Being locked in a little room with nothing but your wits to save you. What better way to spend a Saturday?

Some may scale cliff faces to get their kicks, but as I found out, getting an adrenaline high is as easy as being locked in a tiny room. First surfacing in Japan around 2007, room escape games offer a different kind of rush, merging the mental titillation of brainteasers with real-world urgency. The premise is that of a live-action puzzle: You are led into a room that is locked behind you (your host supervises via cctv), given a series of cerebral challenges to overcome and a sixty-minute time limit to make your escape. Informed by video games and films like the Saw franchise, this seemingly simple concept has been flourishing exponentially; in Vienna alone, there are now over 30 different challenges available since the first opened in 2013, with scenarios ranging from spy thrillers to escaping an insane asylum or the zombie apocalypse.

Let the games begin

My first taste of room escapism was The Third Man at Escape Hunt, hidden in an office park within a shopping mall on Landstraßer Haupstraße – the first game I’d found with a distinct Viennese flavor. Despite the sterile location, their premises were decorated in nostalgic splendor with chesterfield sofas and ebony coffee tables. Three players are recommended for The Third Man, but they have duplicates of every room so you can bring two groups and race each other.

We took a seat as our host, Philip, walked us through the basics, explaining this was the least challenging of their selection. There was a big timer above the door and the next thing I knew, Philip and his mischievous grin were gone and the clock was counting down.

The first five minutes were particularly fascinating: The group shifted from joking and laughing to keen attention in a matter of seconds. I marveled at the way a room changes when you’re locked inside and forced to find a way out.

Go with the Flow

Within moments, we were all caught up in what Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed as “flow,” a state of total absorption. Simply put, “flow”occurs when a given task sufficiently stretches your ability to complete it, skewing your perception of time. It’s something that everyone from chess players to skydivers has experienced.

Once we were in it, the “flow” elevated us from scatterbrains to cerebral assassins as we grappled with the puzzles: You’re absorbed but awaken intermittently to see that time has leapt – a peculiar kind of hypnosis.

With 15 minutes left, we worked ourselves up to a frenzy, time having all but vanished as we scoured the space and experimented in the closing stages. We rushed through the final tasks and made a dart for the exit, where a grinning Philip congratulated us.

We reclined triumphantly on the fancy sofas as Philip served up a fine array of teas, inviting us to discuss the game and our performance. The opportunity to deliberate in the immediate aftermath was a great means of gleaning the most from the experience. All in all, this was a well-delivered Viennese variation and a great first dip into the game.

Smooth Criminals

Bitten by the bug, the following day I challenged Crime Runners, who have devised a continuous narrative divided into three separate chapters: The Dark Secret of the Congressman, Crime Scene: Back Alley and Patient Zero. We were encouraged to test out the final installment that opened only last October, though I suspect I’ll go back to try the other two for good measure. A short film got us up to speed with the engaging story – full of recurring characters, it’s a point of pride for founders Lukas Rauscher, Steffen Volkmer and Stefan Tauchhammer.

There was a wry smile on the face of our host as he showed us down the stairs and handed over torches and a walkie-talkie – in case we should need hints. A streak of mischief seems to be typical of the staff at these places – I was still taking off my jacket when he locked the door and plunged us into the game.

On this occasion there was no visible timer, which only made the experience more disorientating – and exciting. The backstory and its basement setting were immersive: Not simply the interactive narrative but the props and the puzzles themselves all implied great care and attention to detail. Rauscher explained afterwards that was always their ambition: “We’ve always loved escape rooms, but also had a feeling there is more to the basic concept. So we wanted to get to the next level.” Indeed, reaching the final stage of each chapter activates a separate timer, so you don’t get any chance to sit back and relax – even if you’ve been quick so far.

For something that doesn’t involve copious amounts of alcohol or breakneck speeds, escape rooms are a convenient and inexpensive means of testing your limits. Quite contrary to what we may believe, we often effloresce under pressure. Call it brainwashing, but more in the sense of giving your mind a well-needed scrub. A perfect remedy to the twin ills of boredom and apathy.

Escapism in Vienna

Room escapes are generally by appointment; see websites for
open slots
.

Escape Hunt

3., Landstraßer Haupstraße 101/B02

(01) 890 69 31

Crime Runners

9., Maria-Theresien-Straße 3/1A

(01) 997 29 39

Fox in a Box 

(Formerly Room Escape)

6., Schmalzhofgasse 1 B/II

0660 549 1647

Exit the Room

8., Hernalser Gürtel 20

0660 677 8977

Mind-X

2., Praterstraße 58

0660 704 9205

Time-Busters

2., Rembrandtstraße 24

(01) 382 00 03