The first rule of escape rooms? Do not talk about escape rooms

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From left to right, Melissa Caramanico, Kenneth Perry, Christopher O’Neill, Jim McHugh, Evan Medwid and Danielle Reiff pose in front of the Xscape The Room photo wall, a backdrop where contestants congregate for a group photo after completing the game, in Media, Pa. March 3, 2017. Photo by Christopher O’Neill.

By Christopher O’Neill

There’s a new game in town, known as “escape rooms.”

According to World of Escapes, a website dedicated to informing interested parties about local escape room locations, “Escape rooms can be described as interactive adventure games during which a set of players (usually between two and eight people) are locked in a room and have to solve riddles and use a series of clues in order to break out. To put it simply, escape rooms are very much like a computer game except that they take place in real life.”

Being an avid gamer myself, I naturally found my interest piqued by the prospect of a live interactive game. Getting the go ahead for the story from my editors, I assembled a crack team of experts (really, I just group texted my friends and rounded up who was interested).

Our final roster ended up being a team of six: Evan Medwid, 30, a retail manager; his girlfriend Danielle Reiff, 20, a paraprofessional; Kenneth Perry, 24, an electrician; his girlfriend; Melissa Caramanico, 21, a hairstylist; Jim McHugh, 27, a butcher, and myself, 34, a construction worker and aspiring journalist. Given our varieties of expertise, assorted skills, and close friendships, we felt confident that we could overcome any obstacle in our path.

As is customary in our group of friends, Medwid and I hashed out the details, finally deciding on a local incarnation of escape room gaming known as Xscape The Room, located at First, 13th, & 25th W. Third St., in Media, Pa. respectively.

We chose Xscape The Room because it was local and also owned by Life is Short Productions, Rosemary Fox and Carlin McCoy, residents of Delaware County, who describe themselves on their site as people whose, “…combined love of design and gaming has fed their passion for building immersive games that bring people together for entertainment and quality bonding time!”

This sounded like the ideal venue for our escape room experience: gamer enthusiasts that make fun games for other gamer enthusiasts.

Now that we knew where we were going, we still had to select one of the themed rooms Xscape The Room offered. At the time of our booking they had four available rooms: The Classroom (what every student dreads, waking up on test day completely unprepared); The Safe House (a spy and espionage themed room); The Speakeasy (a heist style game set in the 1920s); and The Basement (a thriller style room where one must decipher clues before being trapped in a dark basement forever).

“Which one do you guys want to do?” Medwid said in a group text.

“The secret agent [one],” McHugh said.

“Agreed,” I replied.

“Ok, I ordered six tickets,” Medwid said. “I’m hype, should be fun!”

And so Friday March 3, 2017, our combined fates were sealed, with a deposit of $28 per person, because that night at 9 p.m., we would embark on our first escape the room adventure.

Arriving early, around 8:45 p.m., which was recommended by the website, we began our first challenge, finding the entrance.

It wasn’t that there were no signs, because there were. It was just that the escape rooms seemed to be in various office spaces along the street, which had no immediately obvious front doors.

Finally, I noticed another sign down an alley in between the buildings that seemed to be pointing to a side entrance. “I think it’s this way,” I said as we briskly made our way to the inconspicuous door eager to escape the night’s chill air.

Upon closer inspection, we noticed a door that had the Xscape The Room logo attached to it as well as an intercom to the left. A bit perplexed, we conferred on what to do next.

“How are we supposed to escape the room if we can’t even find the entrance?” McHugh said.

Just as we were about to try the intercom, the door swung open and a thin, clean cut man in his thirties greeted us with a smile, assuring us we were in the right place. “Are you guys the Medwid party for 9 o’clock?”

“Yup, that’s us,” Medwid said.

“Then follow me, and welcome to Xscape The Room,” said the man.

We followed him through the side entrance and up the stairs to a waiting room with a huge mural of the Xscape The Room logo on the far wall.

The man introduced himself as Brendon Gawel, urging us to hang our coats and visit the restroom before taking a seat in the waiting area where we would have to fill out our waiver forms.

The forms were typical liability fanfare as well as a stipulation where we could not reveal the secrets of our gaming experience (so no spoilers in this article folks!).

Once we were finished with the forms, he handed us name tags.

“You must now choose your secret agent names,” Gawel said.

Medwid became “Agent Orange,” Reiff became “Agent D,” Perry became “# 2,” Caramanico became “Agent M,” McHugh became “Q,” and I became “Agent X.”

Peeling our new identities off their paper backings and proudly sticking them onto our chests, we steeled ourselves for what was to come.

“You and your team of top secret agents are engaged in covert operations to intercept a doomsday machine before it reaches enemy hands,” Gawel said. “During the exchange at the drop zone site, your cover was compromised and the order to abort the mission was given.”

Gawel further explained that three of our operatives had gone missing and that it had become apparent that one of them was a double agent.

“Rendezvousing at the safe house for further instructions, you are now presented with a new mission,” Gawel said. “Identify the double agent, discover the three possible locations where they escaped to, contact the station, and most importantly, escape the room!”

As Gawel opened the door to the next hour of our lives, we heard the theme from Mission Impossible, adding to the ambiance of our experience.

“You have one hour before enemy forces arrive to eliminate your team.” Gawel Said. “Good luck.”

At first, our safe house looked like something right out of the movies, resembling a sparsely furnished studio apartment complete with a small cot, simple bookshelf and desk, a card table, and even an old beat up guitar. Just the kind of spartan accommodations one would expect of a highly trained team of spies hiding in plain sight.

Chomping at the bit, we eagerly entered the room, immediately scouring everything that seemed significant. The challenges we faced came in the form of riddles, codes, various combination locks and key locked chests, as well as hidden doors and even a few red herrings.

Gawel was a silent observer for the whole experience, ensuring we didn’t confuse game props with actual functioning pieces of the property. He also had a second job, which was to offer us a maximum of three clues during our game play if we ever felt stumped.

Admittedly, the room was more challenging than we had anticipated and at about 30 minutes in, we had hit a wall.

“I feel so useless,” Reiff said.

“I think we all do,” I joked trying to boost morale.

Having already used one clue roughly 20 minutes in, we decided to use our second one which served to push us past our momentary road block.

Rallying together, we maintained a more focused approach, staying in pairs mostly, so as to allow for two minds on every puzzle.

45 minutes into the game Caramanico said, “Wait, should we get the third clue? We’re almost done!”

Gawel delivered our third clue which allowed us to complete two of our mission objectives. We had discovered who the double agent was, and also the locations that they had possibly escaped to.

With 10 minutes to go, we had deciphered the code explaining how to escape the room, as well as finding the phone we needed to use to contact headquarters. However, we still had yet to decode the puzzle necessary for revealing the phone number.

Sour notes from the beat up guitar contrasted with the background spy music as McHugh nervously plucked the strings.

“Maybe the last team called it, check the call list,” Perry said as we all nervously laughed.

An alarm bell pierced our ears as we realized our time was up.

“Enemy forces have shown up to eliminate you!” Gawel exclaimed. “You’re dead, you’re so dead!”

A resounding groan, the kind children make when they’re told it’s past their bed time, erupted from our team at the realization of defeat.

But we felt better when Gawel explained that out of all the teams that had played this particular room there was only a 30 percent success rate.

“You were so close!” Gawel said. “You really did well.”

Saying our goodbyes, and thanking Gawel for the experience, we gathered up in front of the mural for our “fail picture” as we accepted our fate.

Licking our wounds over beer and pizza later at my place, we discussed our experience.

“We definitely have to try another one,” McHugh said, scarfing down a hot wing.

“It was more creative than I thought it would be,” Reiff said. “It was a lot of fun!”

“The whole story line kept it entertaining even though it was kind of cliché,” Perry said.

“Once we began working together as a team, we were able to use our own attributes to [help] accomplish our mission,” Caramanico said. “I love that it uses team work and each player brings a special piece to the game.”

Medwid admitted that even though the puzzles could be very frustrating it made them all the more satisfying when you solved them.

“The challenges were fun,” Medwid said.

Riddled with bullets from an imaginary enemy death squad, we remained undaunted by our temporary set back. We struck a pact that night that one day our band of intrepid adventurers would return, but this time we would escape the room!

Contact Christopher O’Neill at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu