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A Captive Audience: 'Escape Room' Phenomenon Comes to Maine

Tom Porter
Steven Knight readies his "Escape Room" for a new group of puzzle-solvers.

PORTLAND, Maine - There are lots of ways to enjoy yourself in Maine this summer: hiking, fishing, kayaking, golf - escaping from a locked room. Yes, that's right. It may sound weird, but "Escape Rooms," or "Real Life Room Escapes," as they're often called, have become increasingly popular around the world, and have found their way to Maine.

The game typically involves a group of people, locked in a room, working together to solve clues that will enable them to get out. "It's definitely a new thing right now, and it's popping up and people are into it," says Steven Knight. Knight runs the Escape Room, which he recently opened on Congress Street in Portland.

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
Steven Knight inside the Escape Room, applying some finishing touches.

From the moment he opened his doors, Knight says he's been fully booked - and people seem hungry for more of these types of puzzles, even though the challenge of escaping the room is beyond most of them. "So far we've sent in 20 groups and four have gotten out," Knight says.

You many have seen or played room escape games online by clicking on clues and objects. But here's how it works in real life: Groups of up to 10 gamers are shut in the room. The door they're supposed to leave through has a number of padlocks on it. The clues to unlock those padlocks are all contained in the room, and you have one hour to find and solve them.

I've decided to go it alone. But Knight assures me he'll be standing by, just outside with a walkie-talkie, to offer one or two clues, just in case. It turns out I will need some clues - quite a lot of them.

Tom Porter: "I don't feel prepared at all, but here goes."

Steven Knight: "All right, have fun."

Tom Porter: "Thank you." (Door closes). "I have 59 minutes and 51 seconds. I want to go to the toilet."
In the room, there's a table with a typewriter on it, a few books on a shelf, a pair of binoculars, a stopped clock on the wall, a jacket hanging up, a map on the wall, and up a step is a kitchen area with a fridge. Part of the Escape Room is inaccessible - thanks to a locked door. And, of course, in the corner of the room is the way out - a door with four padlocks on it.

I don't know where to start. "Steve, I'm not doing too well here, I wonder if you could give me a clue?"

Steve Knight (over the walkie-talkie): "You want a couple of clues?"

Tom Porter: "Yeah. I'm drawing blanks everywhere."

Steven Knight: "Check that."

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
A banner marking the Escape Room in Portland.

I won't divulge any clues, out of fairness to anyone who may be thinking of taking the challenge. Suffice it to say that to say that there are clues pretty much everywhere, and getting out of the escape room involves map-reading, constitutional history and deciphering 19th century Masonic codes, among other things.

It was all too much for me - even with Knight's help over the walkie-talkie. As the stopwatch counts down to zero, I have been able to open only three of the four padlocks on the escape door.

(The bell rings and the door opens.) "Oh well, time's up. Well, Steve, I can see why you need up to 10 people to do this. It's very, very challenging.

"The other night we stumped a room full of engineers, they did not make it out," Knight says.

"It's a bit strange people paying money to be locked in a room for an hour isn't it?" I ask.

"Yes, and they're loving it," he says. "Everyone so far has come out and they can't wait until we open our next room because they want to come back and see if they can do it again."

"There's definitely a lot of pressure in there but it's also so much fun," says Bailey Axelsen. Axelsen and Ian Goodney have recently emerged from the Escape Room. They were part of a group of nine that solved all the clues, opened the padlocked door and made it out.

"What was fun about it?" I ask.

"It was finding everything, and trying to figure out what everything meant and how it all came together," Goodney says.

"How long did it take you?"

"We had seven minutes to spare, I think, so we were two minutes over the record." Axelsen says.

It's also a challenge for Steven Knight, who's going to have to think up a completely new set of clues every couple of months if he wants people to come back to the Escape Room. Another escape room, called "Maine Escape Games," is slated to open in South Portland in August.