CJ Thomsen knew this much: He wanted you to start handcuffed.
Any worthy escape should begin by picking a real lock, particularly an escape with a ticking clock over your head and a code-sealed door between you and freedom. Our group of four was out of the cuffs within a couple of minutes thanks to one member's quick-pick skills — criminal or kinky, I'm still not sure — and we were soon split among several riddles, number games and puzzles.
You see, we were captives by choice, at month-old Escape the Place, Colorado Springs' first escape room, co-owned and operated by Thomsen. The active-duty Air Force captain, who graduated from the Academy in 2008 and now teaches lieutenants to fly, was sent to Denver's Clue Room late last year by his employer for good old-fashioned team-building in a very different setting: captivity.
"I came back," says Thomsen, "and couldn't sleep for nights, thinking of escape themes."
And he's not alone, as these escape rooms have migrated worldwide. Denver is up to four rooms, but more than 30 can be counted in Budapest, Hungary alone. (Visit escaperoomdirectory.com to view locations internationally.)
According to Thomsen, online escape rooms started a conceptual trend that crept into real life in 2007 in Japan. From there it's spread through Asia, then Europe, and all the way into U.S. pop culture.
In late February, The Big Bang Theory sent its nerds into an escape room partially occupied by a zombie actor. (Denver's Room Escape Adventures also offers the zombie-with-an-ever-increasing-chain-length incentive to break free.) And Conan O'Brien playfully took on an escape room in mid-April, earning laughs for trying to bribe the in-room assistant, and whining, "This game is bullshit. ... Is there a way to order in food?"
You might find yourself feeling a little put-upon, too, after 30 minutes inside Escape the Place's spy-themed Black Site room. But we were quite absorbed by the activity, not thinking about our work days, errands or kids. Especially once the cuffs came off, it was game on.
The human mind loves a challenge, and time flies when you have not only a task, but that ticking clock over your head. Though there's the whole international-intrigue thematic overlay, the experience feels not so much like role-playing as it does problem-solving. It's less for the cosplay crowd and more for average people wanting to try on Jason Bourne's shoes, minus the punching and running.
That said, it bears mentioning that you don't have to break anything to escape the room; it's not a physical test. Similarly, in Escape the Place's second challenge room, called The Hangover, players reconstruct the details of a drunken evening to liberate themselves from a hotel room. (We didn't take this challenge.)
Thomsen's wife Brittney conceived The Hangover room, and it took him roughly two months to write the script for the Black Site. He prides himself on not stealing any content from other escape rooms, only noting what he didn't like about them and making sure not to include it in his business — which will include another two rooms before year's end.
"I wanted this to be as realistic as possible," he says. "That's why I wanted people picking their handcuffs."
In his pre-opening trial runs with test groups, he heard that the script was too difficult. His puzzle-loving father also couldn't crack it. So Thomsen ended up making the script slightly easier to solve.
But we can attest that it's not too easy. And there are very clever aspects to Thomsen's design that should surprise any player.
In the Black Site, Thomsen provides each team with a secret agent who helps from the outside. Players get an iPhone and can Skype with the agent, but each clue they request costs extra time off the clock as a penalty. Cameras monitor the whole affair, and the room has a microphone as well. Again, I shouldn't say more, but know that the operators won't leave you squirming too long and stuck to the point of regretting your expense ($28 per person).
"We can inject things to keep it moving if you're getting frustrated," he says, adding that he "designed this puzzle with a certain rhythm and sequence in mind, but I'm amazed every day to see the way different people solve it."
He particularly enjoyed witnessing a group of 15-year-olds in for a birthday party screaming frantically — "I've never heard anyone as loud as them before" — as well as watching our expert lock-picker try to crack a combination lock old-school style by placing his ear to it as he turned it. (He didn't succeed.)
Ultimately, for Thomsen, Escape the Place is about an alternative form of entertainment that gets people away from computer and TV screens and into a creative setting. When asked if he thinks there's psychologically more to it, he says, "I'm not sure if it's about the aspect of being controlled," though he has had guests show up expressing unusual excitement to be cuffed.
"We say, 'We'll lock you in a room and you hold the key to get out — good luck.' I think it's more about that challenge, that they can maybe outsmart someone and escape our puzzle."
We did, after 40 minutes — a record at the time. But surely that won't hold for long.
And it won't be long until the Springs sees a second escape business: Mystery Quests, which launches May 23. Owners Debi and Ed McGaw say they were inspired by sites they encountered in Switzerland, and are launching with two historically themed and decorated rooms: a World War II 10th Mountain Division and a Cuban Missile Crisis escape.