Escape room offers adventures at the hands of a mad man
WILLMAR — The premise seems basic enough.
The evil, diabolical Dr. Bloodborne wants to rule the world and a team of new FBI graduates must infiltrate his laboratory, solve the clues and disarm the two nuclear bombs in the lab in one hour — or else be annihilated.
Jam-packed in those 60 minutes are a series of codes to crack, computers to hack, riddles to solve, keys to be found, locks to be unlocked, lasers to be tracked, dead bodies to be identified and thoughtful pieces of philosophy to read that could lead to a crucial piece of evidence for the team of wise-cracking agents assigned to the job.
In this case, the agents are a group of seven young adults and Dr. Bloodborne's laboratory is several connecting rooms located on the third floor of the Barn Theater building in downtown Willmar where James Rhoades and Dan Schanus operate Escape Willmar.
The two friends, who have a long history of designing and orchestrating haunted houses in Willmar, jumped head first into this new, popular interactive escape room game genre as a side business to their regular day jobs.
Sometimes referred to as physical adventure games, escape rooms have been wildly popular in large cities around the world since 2010 and have now made their way to smaller markets, including Willmar.
When describing an escape room to older individuals, Rhoades said he compares it to a "mystery dinner without the dinner."
When he talks to younger people, he tells them it's "like a video game and you're part of the game."
He emphasizes that an escape room is not a haunted house.
While there was at least one surprise in the scenario that startled a few team members and some of the props are works of art, there is nothing gory or frightening in the rooms.
The game allows teams of four to eight people — oftentimes friends, co-workers or family members — to work together to solve a series of fun, mind-bending riddles and clues.
"It is really fun to watch how people interact with the game," Rhoades said. "I want them to beat it and experience everything that we made."
They initially thought the game would attract people in the 18-to-35 age range but say participants have been as young as 12 and as old as 75.
Communication, imagination, a dose of logic and a dollop of thinking-outside-the-box are helpful skills for team members to effectively work together to beat the challenge and escape before time runs out.
"In this game, seconds count," Rhoades said. "Part of the game is trying different things."
The business partners spent 1½ years designing and building Dr. Bloodborne's Lab game, writing the scenario that sets the storyline for the Dr. Bloodborne game.
"The game has evolved," Schanus said. "We've found what works and what doesn't."
Each team is different, too, which can change the dynamics of the game.
Of the seven team members invited to play the game while the West Central Tribune tagged along, only two had participated in an escape room before.
The others didn't know what they were getting into and quickly learned they should have paid closer attention as Rhoades, the "game master" laid out the storyline of the team's mission.
But after scoring a couple early clues that boosted their confidence, they split into small groups to cover more ground and quickly moved from challenge to challenge garnering some celebratory "woo-hoos" as codes were cracked and locks were sprung.
"We're in," exclaimed Lexa Bahr when they figured out the password to the computer.
"Hey guys, hey guys, hey guys," shouted Kristina Middleton, who just figured out an incredibly tricky piece of a puzzle involving laser lights.
"She's got something!" said Briana Hurley.
As the warning for the final 15 minutes was given, the group increased the pace and ended up escaping with six minutes and 11 seconds to spare, which Rhoades said was the second-fastest time so far.
Rhoades said one team escaped with just 20 seconds left on the clock.
Ecstatic with their win, the team enthusiastically endorsed the game.
Some liked the complexity of the multi-faceted clues.
"Everything was very well put together. Very smart," said Hurley.
"I liked the teamwork required for the radioactive keys," said Middleton.
They all agreed they'd like to do an escape room challenge again.
Escape Willmar opened in June but Rhoades said they had spent all their money on building the props and equipping the rooms with clues and didn't have anything left for advertising.
They have steadily grown by word-of-mouth and are currently in the process of building a second room with a speakeasy, old-time gangster theme that will have a whole new set of riddles and clues to solve. That escape room is expected to open soon.
Escape Willmar is open 1 - 9 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m. - 9 p.m Saturday, and 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. Sunday.
The cost is $25 a person. However, there are frequently special discounts offered on the Escape Willmar's Facebook page.
Reservations must be made online 24 hours in advance through their social media page. For more information, call 320-262-7000.