Space Nazis and rogue A.I. in Angel? Don’t worry, it’s only an escape room!

Oscar Yuill describes what it’s like to work at Escape Rooms Angel, where adults confuse their left and right and 70-year-olds blast their way through the 'The Dark Side of the Moon’.

One of Islington's top Escape Room games
One of Islington's top Escape Room games, located on Lever Street

For those who grew up watching Takeshi’s Castle and The Crystal Maze, the prospect of working in one of their inner-city equivalents, escape rooms, is tantalising.

Riddles and puzzles

Escape games—based on the Japanese online game ‘Takagism’—do away with the feats of agility and hilarity that characterised their televised forebears. No one knows quite where they started; some say Budapest, others China, where a whole industry has grown up devoted to devising fresh riddles and puzzles for individual companies to buy and copyright. ‘Escape Rooms’ did just this. I know because I work there.

Cover of idiocy

Its founder, Kevin Yang, emigrated from China to London in 2014 and his idea has since spread throughout the country, with similar games in Glasgow, Bath, Cambridge, and other UK cities. When we started, at London Bridge, we were only the third escape room in London after ‘Clue Quest’ and ‘Hint Hunt’—both of which my colleagues and I have played, under cover of idiocy, to scope out the competition.

Darwinian battlefield

And there is a lot of it. London has become the Darwinian battlefield of escape games. There is endless variety around the concept: get locked inside a themed room full of puzzles, riddles, and gadgets that must all be solved within 60 minutes to escape.

Sinister murder mystery

Secret Studios’ in Holborn is a sinister murder mystery involving a jump-scare and a creepy photographic darkroom. ‘Trapped in a Room’ in Bethnal Green resembles—for those who like that sort of thing—the SAW movie franchise, where the chain attaching a zombie to the far wall gets longer every minute. And in Hint Hunt’s Zen room, near Euston, players can even drive a remote-controlled car through a maze to obtain the key to a secret door. The production value in escape games ranges from shoddy stranger’s basement to breath-taking immersion.

Escape Room games range range in themes from historical to the distant future
Escape Room games range range in themes from historical to the distant future

Life on Mars

The escape rooms I work in have two games in each of the two venues. At Angel, players have a choice between shooting space-Nazis on the Moon and destroying a rogue Artificial Intelligence called D.I.V.A. The story goes: after establishing a base camp on Mars, humans make the horrible discovery that D.I.V.A’s sole remaining purpose is to pump cyanide gas into the atmosphere, killing us all. It is up to you, Sharon from accounting, to stop this. No pressure.

Clues and Nudges

It is my job, after giving players an introduction and safety brief, to monitor their progress through cameras, ensuring they don’t do anything too silly. At London Bridge players navigate Room 33, our Chinese-themed museum heist, and The Pharaoh’s Chamber. They’re equipped with walkie-talkies for help. At Angel, they have both walkie-talkies and smartphones, to which I can send clues and nudges from my little observation post in the office.

After their games are over the players are always mentally exhausted. People often say to me: ‘I bet you were laughing at us, weren’t you!’ I am of course obliged to say no. But the sheer variety of people that play—Jeff the plumber for his stag, perhaps, or little Johnny’s 12th birthday party—means we’re never short of a good laugh. In the UK, there are 855 games, or 13.2 games per million people, according to exitgames.co.uk, meaning that even the less successful companies are guaranteed a steady trickle of new customers.

The lengths people go to for fun

In my three years at Escape Rooms I have seen fully grown adults confuse their left and right. I have seen a seven-year-old solve a 5×5 Rubik’s Cube in under two minutes. I have inadvertently contributed to family feuds. Some unscrupulous city-slickers have even offered me bribes to make their friends in the other room lose.

Such are the lengths people go to for fun. Companies vary in their pricing but the average £20 per person is well worth the mental and, in some cases, physical effort. I have seen 70-year-olds who were half-asleep at the beginning emerge with laser guns from ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ boasting about the number of Germans they managed to biff. If that isn’t a sight worth seeing, nothing is.