The Great Escape

Gaming fanatics, mystery novel enthusiasts, and brain-teaser buffs no longer need to solve puzzles in solitude. Escape rooms are the newest trend in PG-13 group fun and take puzzle-solving from fiction to live action.

The premise is simple: Participants are locked in a room and have 60 minutes to solve the puzzles that lead to an escape. Each room has a theme, ranging from surviving a zombie apocalypse to investigating a murder.

Picture an arcade environment, but instead of shooting friends with a laser beam or racing them in go-karts, participants work together to solve problems. Challenges include anything from decrypting a secret message to opening a locked box. There are 20 puzzles on average, and until participants solve each one, they’re trapped.

“It’s such a different type of entertainment,” says Eric Ista, owner of Fargo Escape Room in Fargo, North Dakota. “You can go to a movie and watch other people experience something or you can experience it yourself.”

Escape rooms originated overseas, then moved to American coasts. The Midwest caught on quickly. Now, all major cities in the Heartland have at least one.

After trying out an Escape Room in Denver, Ista and three of his coworkers decided to bring the entertainment home. Fargo Escape Room opened its first room, “Framed,” in September, shortly followed by “The Will” in October. The venue immediately became a hit.

“It’s the hands-on part, being immersed in the experience,” Ista says. “It’s feeling like you’re actually in an office or an old lady’s room. It’s working as a team. It’s the adrenaline.”

The rooms are frequented by more than just video game fanatics looking to live out their favorite fictional mystery. All types of people are intrigued.

“I am just amazed at the gamut of people we get coming through the door,” Ista says. “Hard-core gamers who play online and can’t wait to do it in real life, families, coworkers, even old ladies looking for something to do on a night out.”

Throughout the game, employees watch the mystery unfold on camera. The hope is that most groups will come close to escaping, but the owners don’t want it to be too easy.

Sure, those who can’t crack the codes aren’t actually trapped forever. If the puzzles really stump participants, they’ll be released after an hour. And in the case of emergencies, there’s a panic button inside that will immediately release players from the game.

“Our goal is a 30 percent success rate,” Ista says. “We want to make sure it’s challenging to get out and that you feel pretty special when you do.”

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