Escape rooms are becoming more and more popular, as anyone trying to get a booking with one in Melbourne can tell you. For an hour, you can trap yourself and some friends in a room full of puzzles that need to be solved before you can escape. There's a new one opening in Sydney (hopefully in December) called the Enigma Room, and we spoke to founder Matt Lee about the tech and science behind his premier puzzles.
Escape rooms do let you go to the toilet, of course. You're not actually trapped. And some get into the role-playing a little more than others, but you wouldn't want to be absent for that "Aha!" moment, when you progress to the next stage of the puzzle. Check out our sister site Lifehacker's write-up for more detail on the escape room experience.
Making escape rooms is very much game design, which is something founder Matt Lee does, and doesn't, know a lot about. He hasn't made a computer game before, but as an avid gamer for years, he has been involved in UNSW gaming communities, and even appeared as a gaming tips expert on ABC2's Good Game. Now that he's the designer, he wants to do things a little differently — and you can expect the Enigma Room to have a few nods towards pop science and technology.
What made you want to make an escape room?
I went to one in London at the beginning of last year. We were looking at things to do, and looking at Tripadvisor in London, the #1 thing to do was an escape room. It wasn’t going to see Big Ben or anything, it was to go see an escape room, and I thought that was really weird. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I went there with my missus and a couple of mates, and did one. And it was great. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
So I thought, alright, I’ll take it seriously and do one myself. I went to Singapore and did a bit more research over there. I talked to some people about how they run their place, different methods, and different setups. I started designing one early this year, came up with some designs, and brought a few mates on board as well.
What sort of new ideas were you exposed to while visiting competitors?
There are different ways of interacting with you at the beginning. You have to explain what you can and can’t do, and add the story. Some places will go to a bit of effort to do that, and others will just hand you a piece of paper.
Another is the different ways to give hints to people. When people get stuck, in some places you can talk into a walkie talkie, in other places you have to earn hints. Other places give you time penalties for hints, and others will have something appear on a screen.
There’s one place I went to - an Asian place - and you had to talk to them through a walkie talkie, but you couldn’t communicate with them because they didn't speak English very well.
I don’t use the word “competitors” though. If you have a cafe, and people like your coffee, they will come back. And they won’t go to the cafe next door, because your place is better. With puzzle rooms and escape rooms, you can only really do a puzzle once — the same room, anyway. Even if someone likes my room, there’s no reason they can’t go next door and play that. I'd probably suggest that they do. If you’re the type of person who likes games, you’ll play as many as you can.
How often will you change up the rooms?
We’re opening up with 2 rooms. We do have space for a third later on. We do want to refresh the rooms every now and then. Whether that’s every year, we tear it down completely, and replace with a new one, or another 6 months we tear down and replace it.
It’s depending on how popular each room is at this stage. We want to refresh them before they become stale. We’re also always coming up with new ideas. We came up with the ideas for these rooms a long, long time ago. And we’ll continue tweaking ideas as we go as well.
Do you have any video game inspirations for your designs?
There are a few escape games out there, mainly Japanese ones. Virtue’s Last Reward is one I’ve played on the DS. There’s another one called 999 which I haven’t played but is meant to be better as well. All point and click adventure games, Myst, Riven, some of the Zork series, even the Monkey Island games, and the LucasArts games as well.
What was your favourite puzzle that inspired you while researching escape rooms?
In London, there was a closet you could open. And there was a map on the wall that pointed to a few different locations, but didn’t really do much for us. There was a cord dangling from a light. After a while, someone pulled the cord, and turned off the light. At that stage, you got this glow in the dark thing that appeared on the map. It wasn’t anything particularly difficult, it was just a matter of pulling the cord. It was a nice entry point, saying that you can do these things in the room, and we encourage it. Just try different things.
Without giving anything away, what sort of science & tech can we expect?
We’re trying to be a bit clever with the way we’re doing things. We’re going to try and push the boundaries. We’re looking at what interesting mechanics we can do. One advantage of being in the real world as opposed to in a video game, is you’re using all your five senses. So I look at science-based phenomena which would have a cool effect with that.
One thing I’ve got in my back pocket which we haven’t put in a puzzle yet is hot ice. It’s a particular mixture you can make, it’s non-toxic, but it’s effectively a liquid which, when you touch it, would turn into a solid instantaneously. So that’s something cool you can do which is easy to implement in a video game, and harder in the real world, but it’s different.
One thing I was experimenting with on a very simple level, was to have a lab set up so a room would be dressed as a lab, and you’d have these beakers with hot ice, labelled with numbers. Some of them, as you touch them, would just be water, and others would turn solid. As you kept going, some numbers would be obscured, and a combination would be revealed.
On the flipside to that, we do have some electronic gadgetry going on. We’ve got one puzzle that uses pose detection, so it uses Microsoft Kinect for that. We’ve also got another one which is a sound sensor. I can’t say too much about that one… So you can solve this puzzle through detection of sound, and we’ve used an Arduino, a Piseo electric speaker, to get that system.
We’ve got another puzzle which also uses an Arduino, and some electrical circuitry. You’ll find a lot of electrical circuitry in escape rooms, but we’re trying to do it with a different setup. So when players do the right thing, they will send signals back to the Arduino, and that will trigger something else.
We’ve had a mate helping out with Arduino coding, and with the Kinect programming. Most of us met each other through computing, so we’ve got programming stuff sorted. None of it requires intervention from a third party. We don’t have people in the walls, we don’t have people that need to run into the room and throw a smoke bomb for an effect or something. I'm really just interested in using scientific phenomena, and tech, and then of course some puzzles use none of that at all.
The Enigma Room is currently aiming for a December launch, for all ages (though kids will need a guardian), at 262 Pitt St, Sydney. Our thanks to Matt Lee for taking the time to speak to us.