Escape games go global from humble Hungary origins

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Rijksmuseum Escape Game. AFP Photo

When Attila Gyurkovics created Europe’s first escape game in Budapest, all he needed was some padlocks, a cellar, and a large helping of audacity.

But after first appearing in Japan in the 2000s, such immersion games have now gone global, offering a vast range of puzzling experiences that offer creative and fun ways to escape a sticky situation.

Whether solving a murder in a medieval crypt or saving the world from a deadly virus, the principle is always the same – players locked in an enclosed space quickly hunt for clues to find out how to exit “the room”.

While the idea was still unheard of in Europe, Gyurkovics, a social worker, spent his spare time working out how to transpose into real life his passion for logic games and cracking codes.

His first escape room, Parapark, opened in 2011 in a dank sparsely-furnished cellar, and was, according to Gyurkovics, “the first real life escape room in the whole galaxy”, according to him.

“I was surprised to discover that everyone liked it, even if at the beginning, the success rate [of players finding the way out] was 20 per cent,” he said.

For Gyurkovics, solving a mystery comes second to the human dimension of escape room experiences, namely their ability to develop team spirit.

“Getting out is just a bonus, the time you spend inside with your group members, that is what really counts,” he said.

While the minimalistic fit-out at Parapark is still posing its spartan challenges to visitors in Budapest, since it opened thousands of escape rooms and games have opened worldwide with different themes, sophisticated decorations and equipment.

In Moscow, each month the EcoDecor firm produces dozens of puzzles and accessories for export to the US.

“In 2015, we made between five and ten puzzles per month, while in the last two years, that went up to 50 a month,” said the firm’s co-founder Ilia Talanov.

To put together a turnkey escape room, you need between $20-30,000, said the 29-year-old Russian.

Spotting the trend, institutions like museums have been creating their own versions of escape games aimed at reaching a public used to unpicking challenges.

Two years ago the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam began letting budding detectives loose in the exhibition halls to search for mystery-busting clues.

“In escape rooms, you can always touch everything and in a museum, that’s obviously not the case,” said Francine Boon, who developed the “Sherlocked” project for the Rijksmuseum.

“But in a museum you can use all the stories that are inside all of the objects . . . it’s such a rich environment to find the right story,” she said.

And some cities like Prague are using puzzles to highlight local attractions, like the Czech capital’s famed expertise in brewing tasty beer.

Its beer-themed escape game takes place in 2027 in a world where alcohol has been prohibited but with the help of a mobile phone application, players can unlock clues revealing the way to secretive bars.