Going Out

Get out! The allure of escape rooms

This originally appeared in the October 2015 print edition of Ottawa Magazine. Above photo (cropped) by David Kawai (in full below).

The door swings shut and latches behind you. You’re engulfed in darkness, with nothing but a flashlight. From somewhere in the room, a sinister voice tells you he has killed before and you’re his next victim. Frantically, you begin to look around the room for something — anything — to help you get out.

This is the premise of escape rooms, a business conceived by a group of enterprising Silicon Valley programmers who wanted to create a real-life version of the video game sub-genre known as “escape the room.”

Since 2006, this phenomenon has ensnared thousands worldwide, and it’s now in Ottawa.

The rules are simple: get locked in a room with friends and search for clues that will help you solve puzzles, that will allow you to escape a fictional serial killer’s lair before time runs out.

Visitors are told to use math, logic, language, observation, and association skills to escape. But more importantly, they need to tap into “a sense of purpose and teamwork,” says Neil Schwartz, co-owner of Escape Manor. “Rooms are designed so that people have to work together.”

Think it’s only for video-game types? Not so. Escape rooms attract groups of friends, families, and even co-workers. They’re more than just fun — they’re an opportunity for team-building.

As for why people subject themselves to this kind of spine-tingling entertainment, reasons vary.  Some take the challenge because they’re curious, competitive, or looking to get their adrenalin pumping.

Each escape-room company offers something a little different, but their owners all agree that it’s a great way to spend an evening with friends. Brothers David and Matt Prendergast, co-owners of Jigsaw Escape Rooms, say people often visit their space as part of a night out, before dinner or drinks.

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Escape Manor’s Steve Wilson, Chris Bisson, and Neil Schwartz in The Darkness room. Photo: David Kawai

Escape Manor
Join forces with up to five friends to escape The Prison, The Wine Cellar, The Asylum, or The Darkness — and for a limited time, The Apocalypse. The owners have gone to great lengths to make it a cozy place to hang out before and after your escape experience. “We have our liquor licence, plus games in our lounge, and we’ve really created an Old World ambience,” says Schwartz.

Cost: $21 per person

Time limit: 45 minutes

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A scene in one of Claustrophobia’s puzzling rooms. Photo: David Kawai

Claustrophobia
Owner Jennifer Schnare currently offers four themed rooms: The Bunker, The Hostel, The Laboratory, and The Gallery. “Most escape rooms are focused on creating an atmos-phere with all the bells and whistles,” she says. “Mine are more quietly smart. They’re about challenging yourself.” Each room accommodates between two and six players.

Cost: $75 on weekdays, $90 on weekends

Time limit: one hour

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Just a study? Think again — inside Jigsaw Escape Rooms. Photo: David Kawai

Jigsaw Escape Rooms
The brothers Prendergast, who welcome groups of up to six, have snacks on hand in case you get the munchies before or after your escape from one of three rooms. There’s also a chest full of props you can use for your post-lockup photo shoot.

Cost: $20 per person
Time limit: 45 minutes