Escape rooms have existed for more than a decade, and have been dotted across Australia’s major cities for almost as long. Each requires participants to solve a series of puzzles to complete a primary objective – usually to find their way out of the room.
Loose narratives inform the rooms’ themes, with many including multiple spaces that must be unlocked in succession. Perhaps you’ve found yourself locked in a serial-killer’s shed in the outback, as in The Cipher Room’s Cabin escape room in Newtown (Sydney), or you’re trying out to be a magician’s assistant in Escape Room Melbourne’s Kellar's Magic Emporium. Settings vary widely, and the quality of a room can be judged not only by how clever the puzzles are, but how well the puzzles tie in with the theme.
Whatever the premise, most rooms feature a ticking clock counting back from 60 minutes, and a single, overarching goal: escape in time or risk certain (imaginary) death.
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“I think escape rooms are so popular because people get to solve mysteries and have a ‘real life’ adventure, all while sharing the experience with their family and friends,” Marise Watson, owner and game designer of The Cipher Room, tells Broadsheet. “The surprise elements in escape rooms – like secret rooms and hidden compartments – are always oodles of fun too. We love hearing about the memories we’ve helped to create for people.”
But while fans will tell you that the pastime is highly addictive, stepping into your first room can be intimidating.
For those keen on making the most of their introductory adventure, we’ve put together this simple beginner’s guide to choosing your first escape room, and what to do once you get in there.
Check the difficulty ratings
While all rooms are self-contained and require no prior knowledge, some are trickier than others, with puzzles that require teamwork, lateral thought and a real eye for detail. Experience with previous rooms can make the challenging puzzles easier, so if you’re a newbie check the company’s website and look for their easiest (or lowest-rated) room. There are also numerous spoiler-free escape room review blogs to check if you want to be certain your chosen room is suitable for first-timers.
Find the right theme
The more you enjoy a room’s theme, the more likely you are to have a great time cracking the puzzles inside. Maybe you’d prefer something horror-themed over something whimsical? Some rooms promise a deep, immersive story, while others use high-tech gadgetry throughout. For example, there are more than 30 unique escape rooms in the greater Sydney area alone – if you’ve tried a room before and didn’t connect with the narrative, try again with something completely different.
Communication is key
Once you step into your room and the door locks behind you, you’ll likely be immediately presented with a swathe of clues. Boxes locked with numerical or alphabetical padlocks, strange objects, pictures on the wall, scraps of paper … chances are everything you’re looking at will be meaningful at some point over the next hour. Whether you’re in the room with one other person or a group, divide the space into parts and talk through what you’re seeing out loud. Hiding in a corner and working on a puzzle by yourself, without letting the rest of the team know what you’re doing, might mean you miss out on important information.
Touch everything (that you’re allowed to)
Before you enter the room, your game master will indicate what shouldn’t be touched, moved or manipulated. Everything else is fair game. Pull out unlocked drawers straight away and try to find a way to unlock those you can’t open. Lift the phone to your ear to check if anyone’s on the other end of the line. Press that little silver button and get everyone in the room to keep an eye out for anything happening when you do. Some clues are left in plain sight but are easily overlooked.
Once you’ve gained access to a new room, drawer, cupboard or surface, check it thoroughly. Some game designers hide multiple clues in a single space in the hope you’ll only grab the most obvious item and leave something else important behind.
Arrange your clues wisely
Some puzzles you’ll be able to solve straight away – uncovering a random four-digit code is probably the key to unlocking one of the padlocks in the room – but others will require a gradual collection of items. Keep all your clues – used and unused – neatly gathered in two distinct areas so that, if you get stuck, you can quickly refer back to the relevant pile. Don’t completely disregard items you’ve already used, either; some might serve more than one purpose and could be vital again later.
Everything you need is right there
Escape rooms require no prior knowledge. Is the radio emitting a strange pulsing sound that you suspect might be Morse code? There’ll be a Morse code guide somewhere in the room. Need to know the chemical symbol for hydrogen? Check the room and your props carefully for the answer.
Ask for (and accept) hints as you need them
Your game master is watching (and listening) as you navigate the room. If they offer hints, either via walkie-talkie, a loudspeaker or another device in the room such as a television or radio, don’t be too proud to accept. They know how far along you should be at any given time and can see if you’re chasing dead leads. The more hints you’re prepared to accept, the more likely you’ll get through the whole room and get to see all the puzzles.
The most important thing for first timers to remember is to have fun. The pressure of the situation can be tense, but as long as you’re in a great room with a solid team, the experience of solving your way out together should be so enjoyable that you’ll be desperate to book your next one.
Melbourne escape rooms to try