Escape for the winter

A new-ish Hungarian gaming import is testing the waters here: live-action room escapes. Will Berliners line up to get shut in?

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A new-ish Hungarian gaming import is testing the waters here: live-action room escapes. Will Berliners line up to get shut in?

There are three of us in the back room, and we’re stuck. A stern Hungarian robot voice calls out a menacing countdown – we think. Our eyes meet as we look helplessly around the few square feet, ignoring the looming figure in the gasmask, and again recount what we’ve so far figured out, trying to keep it together. “It’s got to be in here.” I tear through the drawers for the umpteenth time, digging frantically through syringes and looking for hidden panels, while my companions examine a rat’s nest of keys, pore over cryptic letters stenciled on strongboxes and fret over their shabby mental arithmetic. It’s not looking good for us.

At this point it should be noted that we’re actually in a rather cheerful Berlin café, taking part in a wholesome Saturday afternoon activity. This kind of strangely edifying collective panic is the unique selling point of “room escapes”, one of the most interesting and inclusive incarnations of geekdom ever to spread through basements and back rooms, and one of the toughest to explain.

Gamer types may light up at the comparison to intricately plotted ‘point-and-click’ adventures like Day of the Tentacle. British expats of a certain vintage leap almost immediately to the 1990s TV glory of The Crystal Maze and its disdainful ringmaster. Americans reach for Fear Factor, French for Fort Boyard. Germans, however, tend to draw a blank. “Shut in a room for an hour? For… fun?” The idea of turning computer and TV games into frantic reality took shape in Japan (or America’s West Coast, or Hong Kong, depending on whom you believe) in the mid-2000s, picking up similar momentum throughout the States. Then, aided by Easyjet tourism and Tripadvisor, the games took particular root in Budapest, which now boasts somewhere between 30 and 40 such rooms, several of them, like early incarnation Parapark, located under the city’s artfully shambolic ruin pubs.

Themes range from the predictable (at least one American chain offers the inevitable zombies) to the endearingly genteel (the Benjamin Franklin library escape at Games Week Berlin this April). The Magyar brand tends towards a balance of design flair and uncompromisingly tough puzzles, which helps to hook the key tourist market – some of whom run a kind of marathon, visiting three or four escapes by day and partying by night. It’s this Eastern flavour that’s sprouting up in Berlin, with two Hungarian-run rooms opening up in the past year.

Questory (€60/group) is located on a quiet Kreuzberg street. Or at least, we think it is. In fact we’ve gone right past it when we turn around and find that a sign has silently appeared over a deserted-looking basement.

Sweet, slightly nervous Hungarian couple Edina and Igor welcome us downstairs, have us sign a waiver confirming that we do not plan to quaff Palinka or drop acid in the room, assure us that five is the ideal team size, and posit the concept a little timidly: it is June 26, 1963. JFK is in town to give some iconic speech or other. We are spies who must prevent his imminent assassination.

The all-important room is slightly rough around certain edges, but gorgeously furnished in contemporary style. In pride of place: a massive 1963 Berlin map, a miracle flea market find. We proceed to (gently) tear the place apart, calling out clues to each other and fumbling about with torches, books and typewriters.

A screen in the wall lets the pair, watching over CCTV and presumably giggling regularly, send written messages – they take frequent pity when we flounder and give smiley-laden hints.

There are several deeply satisfying moments, particularly the more physical challenges, and we finish with a gratifying 13 minutes to spare after some moments of mounting panic. Finally, adorably, Edina and Igor snap a photo of our group in triumphant awkward poses to appear on Questory’s Facebook page.

The one fault is a certain lack of forcefulness in their explanation of the game, which in fact stands up for itself beautifully.

Showmanship is something resplendently bearded Balázs, the one-man business behind TRAP Berlin (€40/group), has a slightly stronger line in. He greets us in Friedrichshain’s relaxed and roomy Café Szimpla, which shares a name if not ambiance with one of Budapest’s artiest and most sprawling ruin pubs.

A “mobile” spur of its popular Budapest mother company, the game is initially a touch unprepossessing – a smallish room separated from the bustling café by only a black curtain, with seven imposing, cross-emblazoned strongboxes and a gas-masked mannequin. That’s it.

But once the countdown starts, all background hum fades away, leaving our tiny team swamped in the aforementioned 40-minute nightmare of padlocks, bombs, army green and impossible physics.

Balázs sticks around to drop hints, which can be a little disconcerting – he seems occasionally exasperated by our cluelessness, presumably having seen more hardened gamers fly through the same riddles. Ultimately, we fail pretty miserably, but he’s kind enough to let us fumble around for the extra 20 minutes we need to limp to the end. Afterwards he has words of comfort – in seven months of operation, he’s seen only about a one in 10 group success rate. With solid visitor numbers and reviews, he’s forging plans for a longer game in a Karl-Marx-Allee venue, more closely modelled on the multi-room, high-drama production values of its Budapest brethren. (In the meantime, the Szimpla location is undergoing renovations and will be back in action by the end of July.)

Can the notion thrive here too? Another room, TeamEscape in Kreuzberg, has just opened up, a spinoff of a game in Cologne and the only one with a German-language option. A fourth, The ROOM, is set to open in September. It’s impossible to deny the addictive rush, though the shrinking availability of cheap basements and side rooms in Berlin as compared to Budapest might prove a sticking point.

If things take off, will prospective impresarios find themselves brawling over squalid basements with rabid Kneipe owners or with desperate WG Bewohner?

In the meantime, anyone in search of some wholesome mettle-testing could do a lot worse than get sucked down this particular rabbit hole while things are still simple… except the puzzles, of course.

Originally published in issue #129, July/August 2014.