates a variety of experiences within the singular storyline of each room. In “The Attic,” for example, the character of the host is dependent on the actor who’s working that day. Cary Nichols plays a Scottish housekeeper, while another actor hosts as a personal assistant, and yet another employee performs the same role but as a real estate agent. If you were to attempt the same room three different times with three different hosts, the puzzles and clues would be the same, but the guidance you receive could vary greatly, as would your experience.
While owner Shawn Verbrugghe and Nichols boast their talented workforce as the hallmark of The Conundrum’s success, other escape rooms work in direct contrast. “While that may be fine for others, we believe (especially in team building) that participants won’t act as they normally would with a stranger in the room,” says Jason Henry, co-owner of 828 Escape, of employing actors in escape rooms (wife Tiffany co-owns the enterprise). Instead, the distinguishing factor of 828 Escape is increased interaction with participants in advance of their escape experience. “We get to know them before the game begins, and that gives us a little knowledge that we can use later in the game,” he adds. Game masters adapt their hints and directions to the players based on insights gleaned through their thorough introduction.
A-Escape’s Tharrington’s perspective aligns more closely with Henry’s. “We go through great lengths to make sure our experiences are as immersive as possible by not breaking that fourth wall between the players and the employee running the game,” he says. Rather than deliver clues and assistance over walkie-talkies, loudspeakers, or via actors, Tharrington builds hint delivery into the room with technology like A-Escape’s very own Zoltar Machine (yup, like in the movie Big). “Our hint systems are built into the rooms and the stories themselves,” he explains, of A-Escape’s USP. “While from the player’s perspective, they feel they’re communicating with Mission Support or a fortune-telling Machine, they are in fact still receiving help from an employee—the fourth wall just isn’t broken.”
Whereas Tharrington relies on seamless technology to accomplish the illusion of reality in the rooms, others, like Maggie Valley Puzzle Rooms, instead avoid technology entirely. “We do not have actors in our rooms, nor do we have electronics in our rooms. We want people to work together and ‘escape’ the everyday reality of computers, cell phones, etcetera,” says Patty Carter, who co-owns the business with her husband, Myron.
Fox-N-Otter Adventure Puzzle Rooms, in South Asheville, also bucks increasingly stereotypical technological conventions, as well as many of the other standards of escape rooms. “While everyone else is becoming a generation 2 room with electronic sensors and locks and lights blinking and sounds beeping, we are offering greater backstories, deeper connections, and revising puzzles to tell a tale that tickles your timekeeping and tantalizes your taskmasters,” says co-owner Ferrin Cole (his wife, Julie Cole, is co-owner and puzzle designer). Rather than capitalize on now-traditionally popular horror themes or investing in hyped-up technology, Fox-N-Otter stands alone in a growing field of escape rooms by prioritizing thrills over fear and storyline development over distracting technology.
Another USP of Fox-N-Otter is the way they design the puzzles: “We are the only escape room we know of in the entire United States that designs our rooms around human growth and development stages,” Cole continues. “Our puzzles fit specific stages of development and we have mile-marker challenges that highlight the abilities and perspectives of our players. That means the games are not about intellect as much as they are perspective and ability to do abstract puzzles.”
Though singularity is the name of the game in independent escape rooms, there are franchises across our region that capitalize instead on standardization. Whereas smaller models find success in the irregular or eccentric, it’s in consistency that franchises find success, like with Breakout, an international chain that includes a location in downtown Asheville. “Any time you have a process for everything you do, it’s efficient, so they figured out a model that works,” says The Conundrum’s Verbrugghe, of Breakout. “We have a model that it would be hard to duplicate because it’s so erratic, but it does work.”
Online kits or franchise opportunities would arguably make opening an escape room easier—but most of our local businesses have chosen to forgo that route, choosing instead to craft their own clue-ridden rooms from scratch. Who are these people, and how do they do it?
Escape Rooms’ Proprietors,
Catalyst & Creation
Perhaps the best person to ask for insight regarding the impetus for opening an escape room is someone who’s currently in the throes of it.
AJ Stewart and Jon Brooks have partnered up to open Black Mountain Escape, set to open in the spring of 2019. Stewart’s reason for opening an escape room, like many of his contemporaries’, lies in a different industry entirely. “Jon and I both come from a background in the summer camp industry, having worked largely with youth and young adults for many years,” he says. “We have found that escape rooms offer some of the same opportunities as summer camp: a chance to be fully engaged with those around you, problem solve with your peers, and use your imagination!”
It’s often owners’ histories that serve as the foundation for their future in a new venture. For Stewart and Brooks, it’s their experiences not just in summer camps, but in design and construction, and even Brooks’ time as a stage illusionist that all set the figurative stage for their literal one in the form of Black Mountain Escape. Mysterium’s Cardwell, on the other hand, launched his business using his extensive background in film and haunts, special effects and set building. “This is a business that encompasses so many of my interests that can be open year-round,” he adds, of his interest in opening Mysterium. Myron Carter exercises his knowledge gleaned from years as a theater arts, visual arts, and English teacher to create the storylines and props in Maggie Valley Puzzle Rooms, a retirement project for himself and wife Patty.
For The Conundrum’s Verbrugghe, it was his experience with another local, unique attraction—the Pubcycle—that inspired him to open The Conundrum. With the Pubcycle rolling along after three years in business, Verbrugghe got restless; friends from around the world had suggested opening an escape room, so Verbrugghe and his team from Pubcycle decided to check out the closest enterprise, then in Knoxville: “We were like, ‘We can take this idea and take it to the next level, because we have a super creative team—Pubcycle was all comedians, actors, stuff like that, so we started building it out.” Based on their experience with interactive attractions and actor entertainment, Verbrugghe and his team transferred those skills to the new platform.
Like Verbrugghe, most escape room owners also cite a personal experience in an escape room as a stimulus for opening their own venture. With a glint in their eye, they describe the pulse-pushing rush of their first puzzle, an experience they now try to replicate for customers every day. Mysterium’s Cardwell was “hooked” after trying his first escape room, whereas 828 Escape’s Henry was inspired to open his business when his family tried an escape room on vacation and it broke the spell of his kids’ occupation with technology.
Armed with passion, patience, intellectual ingenuity, and more often than not, a lot of sweat, strength, and demolition, these local entrepreneurs painstakingly build elaborate puzzles and multifaceted sets to house them. The challenges of such an endeavor are many, beginning with searching for the space to house it. “While first scouting for locations to build our rooms, we ran into a lot of landlords in downtown Asheville that were very averse to the concept (none of them had heard of an escape room at the time, and it sounded dangerous or unsure to them),” remembers A-Escape’s Tharrington. “They didn’t want us putting even the smallest of nails into their units, much less making secret passages.”
Once their space is secured, they can begin to build the rooms—but not before the concepts are conceived, a convoluted, knotty process that begins, more often than not, with an idea for a story, like the missing moonshine recipe or the fight for the baron’s inheritance. The designer then brainstorms a series of puzzles, their clues and conclusions, and how they’ll fit into the room and shepherd players into their next challenge.
The limitations and requirements of this series of puzzles are boundless: Are the clues too easy or too hard? Can the puzzles be solved within an hour? Will experienced escape room enthusiasts find them challenging enough, and will novices find them easy enough? Do they fit into the theme? Is the series of puzzles sensical?
“What you do,” the Conundrum’s Verbrugghe laughs, “is you design a whole bunch of puzzles—theoretically these things are awesome—and then you start building them into the room (a lot of ours are built-ins). And then you realize that nobody could ever figure this out, only my own mind. And then we sit down and figure out, ‘Okay, how could you make this puzzle work, or how can you take a little bit from this puzzle and add to this one to then make it flow.’”
Building the rooms and the puzzles within them isn’t just a mental quagmire, but a physical one as well. For most local escape rooms, the construction of hidden doors and secret passages, submarines and speakeasies, falls entirely in the hands—literally—of owners. “We build everything ourselves and hire local artists, electricians, IT support, and work almost entirely with reused, refurbished, recycled, and repurposed items,” says Fox-N-Otter’s Cole. “We strive to find amazing project furniture pieces at used thrift shops, the scrap yard, and antique malls in order to find those unique pieces a story can spring from or be supported by. Every single item in the room needs to be relevant to the environment or story. We design, create, wire, manipulate, fix, and prepare every prop, furniture piece, shelf item, switch, lock, and door to work correctly.”
This tendency for DIY is retained throughout the local escape room community; even 828 Escape, which started with two purchased themes, has since transitioned to building their rooms from scratch.
Rooms built and puzzles set, designers and owners then invite friends and family or test groups into the rooms for alpha-beta testing—and then usually return to the drawing board, perfecting puzzles and tweaking layouts to ensure the experience will be immersive and engaging for paying players. When the doors to their business finally open, it’s to an array of customers with a series of objectives.
Who Dun’it: Who Plays & How
The spectrum of folks who decide to own or operate escape rooms—illusionists and retirees, costume designers and summer camp counselors—is indicative of the broad appeal of escape rooms. Unsurprisingly, the players themselves are an even more motley crew: international enthusiasts, ardent gamers, befuddled tourists and their gaggle of kids, Fortune 500 employees, and everyone in between.
Age is just a number, even in escape rooms: Mysterium’s Caldwell has had players ranging from 4-5 to their 70s; Maggie Valley Puzzle Rooms’ Carter, from 7-95 (“The 95-year-old loved it!” she adds). Some escape rooms like Maggie Valley’s include rooms specifically designed for younger crowds, while others like the Conundrum adapt gameplay to different audiences via their hosts.
And why do these diverse people play? Those reasons are multifarious as well. For kin, escape rooms provide a platform for familial bonding that’s tech-free and interaction-mandatory. Considering our region’s broad tourist appeal, escape rooms are the perfect family-friendly, rainy-day alternative to tubing and trails. For couples, escape rooms offer a date spot that’s outside the ordinary. Local ventures have seen players enter their rooms shaky with both first date jitters and pre-proposal nerves. For friends, it’s an experience that brings everyone together without a beer glass or restaurant table. “We, as adults, still want to have fun, we still want to do exciting things with our friends,” says the Conundrum’s Nichols. “It can’t all be about going to dinner or a movie. You want something where you can be engaged with your friends.”
Then there’s the team building crowd. Corporate enterprises and small businesses alike embrace new experiences where their team can come together and improve their relationships. Tired of ho-hum ropes courses or banal games, escape rooms afford a refreshing and genuinely effective alternative. Explains The Conundrum’s Nichols, “As more people know about escape rooms, they’re always looking for something new and different to do for team building—not every corporate group is gonna go do a ropes course or zip lining. This gives them something that’s a little bit calmer but still a lot of fun and actually requires team building skills, and we are able to give them actual feedback.” At The Conundrum, they’ve built on the team-building training of past employees; and at 828 Escape, Henry and his wife, Tiffany, employ their significant experience in both corporate team building and facilitation to plan specific events for groups.
At Fox-N-Otter, they take team building a step further by offering a birds’ eye view to supervisors. “We are the only [escape room] that allows and encourages parents and supervisors to watch game monitors live as kids and employees play together without supervision in the room,” says Cole. “We do an entire walkthrough of the psychology behind problem solving and the puzzle structure… When you play here, you get a collective feedback and response to your gameplay.”
It’s that specialized offering—yet another USP—that’s brought corporate teams from various Fortune 500 companies to Fox-N-Otter, notes Cole. “We love doing cooperative problem solving with company teams, debriefing leadership styles, engaging with manager training, and providing key feedback to companies wanting collaborative feedback.”
Regardless of if they’re in the room for pleasure or practice, every player solves the puzzles differently—and that’s what makes escape rooms both fun and feasible. “We understand that compound logic solutions require multiple perspectives,” Cole explains. “In fact, one person may see a lower case ‘b,’ another person may see a ‘9,’ and another person may see a ‘d.’” It often requires the uniting of these adverse perspectives to solve the puzzles.
Fox-N-Otter explains it (and their name) as such: “We believe everyone solves problems either like a fox or like an otter. The fox is intellect-based, plan-making, an administrator type, big-picture oriented, and sees how all the pieces fit together… [Otters] tend to solve problems with [their] hands, work through situations with trial and error, bounce off obstacles and difficulties, pressing forward with creative solutions… It takes both approaches to be successful at cooperative problem solving!”
Call it foxes and otters, or left-brained and right-brained, or type A and type B—players are generally most effective in an escape room when they are diverse. At The Conundrum, for example, Nichols remembers a group of med school students who attempted one of their rooms, but because they were all of similar minds, couldn’t escape. “When you’ve got a group that is well-mixed in how they think, those are the people that you can see flying through it and getting out. Because as soon as you realize one thing isn’t working, then somebody else in the group looks at it and says, ‘Hey, turn it this way!’”
Even the most miscellaneous of groups, however, is doomed to failure without effective communication. “Communication is absolutely key! If a participant finds something important but doesn’t inform the rest of the group, that could mean a lot more time to solve a puzzle or even a fail,” says Mysterium’s Caldwell. “Someone could have an idea that could lead to solving a puzzle, but if they don’t say it out loud again it could cost the team time.” That’s why escape rooms are so great for team-building, family-bonding, and romance-kindling alike: They require different kinds of people to come together and communicate well, and if they do, a triumphant, rousing escape awaits.
Fads, Failure, and The Future of Escape Rooms
Immersive entertainment is a fickle industry, with constant innovations that outpace their predecessors and a hearty dose of outright flops, which begs the question: Are escape rooms merely a fad?
With adaptation, likely not. “I think eventually there will be fewer escape rooms in the sense that we know of them now, but that the concept will give way to more unique experiences that will keep the industry fresh and a serious contender in entertainment as a whole,” argues A-Escape’s Tharrington.
After all, it’s already an anomaly that our local escape rooms find success, and most—including A-Escape—are already evolving to include not just new rooms, but new kinds of rooms. The Carters of Maggie Valley Puzzle Rooms create new rooms when they note a decline in bookings to give players new, engaging experiences, and A-Escape has similarly swapped out rooms (they’ve had seven in total). Others, like Fox-N-Otter and The Conundrum, haven’t changed out rooms, but added new rooms and experiences to their lineup (including The Conundrum’s tastings and pairings in the dark).
The evolution of local ventures will continue, with Fox-N-Otter opening a sci-fi room this year and the arrival of Who Whacked Wise Guy at The Conundrum. “The premise here is an escape room and a murder mystery had a baby and it was raised by Al Capone,” Verbrugghe says excitedly. Players will enter a room, don their Twenties garb, and play the roles of characters in a murder mystery. “It took us a good year to figure out what our next experience was, because we were like, ‘We’re not gonna make something half-assed, it’s going to be groundbreaking,’” he adds.
Those who aren’t groundbreaking, who fail to adapt or evolve, pivot or revise, unfortunately fizzle (one could point to old Asheville ventures, Escapism Asheville and Escape Out, as examples). “I don’t know any successful location that operates the same way it did when they started!” says Fox-N-Otter’s Cole. Escape rooms fail when they don’t adapt—not just their experiences, but their business practices, like their hours of operation, to the wants of their players. The Conundrum claims that 75-80% of their customers are tourists, and points out that peak hours are in the evenings and on weekends and holidays, so they’ve adjusted their hours to these customers.
Most escape room proprietors also agree that there is strength in numbers. Stewart and Brooks may be the new kids on the block, but they’ve already found support in other ventures, and even a mentor in Fox-N-Otter’s Cole. “We want to see others succeed, and there’s actually less competition than you might think,” Stewart says. “In fact, competing escape rooms often have a more positive impact on each other than a negative one. For instance, if a group had a great time at Black Mountain Escape, we would gladly give them information on some of the other venues in the area for them to try next, and those others would do the same for us.”
That’s the rationale behind Fox-N-Otter’s plans for an exchange program. “We are hopeful for more creative collaboration with the pioneering rooms that remain successful in the Asheville area by offering exchange experiences, maybe a passport program with incentives to finish all local rooms,” Cole says. When players catch the escape room bug, they hanker for the unique experiences available at each venture—and they’ll find them at Western North Carolina’s various enterprises.
So, are these escape rooms a fad, a mere peg in a long ladder of immersive experiences? Or are they an adaptable trade that could buoy the mercurial entertainment industry? The ticker is set, the clues placed, and the puzzles primed, and it looks like this group of innovative entrepreneurs, of foxes and otters, will work together to beat the clock.
(top photo from The Conundrum, by Anthony Harden/Alt Media Pros)
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