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Psychologist Owen Spear’s trip to Budapest with girlfriend Ali Cheetham was more than romantic. Their quest for singular odd experiences has led them to reinvigorating Melbourne’s recreational landscape with some tantalising new seasoning in the way of ‘Escape Room’. Escape Room is pretty easy to puzzle out: you’re in a room with just a chainsaw and a table… but for real. No seriously, fo’ real. Somewhere secret in Melbourne, there resides a room whose entire purpose is to escape from by working out the many puzzles inhabiting the room, revealing a deep, dark backstory about the previous owner of the room. What could be more enticing? Owen allows us a dip inside his and Ali’s ‘Cube’.
Melissa Kuttan: What’s the origin of Escape Rooms?
Owen Spear: They began in Budapest in 2011 after a guy thought he would make a real life version of these computer games called Escape the Room. They’ve now got five rooms, as well as rooms elsewhere in other countries. They had copycats there so there are about 30-plus rooms there in Budapest now. We went over there and did one of the rooms and absolutely loved it. We were so thrilled by it and the moment we walked out we decided we had to build one of these in Melbourne.
MK: What was your inspiration for your particular Escape Room?
OS: I wanted something that didn’t feel tacky because a lot of them are quite tacky and we wanted it to feel old and genuinely nice-looking, and we wanted a bit of a back story as well. We came up with this idea – someone who’s written a letter for someone and set up this room. It’s quite hard to come up with the ideas for a story that make sense in this context. You either ignore that or try to come up with it and incorporate it – our one tries to incorporate it vaguely. My dad was also a research scientist so there’s a bit of stuff like that incorporated into it. We love old stuff and we have old stuff already so it made sense to include them.
MK: When you say old stuff, do you mean antiques?
MK: When you said before how the rooms were tacky, how were they tacky?
OS: Everything. The story would be either no story or really loose like ‘Diffuse the bomb!’ and that’s the entire story. Also the décor; a lot of them are just concrete rooms, they feel dingy and the items don’t make sense. They might go for a 1930s room and then they’ll have a stuffed toy from the ’90s in a cage. I think it cheapens it. Or things scrawled in crappy handwriting as hints. No cohesion to the room, it’s just a big jumble of crap. Having said that, they’re all heaps of fun but we knew we could improve on those aspects.
MK: So more like cheap and cliché?
OS: Yeah. Like ‘Escape out of the Prison!’ or ‘Casino Theme!’ The puzzles will be good, but the other stuff around it…
MK: It’s about immersion really, you want to be immersed.
OS: Exactly. Except we have a webcam staring at you. It ruins stuff a bit.
MK: Doesn’t it heighten the tension like ‘I’m being watched’?
OS: Doesn’t really fit in with our décor though. People will be like ‘Man, that was really cool, except for that blue light that kept following us around the room.’
MK: Can you tell me a little about how you guys decided things? Like location, scaling and investors?
OS: We funded it ourselves. It doesn’t cost that much. We already had a room that we renovated, and I just built everything myself and Ali designed stuff. We used a lot of our parents old antiques and it actually cost very little. The scale was purely as big as the room was.
MK: It’s a really interesting time to be bringing out real-life simulations especially with stuff like the Zombie Run in London. Do you think there’s any competition between real-life simulations and virtual reality ones like the computer games you mentioned before?
OS: The online games are totally different experiences and, if anything, online Escape the Room games are promotional material for us. People play it online and go ‘Oh my god, that will be so awesome to do that in real life!’ I feel it’s also just a wave of people not wanting to be passive anymore, not wanting to sit in front of the TV, instead wanting to get out and interact with things. That’s what we found when I did them in Budapest, it feels so much more rewarding about being the player, being the one who is doing. The other interesting aspect to question is, could this have worked 20 or 30 years ago? Or is this a phenomenon that could only work now that people are more open to interacting in odd kinds of ways? I feel like it’s so inherently enjoyable that it could have worked but it’s amazing to think that they were only created two years ago.
MK: What do you think interests or draws people to this?
OS: I don’t know. I’m trying to think of what drew me to them. I like puzzles and doing odd things and that’s what drew me in. I think what people come expecting is – no one really gets what it will end up feeling like or being like; so what draws people to it is maybe the weirdness and the oddness of doing something a bit crazy. But I have no idea!
MK: It’s very hard to fail I imagine, I know you guys are on hand.
OS: Yeah, me and my brother tend to run it and Ali tends to run a few. If [the participants] are slow, they tend to get a lot of hints.
MK: What have you guys thought about expansion?
OS: I’m at the second room now!
MK: Can you tell me a little about it?
OS: It’s a 1950s mine theme and you’ve got to go in, there’s been an explosion in the mine and you’ve got to locate where the explosion was and escape. It’s in South Melbourne in a warehouse.
OS: We’re going to have another one as well, possibly. This one is cool though because Ali’s parents were miners and they also collect random shit and they have this warehouse full of mining related antique things. We’ve just stolen all their stuff and put it in the room. It’s fairly early but we’ve come up with all the puzzles and made several of them and we sort of know how the room’s going to look. It’s probably about six or seven weeks off.
MK: That’s so soon.
OS: Well, we’ll probably be ready for testing in six weeks. We’ve been designing it for the last six months and working on it for six or seven weeks.
MK: That’s crazy, that it can be done so quickly. But I guess once you guys have done the first one, you know your shortcuts and worked out your kinks.
OS: We’ve definitely learned so much doing the first one. I was going to cut back because I’m a psychologist but I found it too hard to cut back for my clients. (Laughs) I spend three days there and the rest of the time here.
MK: Can you tell me a little bit more about the process of attending the room without giving too much away?
OS: It’s down the back of a house. You meet out the front, get taken round the back, get explained the rules of the game. You get given a walkie-talkie and then you start outside the room, you’ve got to first get your way in and then once in, it’s all pitch black and you’ve got torches and music playing – weird 1960s music and then you find a letter on a desk which gives you the back story. From there you start solving the puzzles.
MK: How many sessions do you guys run a day?
OS: Three or four generally and on average people take an hour and ten minutes. We just say an hour to an hour and a half.
MK: Why the unlocked door?
OS: All of the rooms in Budapest will have some mechanism where you leave like a panic button to open the door but it’s just so dangerous especially if someone has a panic attack. But the new one that we’re building; the door will actually be locked but there’s another door that just goes out into an office or something if people get freaked out.
MK: Has anyone freaked out or walked out yet?
OS: Nah. Everyone finishes it.
MK: I know it’s a family team effort since your parents are involved and you and your girlfriend made this. What’s it like to have such a big team effort?
OS: She gets along with them well. It’s been really amazing for my brother because he’s not found anything yet in life that he’s interested in but I’ve never seen him more motivated and hard-working than now. It’s really good. Generally my mum just worries about security and nags about getting extra locks put in and isn’t especially excited about it. Ali’s parents are actively helping us with the puzzle and they’re really, really excited about it.
MK: I’ve read that you’re booked out till the end of May. I want to do it!
OS: Actually, mid-July now.
MK: Well you guys need to open up that other room stat.
OS: Yeah. It’s possible people could book in for the new room sooner than the current room (laughs).
The Escape Room runs several sessions per day, seven days a week. Book online here.
Words: Melissa Kuttan – @melissakuttan