The 'escape room' craze arrives in Kent
PUBLISHED: 13:12 23 October 2017 | UPDATED: 13:13 23 October 2017
If you've missed all the fuss about these hugely popular live action games over the past couple of years, then let us enlighten you as we take a break from reality and lock ourselves inside the thrilling world of 'escape rooms'
All over the country, groups of people have been paying for the pleasure of being locked inside a room with no obvious means of escape.
An hour of pure escapism, often likened to living through a scene in a movie, escape room games have taken off in a very big way.
With hundreds of different ‘rooms’ offering all sorts of different themed experiences, there is something for everyone – from light-hearted and comical to downright frightening.
With teamwork at the heart of each game, it’s like a cross between The Crystal Maze and a corporate team-building game. Full of action, intrigue, thrills and fun, these games have rapidly become big business.
And although the themes and challenges vary widely, there is always the same aim – to get out of the room within your allocated time.
The history of escape rooms is thought to lead back to Japan, where what is believed to be the first ‘real escape game’ was opened in 2007. By 2012 they had reached the US and from there they have multiplied across the world.
Best described as a physical adventure game, players solve a series of puzzles, using clues and hints from around the room. Descended from video games of a similar nature, there are all sorts of scenes a team can find themselves locked inside – from a prison cell to a space station.
Alex Souter and his wife Monique set up The Panic Room in Gravesend in January 2016. Starting off as a temporary set-up at the Old Town Hall, they later moved into their own premises and built three different experiences.
By the end of last year they had taken on a second building in Gravesend, just across the road, and launched a further three rooms.
Rated third in the UK’s escape room ranks and the number one attraction in Gravesend, according to Tripadvisor, next up for the husband and wife team is a huge expansion adding a third and fourth building in Gravesend.
Among the new experiences will be a new comedy detective room called Defective Detective and Dino Land – a 75-minute immersive escape experience with live actors, special effects and lots of interactive challenges.
“All our rooms are designed and put together by us,” says Alex. “We wanted to bring some awesome entertainment to Gravesend and be able to put our imaginations to good use. We have many strange inspirations coming from different places.”
Employing more than 25 ‘games masters’ now and aiming to offer 12 different rooms by the end of this year, Alex puts the sudden success of escape games down to their sheer escapism.
“We live in a digital age where the worlds we explore are on our phones or TV screens,” he says. “People are looking for new ways to disconnect from this and escape rooms fill that human desire for fun and adventure.
“People want something completely different that involves interacting with their friends and family in an entertaining and immersive environment. One hour you could be a scientist, next hour a private detective, a time traveller or an adventurous explorer. What’s not to like?”
Attracting all sorts of groups, from families and groups of friends to corporate teams and stag and hen parties, Alex says they have a game for everyone – with team members aged from six to 90.
Only a few of their games are classed as ‘horror rooms’ and even then they go more for psychological fear rather than terrorising their customers.
“The fear of the unknown is much more powerful than a crazy guy with a chainsaw, after all,” says Alex.
Another way to create a tense atmosphere is to set your escape room in a creepy historic building to start with. There’s one in the old gate house of Fort Amherst in Chatham, called Escape Plan LIVE, and another in the former prison cells of Canterbury’s iconic Westgate Towers, called Escape in the Towers.
For escape room enthusiasts, many of whom travel the country trying out the latest games, there’s nothing quite like escaping from an actual prison cell.
Canterbury seems to have attracted its fair share of escape rooms, with three different companies running games in the city. The largest is Escape Kent, opened by brothers Chris and Mike Knell in October of last year.
Set in an unassuming industrial unit, it started with just two rooms but has since been expanded to offer a third. The brothers first experienced an escape room while abroad a few years ago and were so hooked that they set about visiting more and finally conceived the idea of Escape Kent.
It’s a familiar story and one that most escape room owners can relate to. And as more first-timers become interested in the games, and in pushing their skills with ever bigger, more creative and more immersive games, so more centres are opening across the country.
There are currently around a dozen in Kent, with plans for several more in the coming months.
Kent Life breaks out
Just for good measure, here at Kent Life we decided to try out Escape Kent’s scariest room for ourselves.
We assembled a small team and headed to Canterbury for an hour locked inside the Kidnapped game. Not really knowing what to expect, we were welcomed by co-owner Chris Knell and briefed in their waiting room.
We were asked to play the roles of three backpackers travelling across America’s Route 66 who had, somewhat unfortunately for us, just been kidnapped by the country’s most-feared serial killer.
Chris explained there would be puzzles, quizzes and clues but, crucially, there were no live actors in the game so no one was going to jump out at us. Not a physical game, this one would require brains, patience and teamwork.
And so, with only the contents of a rucksack to assist us, we were shut inside a small and rather troubling cell.
It’s hard to explain what followed in the next 51 minutes without giving the game away but it was devious, clever and extremely complicated.
At first it seemed there were no clues and we started to panic, but then we started to notice what was around us. The room was dressed like the set of a horror movie and many of the items served a purpose or held a clue.
Not everything is a part of the game, however, and Chris had explained before we went in that anything with the Escape Kent sticker on it was not to be tampered with. Apparently it’s not unusual for teams to start dismantling the air-conditioning unit on the ceiling before being interrupted by their games master.
The atmospheric music piped in helped to set the scene and a TV on the wall counted down from 60 minutes to add urgency. Chris was watching our progress via a system of cameras and as we struggled here and there, he beamed a couple helpful hints in via the screen.
As we neared the end of the game, the tension mounted. With a final, slightly more physical, twist to the game, we burst our way out of the room and back into the corridor with such a feeling of relief and achievement that we actually cheered.
We were pretty pleased with our time of just over 50 minutes, especially for a small team, and Chris explained that to escape at all is good going.
Even with all the hints and help he can offer, there are many teams who fail to escape in time. Of course, whether or not they fall victim to the serial killer or simply leave with their tails between their legs is another matter.
A must for lovers of quizzes, game shows, thrillers and mysteries, these escape room games are just as much fun as they’re cracked up to be.
Escape rooms in Kent
Escape Kent in Canterbury: www.escapekent.com
The Panic Room in Gravesend: www.thepanicroom.net
TimeQuest at the Hop Farm near Paddock Wood: www.timequest.net
Operation Escape in Bromley: www.operation-escape.co.uk
Escape Plan LIVE in Chatham: www.escapeplanlive.com
Canterbury Escape Room: www.canterburyescaperoom.com
Escape in the Towers: www.onepoundlane.co.uk
The Escapement in Margate: www.escapementmargate.co.uk
Escape Hub in Maidstone: www.escapehub.co.uk
Escape 60 in Folkestone: www.escape60.co.uk
Pressure Point in Ashford: www.pressurepointescaperooms.co.uk