February 5, 2019

WANG | Escape Reality

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This weekend, I went with a group of friends from the LGBT resource center to Escape Ithaca. The facility, which is surprisingly one of five escape rooms within commuting distance, is located just a couple of blocks from Cornell in Downtown Ithaca. Escape Ithaca, which is the first escape room in Ithaca, charges $10 for each person (we had 10 people in total), which is rather cheap for an escape room (which usually charge $20 to $45 per person).

I swear people have a Ph.D. in creativity when it comes to fun. We invented skydiving to fly, rafting to churn and Catan to indulge in our imperialistic urges. It was only a matter of time before someone had the idea to invent the escape room.

The term “escape room” comes from the early 2000s video games of the same name in which players tried to crack a code to break out of a room and make it to the next level. It was Takao Kato, founder of the Japanese company Scrape who came up with the idea of fleshing out the video game for a locked room filled with clues and cryptic messages that eventually lead to a way out of the room.

Kato — who looks like a man from the past hiding in the future, with his fedora and rim horn glasses mashed with his clean blazer — believes earnestly in the value of games. The goal was to immerse oneself in the game and break away from reality, to get away from the stressful omnipresence of work and school. The man, as oddly as he dressed, was a genius: In the 10 years since he invented escape rooms, the game has sparked a massive following. Just five years ago, there were only 22 escape rooms in America. Today, there are 2,000.

Escape rooms have become a worldwide phenomenon, sprouting up from Asia to Europe to the Americas. They have found a special home with overworked, young professionals and students who find a certain joy from being locked out of their small room living a fantasy life, far from a world that rushes them from one place to the next without a moment of rest.

And even though we’re thousands of miles away from Japan, Kato’s vision has remained intact. My friends and I are directed towards an escape room dressed up as an old-fashioned sea ship. Below deck, with shells and wooden crates around us, our Escape Ithaca guide fills us in on what’s happened. It’s not good.

There’s a deranged man named Captain White who’s drugged us at the bottom of a ship, waiting to come back to torture and kill us. Meanwhile, there’s a diamond in the black safe worth a priceless amount of money, and we have to break the safe open to take it with us. Personally, I would have just run for it, but Escape Ithaca took up a notch. What good was escape without financial security? Being a business major, I kinda appreciate that nice little practical touch.

We got an hour to work through everything, and so I don’t blow up the whole intricate setup by Escape Ithaca, I won’t go too much into detail. But we went through everything: drawers, crates, paintings, bookshelves. We found a blacklight halfway through the event, and went wild shining it everywhere to find clues.

“Give me the blacklight!” was a common thing we repeated over and over again, like we were on the hunt for some perverse killer.

I found a hint from a crumpled-up letter that led to a world map. Latitudes and longitudes of the Indian Ocean swirled in my head. I pondered the letter for an agonizing 15 minutes. I felt sure it meant something.

For 45 minutes we hunted, until we realized that we were dangerously close to running out of time, with one crate still unopened and one number left to find. We called in the guide to help us.

With two minutes to spare, we punched open the crate, revealing a letter and a plastic skeleton. Finally, we had our last clue. We rushed to the safe box. We punched in the key code, a buzzer whirred, and voila, there was the diamond. Cha-ching.

It wasn’t until we were almost walking out that I realized something was amiss. So wait, I asked the Escape Ithaca guide, how do we use the map to solve the puzzle, then?

Well, she said with a sly smile, we have to put in some red herrings to throw off some people. Just because.

Ugh.

Still, Escape Room Ithaca was fun, if not a bit silly, but I get why it’s spread around so quickly. We’ve gone from Generation Y to Generation “Y not” — we’ll try anything to temporarily avoid the daily rigors of modern work or school. It’s a fun fad now, but I do wonder if people will eventually tire of it, given that a  whole new industry of immersive gaming focused on VR and motion capture has arisen in the past couple of years. But for now, the escape room is your best bet to break away from reality, one that’s cheap, fun and convenient for local Cornell students, and one I think I’ll try again during the semester. 5542, 124 W State St: Escape Ithaca. Check it out.

William Wang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Willpower runs every other Monday this semester. He can be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com.