By Reya Mehrotra
It was a casual day at the market. When Saalima Shaikh returned home, the door was parted. “Strange,” she thought, as her brother would never be that careless to leave the door open. When she entered home, there he lay on the floor in peace. Eyes half closed as if sleepy. His clothes a mess and lips parted. Her heart skipped a beat and she rushed to check his breath. No sign of life. She glanced around but found no sign of struggle. With hands shivering, she reached for her phone to call the cops and rushed to inform the neighbour. Shoaib Shaikh and his neighbour were not on the best of terms, but this was a time of grief. In no time, the gaping silence was replaced by the echo of police sirens, rushing footsteps and loud murmurs.
Shoaib had been murdered. When detective Sadiqa was handed out the case, her first step was to pick out a team of agents. Once finalised, the detective got on a video conference with her agents who were yet to fly down to Alexandria, Egypt to solve the case. The investigation began with the detective virtually giving the agents a sneak peek into the crime scene. A dim-lit compact room with a dining table in the centre. A closer look uncovered the letter from underneath a plate on the table. It was the suicide note. The most important evidence. “My love is no more with me, and I can’t bare to see her leave. I am leaving all that I have to my sister,” read the letter.
They explored further. As the video tour continued, the agents uncovered the hidden clues, one after another, leading them to the murderer.
this is not a story but the actual experience of an ‘escape room’ of Breakout, a company that offers such real-life game playing options. Currently, the platform hosts movie-style theme ‘escape rooms’ in Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Indore and is soon expanding to 21 other cities across the country.
The case of curiosity
Suspense thrillers and mysteries have always appealed people across all age groups, whether they are the easy but intriguing adventures of Scooby Doo and his friends, Courage the Cowardly Dog’s display of courage as he saved his masters from troubles, Tintin’s escapades, Sherlock Holmes’ wit or author Dan Brown’s grilling quest for answers through The Da Vinci Code. As children, it is the adrenaline rush and curiosity that make one watch detective dramas and cartoons. However, as one grows up, novels, series and suspense movies quench this thirst.
The genre gives one a break from the monotony and makes one think, interact, and wonder about what’s going to happen next. It engages the mind with a two-way interaction—as the characters uncover the secrets, one does too in their minds—a quality that makes it stand apart from other genres where the interaction largely remains one way.
This is the sole reason that adults in the post-pandemic world are turning to the genre and to adult games—to stimulate their minds. The pandemic reintroduced us to board and other indoor games, but the post-pandemic world re-acquainted us with the games we played as children.
Escape Room was based on this concept. In the 2019 film, six strangers get trapped in mystery rooms and are needed to use their brains to find a way out. Several other movies like Gerald’s Game (2017), Infinity Chamber (2016) and Breathing Room (2008) have also delved on the subject.
As many as 456 players are competing in children’s games, and they get shot if eliminated. That is what Squid Game, a popular series of Netflix, is all about. Shortly after the Korean show gained cross-border recognition, Korean Culture Centre Dubai announced that it would organise an event featuring the games played in the series. The only difference would be that they would be nonviolent, and no one would be killed, if eliminated.
Think of it like an ‘escape room’—where games are no more stereotyped as only children’s but can be also played by adults and even the elderly, as in the case of player No 1 in Squid Game. This is what ‘escape rooms’ are all about.
Remember walking into the Haunted House, wanting to be spooked yet screaming once inside the dark room? More than a decade ago, the concept of a ‘Haunted House’ emerged in malls and complexes in almost every other metropolitan city. Families, friends, or couples would go in the house and be haunted by the artificial effects created to scare people.
Escape rooms—based on a similar concept but in an interactive and engaging avatar—are catching the attention of people. The concept is not new. Several escape rooms had emerged before the pandemic but with the lockdowns in place, few survived and went virtual as well to cater to the audience at home.
Hareesh Mothi, CEO of Breakout, shares that during the pandemic, their business experienced a slowdown as people could not visit them physically. That’s when they decided to go virtual wherein their ‘agent’ takes the participants through the room virtually and helps them solve the case.
A chartered accountant by profession, Mothi got the idea of escape rooms when he tried a similar experience in Poland. He says the rooms in Breakout play a huge role in bringing the colleagues together who are working from home and have no physical contact for nearly two years. The company’s eight escape rooms are for children as well as adults. The Enchanted Forest, one of the escape rooms for children between five and 10 years, takes them into a live forest like setup for a treasure hunt.
Breakout is currently functional in 15 countries. Mothi says the rooms are supervised and so far, there haven’t been any untoward instances in the physical escape rooms apart from minor damages to the objects present there. While the physical spaces have been designed by architects working closely with Mothi, the virtual game and mysteries were designed by the game development team based in the US. “The virtual platform has doubled our growth even as we faced a slowdown during the pandemic,” he adds.
Breakout is not alone. Several escape rooms have emerged across cities in India that are also experimenting in different formats and themes. Mumbai-based No Escape is one such venture which, as its CEO Presley Fernandes says, caters to everyone from the age of eight years to someone as old as 80. “It is a great way for grandparents to play with their grandchildren and families to come together. Otherwise, we would always see kids playing as elders watched. This brings them together,” he shares. Presley says that they also personalise the escape rooms according to their guests’ preferences and set up such rooms at homes or offices on demand. “Many escape rooms shut down after the pandemic but we are seeing a growth in business and bookings now as people want to break free from the restrictions that work from home brings and want to bond,” he says, adding that the company will soon expand to more areas in Maharashtra. As for other states, the company prefers a franchise route, he adds.
Mystery Rooms, another escape room platform, is spread across cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Gurugram and Pune. It hosts virtual rooms and physical games for corporates, tourists and families. It provides challenges like Lockout: The Prison Break Challenge and A Night in Bhangarh: The Mystery of a Cursed Fort where players are required to set themselves “free” using clues.
The business is expanding across the country with more than two dozen prominent escape rooms currently offering their services to enthusiasts.
Globally too, the ‘gothic phenomenon’ is catching up and is expected to raise as much as $2 billion in revenue in China, according to reports. In China, the scripted games bring real money—very much like Squid Game. ‘Scripted homicides’, also called jubensha in Chinese, draw a number of youths who get together to discuss and solve a fake murder and are each assigned a role. However, the craze of the game has the Chinese government worried as they seem to “distort reality”.
Meanwhile, when reality hits hard, like it did during the Covid-19 pandemic, escapist fantasies are growing and platforms like escape rooms are providing the much-needed relief.
WHAT IS AN ESCAPE ROOM?
An escape room, also called escape game, puzzle room, or exit game, is a game in which players look for clues, solve puzzles, and achieve tasks in one or more rooms in limited amount of time
- Generally, the idea is to escape from the site of the game. Most escape games are cooperative but there are competitive variants as well
- These games are not stereotyped as only children’s but can be also played by adults and even the elderly
- Several movies have been based on the concept such as Escape Room (2019), Gerald’s Game (2017), Infinity Chamber (2016) and Breathing Room (2008)
- Most recently, popular
Netflix series Squid Game brought the theme to the limelight, although there is no violence or ‘elimination’ in the real world
Escape rooms in India & abroad INDIAN
- Mystery Rooms
Theme-based escape rooms with a pan-India presence
Set of movie-based case files and mysteries in India and abroad, also functioning virtually
- Clue Hunt
Escape room, clue finder, mini-theatre and live action flick, all in one. Located in Lower Parel, Mumbai and online
- Escape Reality
Real escape game played in uber-real rooms. Present in India and abroad
- No Escape
Set of mysterious escape room challenges that can also be personalised. Present in Maharashtra
- Escapology India
Mumbai-based live escape game
- Unlock Escape Rooms
Real-life escape game adventures
- Gamingalaxy: Escape Room & Laser Tag
Bengaluru-based mystery rooms with a score of adventures
- House of Mysteries
- The Amazing Escape
- The Escape Room USA
- Outerlife Studios: Escape Room St Pete
- Smoky Mountain Escape Games
- American Escape Rooms