Escape New Haven Catches On, Grows

DAVID SEPULVEDA PHOTO“You may have to place yourself in an uncomfortable position to find what you seek,” said a disembodied, intercom voice, a vague hint designed to prompt more intensive investigation by my team of puzzle solvers at Escape New Haven.

The interactive, entertainment business opened its doors in December at 103 Whitney Ave. near Trumbull Street. It has become a hit in town. Its staff has grown, along with its footprint, with tens of thousands of tickets sold to date.

The Escape game premise offers an intriguing departure from more passive forms of recreation and amusement: “You and your team are trapped; you have 60 minutes to escape the room by solving a series of puzzles that will challenge your mind and confound your senses. Explore, adapt, work together, think creatively… and you just might succeed,” reads a website description.

The concept got its start in Japan, spread throughout Asia and Europe, and is now proliferating in the U.S., offering visitors an opportunity to test their puzzle-solving acumen against the records and times of successful teams. Those who walk away with bragging rights represent only 20 percent of the total teams that play.

The three games currently offered at the New Haven site, The Gallery, The Crypt, and The Space Station, challenge players to escape confined areas and solve mysteries as a large digital clock ticks off seconds, adding to a sense of urgency and “Mission Impossible” tension.

My team at Escape New Haven included two friends and a couple from Middletown who were also trying the Escape concept for the first time. Prior to the game’s start, we sat in a room of saturated red color with a steam punk vibe; a caged crow sat perched on a stack of books, perhaps signaling our own impending confinement.

A rack full of hand-forged, metal disentanglement puzzles by Long Island based Tucker-Jones House, referenced another kind of problem solving, and were also for sale.

An Escape game “operator” soon appeared, briefing us on the game rules. This one stood out: “Keep the venue safe. The puzzles require brains — not brawn. If you start to use excessive force —  stop.”

Led through a nondescript hallway, we were taken to The Gallery game room, where our operator read the mission at hand. Our job was not to escape, but to solve a mystery: “Your old friend recently got a job at an up-and-coming art gallery in New Haven. Then, less than week into the new job, she disappeared, leaving you only a mysterious letter. Can you discover what happened to your friend?”

At first glance, the room appeared to be a conventional gallery, the artwork created mostly by friends of the business that included a tree mural and sculpture by Tara Williams, an octopus mural by Angela Koeth and a landscape painting by Spencer Katz.  A series of small encaustic collages by New Haven artist Hilary Opperman were displayed along one wall. The artist was present and part of the team, but was not privy to whether any clues might be concealed in her highly symbolic imagery.

A pedestal supporting a bust of a woman in a floppy red beret was a prominent galley feature. A waterless aquarium inhabited by a Buddha figurine, and wall mounted plaques with cryptic markings are the types of objects art gallery audiences are conditioned to not touch. Testing convention would soon become our key to success during our quest to solve a mystery that included searching “an eccentric collector’s gallery for valuables.”

As we poked around mired in uncertainty, a helpful, but vague hint from the “observation room” still required interpretation and guess work. It was after the euphoria of uncovering the first clue, that we picked up momentum and started to make critical connections; sometimes through the process of deduction, other times following hunches as we pooled ideas, becoming a team in the process.

In the end, with a trail of “cracked locks” and solved clues behind us, and with a sense of closing in on the mystery, the clock ran out. A pair of operators entered the room to debrief us and to reveal just how close —  or far, we were from solving The Gallery mystery.

“I absolutely loved the experience of it all,” said one of our team members, Sayeh Golafshani, who works as a medical assistant. “The best part was seeing what strengths other team members brought to the challenge. It’s interesting to see how different people perceive problems and the different solutions they come up with. The escape room definitely helps open your mind up and helps you think outside the box.”

Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent and Max Sutter, former Yale students and current New Haven residents, created the first commercial iteration of Escape New Haven in the basement of the Taft Mansion, only steps away from their present location. When the game room entrepreneurs opened in 2015, there were 50 estimated Escape venues nationwide. Today that number has grown to over 1,500 venues, according to Room Escape Artist.

“Back in the summer of 2014,” recalled Rodriguez-Torrent, “we created our first ‘beta’ escape room in Max’s garage. In February 2015, we officially opened for business at our original location, with three games, a very tight lobby, and just Max and me running everything.” 

What Rodriguez-Torrent now describes as “Escape New Haven 2.0” includes seven staff, a welcoming lobby, a 50 percent larger footprint, and new games which are always evolving and improving. The team develops and introduces a new game every six months, a feat not often replicated in the Escape room business. “The industry has evolved, and players’ expectations have evolved with it,” said Rodriguez-Torrent. “Nowadays, our budget for each new game is literally ten times what we started with, so we are able to invest more into immersive set design, technological wizardry, and durability.”

Sutter noted the games’ multi-generational appeal, and the difficulty in predicting who will constitute the 20 percent of players who solve the games: “Our puzzles are designed to engage people of all experience levels and age groups. We have seen total rookies set records, and seen veterans get stumped. We’ve hosted office parties, bachelorette parties, and family outings with young children and grandparents. Even the groups that don’t escape, leave with the biggest smiles on their faces and find themselves coming back for more every time we open a new game.”

Rodriguez-Torrent estimated that the business has sold 25,000-30,000 tickets to date. Rave online reviews and word of mouth account for much of Escape New Haven’s success to date. But the secret sauce lies in the games themselves: “We mix up a cocktail of challenge, cooperation, creativity, immersion, triumph, frustration, and sheer delight that is hard to find anywhere else,” noted Rodriguez-Torrent.

My team of rookies took some comfort in being among the 80 percent of Escape Room teams that fail to solve the puzzle. Every clue solved along the way held enough gratification to spur interest in trying another game as soon as possible — win or lose.

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