Up to the game? Make your way out of a mystery-filled room in just 60 minutes!
Lenin is looking down on us, and we stand there in the dim-lit room looking back at him. We are still trying to make sense of our surroundings. The set-pieces are reminiscent of a time long-gone, when Soviet scientists would sit under the Leninesque gazes of scrutinizing watchmen, trying to figure out formulas for the betterment of tovarishes. I too get the feeling I am being watched and as if to confirm my doubts, a sinister voice breaks out laughing, proclaiming in a deep Russian accent: “You will never escape this room, never!” And so the game begins.
This is the set-up for the Mystery of Chernobyl, one of the four quests you can choose to play at the iLocked franchise in St. Petersburg, a series of real-time room escape puzzle games where you solve puzzles, interact with items around you and simply use your head to escape a room in under 60 minutes. For 3500 rubles (60 €), groups of two to six people are willingly locked inside to experience the challenge and the thrill.
iLocked was developed by a trio of former schoolmates and current best pals, Nikita Kuchenov, Evgeniy Oschepkov, and Ilya Ryzhkov.
Nikita is sitting in the common area, chatting with an artsy-looking man.“It’s a job interview!” Ilya says. “We’re in talks to hire a designer for the new rooms we’re developing.” He informs me.
“Where?” I ask, more out of curiosity than for the sake of adding to the knowledge of humankind.
“A cinema… somewhere!” he laughs. “You’ll find out soon enough!” These people are professionals, at least in the mystery department.
Though iLocked is an original brand name developed by the trio, the concept is not new. The room escape game craze started much earlier in the form of Claustrophilia in Hungary, now Budapest’s top-ranked tourist attraction according to TripAdvisor. Essentially live-action puzzles, the games combine riddles and physical tasks, with the aim being to, well, escape from a room. The concept of the game is based on a subgenre of computer (and other platforms) point-and-click adventure games called Escape the Room. Played in a first person perspective, the games have a minimalistic interface, ambient soundtrack, and no non-player characters in order to enhance the sense of isolation. Similar to the brief intro given to us by the games’ administrator before our lock-down, the games feature only token plots or brief cut scenes to establish how the player has ended up in the room.
“Sherlock, we initially wanted to call ours Sherlock, but you know…” Nikita explains when he is done with the “job interview”. It was Ilya who finally came up with iLocked, the “i” element being so fashionable these days. They found a place, designed the rooms and incorporated the puzzles and when the opening day came, nobody showed up.
“We had filled up the place with these red balloons, we even had invited some journalists over to come play for free but now we were just sitting around, in that sorry state,” Nikita says. They went from being sorry to being fully booked in less than eight months, opened up a second venue in St. Petersburg. Now, they are franchising not only in other cities in Russia but also abroad, starting with Poland and Israel.
“People get tired of bar-crawling and discos and they seek new thrills… something challenging, something fun.” Ilya points out, “They leave satisfied with themselves and they send in more thrill-seeking people.”
“Have they just given up during the game?” I ask one of the administrators of the game who sometimes hollers hints to the helpless players via a small walkie-talkie.
“Give up?!” he seems bemused by my question, “Actually they don’t even notice they’re running out of time.” While a good 70 percent of the groups are able to “escape” using hints, the number of those who have actually completed the quest without using any is no more than ten.
I meet a group of just-escapees, youngsters all flushed and giggly, who have just made their way out of the Chernobyl. They hurriedly turn down my interview request.
“We’re running late!” says a girl, half-wrapping her shawl around her neck.
“They’re going to play Saw in our other location!” the administrator answers my unasked question, “The escape room based on the first Saw film!”
And as for us, we have laughed so hard in the second room I think I might have a heart attack; I can see our time is running short; the codes, the keys, the puzzles, the locks…00:03, 00:02, 00:01. BOOM!