Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 1, 2020

River City: Remote Breakout Game works surprisingly well

Live online players of “The Kidnapping” must figure out how to use the information contained on items such as this prisoner profile to progress in the game.

With less than five minutes to escape the room in which I was incarcerated, I could feel Death’s hot breath on the back of my neck.

Actually, it was my wife’s breath. Her tension as precious seconds ticked off the clock had become palpable, and I was certain that if my captor didn’t dispatch me quickly, she would.

It was all in good fun, of course. My wife and daughter had joined me nearly an hour earlier in a live online version of “The Kidnapping,” a social distancing version of Breakout Games’ popular escape room.

But as time ran thin and we ran out of ideas for how to open the exit, the dark shadow of failure began to pass over us and we wondered if we would meet our destinies behind a still-locked door.

Escape room primer

It’s no secret that escape rooms have become big draws over the last few years. Working with friends, family members or co-workers to find clues, solve puzzles and escape a room within a limited amount of time is not only fun but also a great bonding experience.

Several escape rooms have popped up in Chattanooga, including Breakout Games on East Brainerd Road, Time to Escape downtown, the Escape Experience on Rossville Avenue and more. If you’re in the mood to be locked up and then search for the key, you won’t need to leave the city.

However, the recent advent of social distancing shuttered escape rooms in Chattanooga and across the U.S. This left their owners scratching their heads. How could they continue to earn revenue when they could no longer imprison a group of people in a small, confined space?

This conundrum sparked an idea in the minds of Breakout Games co-founder Bryce Anderson and the rest of the team in Lexington, Kentucky: Why not use the same technology people are using to connect over the internet to reproduce the escape room experience online?

To test their idea, Breakout Games retooled one of their most popular escape rooms – The Kidnapping – as a live online experience.

In this scenario, players awaken to a voice telling them they have an hour to escape the room before their abductor and executioner arrives. The surrounding four walls contain every clue and item the participants will need in order to escape – including the code that opens the exit.

(I should mention that a film version of ‘The Kidnapping” would probably be rated PG, so it’s family friendly.)

I was skeptical as I sat down at my Windows PC in Ringgold, Georgia, and clicked on the Zoom link Breakout Games had emailed to me. Although connecting to the room was easy, I wondered how they could possibly replicate the in-person experience.

Escape rooms involve a lot of intricate work, including looking in drawers, under vases and behind chairs, so I wasn’t sure how that would work over a video connection.

My cynicism melted away as Amber Daugherty, manager of the Breakout Games in Knoxville, appeared onscreen and explained how it works.

Instead of searching the room ourselves, Amber would serve as our hands and feet. Using her phone, she would provide us with a first-person view of the environment, zoom in on objects and clues and offer subtle hints about what she sees.

It sounded good, but I wondered how we’d be able to view the small details in the room and examine our inventory without bombarding her with directions.

The solution Breakout Games devised for this is kind of clever. First, they streamlined the room to exclude obstacles that would be difficult to overcome through a video feed. Then they created a website that displays the clues you’ve found.

So, when you unlock a box and acquire its contents, you receive a code that also displays its contents on a second device, such as a phone or tablet, allowing you to inspect high resolution images for details and read crisp, clean text.

As we began, my wife loaded the clue website on her iPad and my daughter connected to the room via the PC at her small web design business in Cookeville. After a brief video introducing the story, Amber walked us over to a table and picked up a piece of paper that contained our first clue.

Although I’m no Houdini, I’ve played a few escape rooms, so at first telling Amber where to walk and look felt awkward. My computer screen seemed to act as a barrier between me and the environment.

My wife and daughter, however, were new to the experience and started to slowly uncover the clues that would lead us to the final key.

As I watched and offered suggestions, I was impressed with how Amber handled the instructions and provided help without giving away anything. When we failed to unlock a safe using a numerical code we had assembled, she gently prodded us back to a knife display we’d seen earlier.

“You had the right idea looking at the knives on the wall. I’m going to go back over there and see what’s nearby. Maybe something will stand out,” she said. Within moments, my wife had identified the solution and we had new clues to decipher.

With Amber’s thoughtful guidance, my immersion deepened and I joined my wife and daughter in making progress. At about the 30-minute mark, I realized I was enjoying not just the game but also interacting with my daughter, who lives a busy life over two hours away in another state, making visits rare.

And that’s when I came to understand the true value of this new experience. Solving the escape room was fun, but doing it with my wife nearby and my daughter in another location made it even better. Even though 110 miles separated my daughter and me, we were making memories in the game.

So, while I was jubilant when we escaped the room with just over three minutes left on the clock, I was also a little disappointed the experience was over. (I also had to apologize to my wife for accidentally smacking her as I shot up my hands in victory.)

Although the experience went smoothly enough to allow the three of us to escape with our lives intact, it was not without its glitches. My wife initially tried to access the room on her iPad but could not – although this might have been a hardware or software issue on her end, since her iPad is an older model.

Also, one of the puzzles involved decoding a series of audio clips that sounded like a string of shrill beeps and crackles instead. Fortunately, Amber helped us overcome that issue in a way that still required us to use our gray matter to solve the puzzle.

Scheduling a session of “The Kidnapping” with your quarantine mates or remote family or friends is as simple as a few mouse clicks or finger taps at breakoutgames.com. You’ll need a small pile of cash, however, as the experience costs $99, regardless of how many people participate. (If you have a family member who’s deployed, the website also offers details on playing with your loved one for free.)

In a world in which everyone’s face is buried in their phones or staring at a TV, escape rooms offer an opportunity to put those things down and have fun working together to solve a mystery. Now, this same experience can bridge the gap between you and your loved ones during the coronavirus crisis.

That’s cool. Just remember to socially distance yourself from others before celebrating. You don’t want to hurt anyone.