Escape rooms contain surprises but not many frustrations because everyone plays a part. Picture: SUPPLIED
Escape rooms contain surprises but not many frustrations because everyone plays a part. Picture: SUPPLIED

The lights flick on, and you can remove the blindfold covering your eyes. You have to do it carefully because your hands are cuffed together. You are in a cell, about 3m by 2m, with floor to ceiling bars on one wall locking you in.

You are not alone: your companion is also cuffed and trying to remove a blindfold. There is a locked chest on the floor, and symbols and barcodes decorate the walls. Behind one of the walls, you hear the clank of metal as others try to free themselves.

You have one hour to get out, by solving the puzzles and riddles in the cell — and the clock has started ticking.

This is the new adult pastime taking SA, and the world, by storm: escape rooms. The concept is simple: take a group of people and put them in a themed room in which they have to think their way out.

"When people are in the room, they are literally immersed," says Chris Tsatsarolakis, co-founder of Hashtag Escape, an escape room company in Norwood, Johannesburg. "That is literally the most important thing. We want to take people away from their everyday life."

In a city such as Johannesburg, there are only so many things people can do for entertainment, he says. "People are looking for something different, something physical."

Hashtag Escape has three rooms: prison break, haunted house and a rebel camp.

Tsatsarolakis, who designed the rooms with friend Stratis Kouvdis, says that important factors in developing an escape room are that people like to be surprised, and "you need to run the room so that the people inside it do not get frustrated".

Through cameras set up in the escape room, a game master watches the players’ every move, ready to give hints if they are having a hard time. Inside the rooms, different puzzles allow everyone to play a role and bring different skills to solving the escape, whether through logic and pattern recognition or careful observation.

"We’ve never had teams fight, except married couples," says Tsatsarolakis. "Everyone goes with the flow, and there’s never really a leader. Everyone’s leadership [ability] comes out at some point; everyone plays a part. It helps with team building. People show their true colours, they forget that there’s a camera."

He and Kouvdis established Hashtag Escape in 2015, after seeing the concept overseas. Several franchises are popping up in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Virginia Shang, owner of Lostland in Rivonia, Johannesburg, says she also hasn’t had participants fighting. Corporate team building is a major part of the service.

"It’s good for relationship building and improving communication. Even if people don’t know each other when they come into the playroom, they are closer when they leave," she says.

She and her husband saw the concept when they were on holiday in China and decided to set up a Lostland franchise in SA. They also have three rooms: prison break, mission impossible and castle secret.

Both Lostland and Hashtag Escape have their eye on expansion. Shang is looking for other concepts to bring to SA, while Tsatsarolakis is thinking about how to build more rooms of their own.

"We enjoy making puzzles — we’ve been making them throughout our school career," he says.

It took about two months to develop Hashtag Escape’s rooms. They have to design and build the room, then get family and friends to play it.

"They tell you what works and what doesn’t work," Tsatsarolakis says.

Shang welcomes the proliferation of escape rooms in SA, because it will popularise them. "Each business may have different concepts and bring more ideas for people to think and to move physically," she says.

Most escape rooms allow children older than 10, but they are geared towards adults — allowing people to live out the experience of being in a film or a video game.

In puzzle rooms, players  are the heroes trying to engineer an escape.

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