Words by Martha Helton
Photography by The Seventh Lens
Inspired by popular escape-the-room video games, the first escape room opened in the United States in 2012 and now there are over 1,750 locations. Locked for an hour in a themed room, you are immersed in a different world, cracking codes, discovering clues and solving puzzles with up to seven of your friends, family members and/or coworkers to “escape” the locked room. My curiosity piqued, my husband, son and I decided to come out from behind our screens at home and embark on a fun-filled, real-life adventure.
Even though I consider myself an impatient, light-weight at using brain power for puzzle-solving, I felt secure knowing my software engineer husband and online gaming creator/ enthusiast son would come through for me. Besides, as a writer, I was the designated observer in the group. When we arrived, we were greeted by co-owners, Eric Wertz and Ryan Toth. They directed us to watch a video segment that explained the rules of the game.
Next, a door was opened and we were ushered into a dark, cozy, burgundy-colored room with all the delightful elements of a 1920’s speakeasy, complete with a bar, a corner booth and – of course – lots of liquor “moonshine” bottles. The overall scenario was that we were served a tainted whiskey that knocks us out cold. The bartender, too tired to move us, left us passed out in a booth, but left a trail of clues leading to his secret, high profile exit. By following the clues, we would be able to escape without alerting the police.
Because the room was watched via surveillance camera, Eric explained that we could sing a song or tell a joke if we got stuck and a verbal clue would be given. Well, that may be sooner rather than later, I thought. Then Eric gave us our first clue, he left and the timer over the door started counting down from 60 minutes.
I looked around. The room was expertly designed with professional, realistic props…not at all like a cheesy, haunted house experience, I surmised. We moved uncertainly, but with heightened curiosity, clumsily rifling through everything we could see on different surfaces. I was a little nervous, but not knowing what to expect was part of the fun and added to the suspense. After wandering around for a while with no luck, Eric gave us a hint. Sure enough, we hit the jackpot—our first clue solved. Cool!
If you love to solve puzzles, play strategy games and are looking for some adrenaline-filled, live action entertainment, sign up for Granbury’s own escape room adventure, Narrow Escape.
Without giving away any spoilers, clues can take the form of math problems, numbers, riddles, mysterious symbols, word play, or sound or video recordings. Some cool technology used can be black lights, lasers, magnetic and electric currents, or even Morse code.
With growing confidence after solving the first clue, we continued. Me, the lazy problem-solver, would pipe up periodically and say, “Let’s ask for help,” to which my keen, sleuth partners would both say in unison, “No, not yet.” Finally, at one point they acquiesced and we sang out loudly for a clue, “My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty…”
Prior to Narrow Escape’s grand opening in January 2017, co-owner Eric Wertz had enjoyed a few escape room experiences so much he invited his long-time friends, Sarah Harvey Toth and her husband, Ryan Toth, to “escape” as well. Ryan poo-pooed the idea, thinking it would be lame—”some dinner theater madness that we’d all regret.” Reluctantly, he acquiesced and after that one momentous, immersive adventure, they eagerly batted about the idea of opening one themselves. A month later they signed a lease. With the help of many family members and friends, and “cashing in every favor ever owed to us,” they finished in six months, only hiring out for the few elements where a professional was needed.
“With the exception of one prop in our building, they were all built on site. If it’s electronic, Ryan probably designed and built it. If it’s mechanical, then Eric (a former diesel mechanic) was the brains behind it. Any of the paper props and puzzles were made by me,” Sarah shared. “We worked day and night to create something we are all extremely proud of.”
Especially noteworthy, considering the quality and ingenuity that make up each escape room, is the fact that the owners bypassed going the franchise route. “We wanted to create something of our own from scratch. The idea of buying a franchise to bring to a small town just didn’t make sense to us,” Sarah explained. “Plus, we’re all too hard-headed to let someone else tell us how to do our jobs!”
Brainstorming with a few friends produced some solid ideas for the room’s themes and stories. A vote determined which two were going to make the cut. Sal’s Chop Shop started as a poke at Eric who, a year earlier, had a motorcycle stolen from his house. “Ryan proposed we make the players find the stolen motorcycle at a chop shop to win the game as a joke. It evolved into what it is now…your friend who steals cars, gets locked up and needs a favor from you,” Sarah explained.
The Speakeasy was actually written by one of Sarah’s co-workers at the time. “We fell in love with the story and promised to give her credit if we used it. So, Sally Stanfield, if you’re reading this, ‘Thank you!’”, Sarah chuckled. “Not much was changed from her original story either; we adapted it a bit to fit the end of our game.”
As for ideas on the props and mechanical elements for the room, there was a lot of long nights researching, looking at available products, brainstorming on what was or wasn’t possible, and plenty of discussion over whether the props fit the theme or time period involved. The two rooms are still occasionally tweaked by adding more puzzles and other brain twisters. “We are constantly trying to adjust and make improvements to make the game play as exciting as possible,” said Eric.
The beginning of 2018, the friends will unveil some totally new themed escape rooms to replace the old. They opened a mobile room to the public last summer, but it was destroyed in a storm on July 4th weekend. Keep an eye out next year for its return. “Ryan has been working on a mystery game that involves a missing private detective that we are all pretty excited about,” Sarah said.” He mentioned creating it for two to four players which would be perfect for date nights.”
Roughly 40% of groups make it out of a room before the 60 minutes is up. If time allows, they like to let the groups finish out the game even if the timer has expired. The record so far for solving an escape room puzzle and escaping the room goes to a group of middle school teachers; they managed to get through The Speakeasy in a short 43 minutes.
As for our Speakeasy escape, we did ask for a few hints along the way, which Eric happily provided. We made our surprising escape—and even eluded the police! Although, it was five minutes after the timer went off—sigh—we still had a blast. We can’t wait to try Sal’s Chop Shop and hope to include our two other sons as well!