You arrive at the apartment of friends Owen and Claire. The door is unlocked but they’re not there. You find a VHS tape with instructions to play it on the machine in the living room.
In the video, you see a frantic Owen in this very room. “They” are coming, he says, fearing they took Claire. He says it’s connected to a medical breakthrough the couple have been working on – one that could change the world. “They” want it for all the wrong reasons. Owen says he’s hidden their work all over the room and urges you to find it before they do. He's left clues to help.
Suddenly, masked men appear and drag Owen screaming from of the room. The video cuts to static.
Your time begins – in the “Great Discovery” theme room at Escape City, Edmonton’s newest live action escape company, located in on the city’s south side and co-owned and operated by Pamela Woolger (Finance ’05, pictured above) and her husband Dave (Architectural Technology ’05). It’s an entertainment trend that has recently arrived in the capital, and one that the couple, putting their own spin on it, believe will make for a successful business.
A great escape
Live action escape games originated in Asia then spread to Europe and North America, where their popularity has exploded. In Edmonton, 3 game companies opened in just the past year alone.
The appeal, says Pamela, is that escape games are challenging, mentally stimulating and family friendly.
“It’s a smaller time commitment than going to a movie, and … [it] gives you the chance to interact with friends in a way you normally wouldn’t.”
At Escape City, Pamela and her team run 4 rooms an hour with 2 to 6 people allowed in each room. Each has a unique look intended to heighten the realism of the scenario and feature up to a dozen different puzzles, many of which require solving before moving on to the next. And each room has its own story featuring drama at a level of the missing researchers.
Pamela and the team hired friend Colleen Nuc (Radio and Television '10), owner and operator of Hoopla Media, to produce polished videos that tell those stories at the start of each game. They’re the only escape game in the city that features these video introductions.
Tips for a successful escape
Pay attention to all the details in the room. Have everyone look at everything. Talk through the clues together.
Let the natural leader present him or herself. There’s always 1 person who will the team – even if you don’t pick that leader. Don’t get too frustrated with this. Less time is wasted this way and it generally reduces arguing among the group.
Use your clues and hints wisely. Groups get to request up to 2 hints from organizers during the game. Many first-timers don’t want to use them out of determination and pride but if you're stuck for more than 10 minutes, ask for a clue.
A unique experience
Pamela and Dave decided to start the business when they fell in love with the concept after trying other local games. They wondered how they could add to the emerging escape scene.
“We literally walked out of the game and, in the parking lot, started chatting about it. A few weeks later, some business partners went to Vancouver to check out all the escape rooms there to get more ideas,” Pamela says.
Together, they and 3 partners sunk more than $150,000 into a location at a strip mall at 5916 - 104 Street. Dave designed the layout of the rooms, each one about 28 square metres (300 square feet). Everyone contributed to the development of the stories and puzzles that they feel makes them stand out among escape games.
Perhaps as a result, “It’s been quite busy, which has been great,” says Pamela, who, like the other owners, currently keeps another job in addition to running Escape City. Nearly every weekend, when games run from 12 p.m. to 12 a.m., has been almost sold out since opening in August (2015). During weekdays, starting at 4 p.m., they’ve often been taking corporate bookings.
She and the team are optimistic about keeping a busy schedule. They've even opened another location in Saskatoon. So far, chances seem good that none of them will find time to escape from the venture any time soon.