I’ve done it on a boat, in ancient Egypt, in Alice in Wonderland’s, well, Wonderland and beside a cat hotel (yes, really). My last few years living in Dublin were punctuated with escape room experiences. From solving puzzles to crack an espionage ring to putting ourselves in Sherlock Holmes’ shoes and tackling a literary themed conundrum, if there was 60 minutes on a timer, and a themed subject matter I was all for it. Especially if there was a costume.
Moving home it is refreshing to see that escape rooms have found their way north. And are not just firmly rooting themselves in Northern Irish life, but many differ significantly from traditional escape room experiences.
Appealing to those who grew up on a TV diet of Gordon Burns’ The Krypton Factor — regular Monday night viewing for not just my household, I suspect — and Richard O’Brien’s The Crystal Maze — escape rooms have only become a ‘thing’ within the last decade.
In 2019, 68% of respondents to a survey conducted by the Institute of Entrepreneur Development said they had visited an escape room at least once that year.
The first modern escape room was created in Kyoto in 2007, with an estimated 60 countries now embracing the international phenomenon.
Fully immersive games where you and your teammates are front and centre of a mystery are popping up everywhere — and Northern Ireland is no different.
From honouring filming extravaganzas to feeling a bit frightened, there’s one mission: solve the puzzles and escape.
Weekend spoke to four of Belfast’s most interactive activity about what escape room newbies can expect.
Love Game of Thrones? You’ll love the GoT To Escape rooms in Belfast’s Church Lane, which opened in December 2018.
“I had played an escape room in early 2018,” says owner Andrew McFarland.
“It was a new concept for me, but I was really taken by it. It’s a very inclusive activity; we’d experience that in our own business, getting diverse groups in.
“You could have three generations of one family or a work group with a big mix of age, gender and interests.
“It’s quite a demographic experience and because there are puzzles of all different types, there’s something there for everybody.
“The family angle is popular — you can see parents coming with adult children. It’s maybe been a long time since there’s been an activity they’ve all been involved in at the same level.”
Andrew, who has a background in retail, found an operator in Croatia that had launched a Game of Thrones game — Dubrovnik is where King’s Landing scenes were filmed in the first few series.
“When I came up with the idea that it was something I’d like to become involved in, I knew it would have to be Belfast, and if it was going to be Belfast, it would have to be Game of Thrones,” he says.
“I contacted him around selling the concept. A couple of days later, I flew out to Croatia. For me I thought it was a very nice fit, particularly at this stage King’s Landing had moved to Belfast.”
Travelling to Croatia alone, Andrew knew he was making big decisions.
“While I had enjoyed the game, there was major investment involved and it could transpire that the people of Belfast had no interest in this.
“Escape rooms at that stage were still a reasonably new concept. I didn’t have enough to go on of the other games in the areas — what was successful, what wasn’t — so it was a little bit of a wing and prayer.
“I suppose the major hope was that, with the Game of Thrones tourism that was inbound to Belfast at that stage, that it would hopefully carry us through.
“It did prove very popular with the domestic market as well.”
During lockdown, the rooms were open for three out of 15 months, though fortunately, since restrictions were lifted, the team has experienced an increased level of interest.
In Save Kings Landing, the players, now the King’s Guard, must find the hidden wildfire needed to defend the city against the enemy fleet.
“We have a good mix of puzzles and do feel there’s something there for everybody,” says Andrew.
“Strictly speaking we don’t put an age limit. We don’t charge for anybody under 12 and we’ve had kids as young as five come in and make a genuine contribution to the game.
“That’s very much dependent on the engagement they’re getting from the parent but when they’re well engaged, I have seen children who are young making a genuine contribution.
“I can’t think an example of a more inclusive activity, especially across ages. Even in terms of physical ability, you don’t need to be able to throw a ball, you don’t need any level of fitness. If you’re prepared to take a little bit of time and think, come to the escape room.”
As well as three identical Save Kings Landing games — which allows groups to compete against each other, and Andrew describes the finale as “quite satisfying” — players can also attempt The Assessment.
“The premise is you’ve been shortlisted for a job with Citywatch Security, Belfast’s top security company. All you have to do is pass the assessment,” he says.
“If you pass, you can start the new job tomorrow morning. If you fail… well, maybe you don’t have to worry about tomorrow morning!”
Stephen Dickson saw the explosion of escape rooms across Europe and, after sampling one in Dublin, saw how they could become a fun family activity.
“I have a very diverse sort of background,” says the owner of Escapade HQ in Dundonald.
“We have Clip and Climb, the first of its type of climbing in the Western Hemisphere. It started off in New Zealand; we looked at it there and felt it was a fantastic way to get young people and families climbing.
“I also have some other business interests and I’m involved in the charity sector and have been involved with Belfast Activity Centre for 30 years now.
“Having been involved with personal development activities with young people, I could see how the likes of Escapade could be a perfect family and young person entertainment which can be educational and challenging but a really hit level of fun with imagination.”
Currently, Escape HQ has five games, and the team is building four more — it’s already Ireland’s largest site for escape rooms offering puzzles for those wanting Crystal Maze meets The Krypton Factor.
Favourites include Witchcraft and Wizardry and The Magic Emporium, very loosely based on a certain young wizard’s experiences.
“We realised that young people were excited by that sort of idea. It’s not the full wizardry thing, it’s more a fun take on it, very Harry Potter-esque,” explains Stephen.
Another is Save The City, wherein players try to save Belfast from nuclear meltdown.
“An escape room developer was doing a Save The City one in Newcastle upon Tyne.
“We didn’t like the ending to that, so we looked into the history of Northern Ireland,” says Stephen.
“The story went that years ago when the Sunningdale Agreement was causing a problem in Northern Ireland, the new prime minister, Harold Wilson, took some quite interesting decisions.
“One of those was that he wanted to send two nuclear submarines to Northern Ireland to plug them into the mains in the event of a power station not being able to supply power.
“What we did was we took the true history from those documents [accessed under the Thirty-Year Rule] and did our initial introduction to it where people would come into a room and see a short black and white video, see some of the documents and hear some of the story.
“We took the twist that when the submarines weren’t going to work and there was going to be a security issue, a group nuclear reactor was built underneath Dundonald Ice Bowl that nobody had ever heard of.
“Scientists have looked after it for 40 years but unfortunately, they decided to leave, so the team then has one hour to sort out what’s going on and cool the reactor down so Belfast doesn’t go up in smoke.
“We thought our twist on it was more kind of fun, but it still had a historical truth to it at the beginning of it.”
The game also engages players from all levels, he says.
“Grandparents going into it could actually say, ‘I remember that that was on the news’. Most adults would remember that when they were kids, that there was unrest and things were happening, but they didn’t know that the Prime Minister was making those decisions behind the scenes.
“And the actual rooms themselves are pinned to the whole family generation from quite young people right through.
“A lot of rooms go down one route: a lot will be very cerebral, need a lot of brain power; some will be search and find rooms where things will be hidden; others will be more practical, Crystal Maze-style.
“We wanted to have two things: a ‘wow’ moment where something would happen, or something would evolve in the game which people just didn’t see coming. That’s what we’re specialised in, having at least one of, if not a couple of those. It seems to be working; our customers are coming back and asking for more.
“I also looked at the Disney-esque feel. Ours are very much like a stage set. When you open the door and go into the room, you’re suddenly in a different world. Everything is done to a very high level and that’s to ensure the players get embraced into the story and the games.”
Stephen describes escape rooms as “still on a growth pattern, still a lot of people have heard of them but not tried them” and is looking for those who can play their part.
“We’re looking for game masters who are animated individuals with good customer care and also have a wee bit of an idea around technology because there’s a lot behind the scenes that we’ve got to reach.”
Ryan Lyttle owns Prison Island, the Northern Irish part of a Swedish franchise. His version on Belfast’s Balmoral Road is site number 37 and there are over 50 throughout the world.
“We got friendly with a Swedish family; they were going to set one up and when I heard about the concept, I thought it was a fantastic concept and very different than anything else,” he says.
“I’d always wanted the open my own business, but I had always been a bit dubious about what that might be. I would want it to be not easily replicated.
“I met with the CEO of Prison Island, who flew into Dublin to meet me. About six weeks later, my wife Heather and I went to Sweden, met him and went round about three sites and two in construction. Once we saw the concept in the flesh, I really fell for it. I knew it was going to be brilliant because it’s so well finished.”
Ryan had worked with PepsiCo for just over 20 years before taking the leap and planning the opening of his business, describing finding premises “challenging”.
“Once we did get open, we were hit by the pandemic shortly after,” he says.
“I think there was one in France had opened for one day and then they were closed; at least I’d been open for three months. It was pretty shocking especially when we didn’t know what the future
held. I had left a great job and then I didn’t know where I was going to get any income from at all.
“Since we’ve reopened properly over the summer and people have had a lot more confidence with the vaccine and all that sort of stuff, then we were certainly getting much more people out there.
“We had a really good summer, and we continue to do well.”
The Prison Island adventure is cooperative, and you all enter the cells together to pass the test and beat the bars.
Unlike other escape rooms, players pay for their time within the 25 cells, either 60, 90 or 120 minutes.
“Once they’re on site with us, we’ll take them through a briefing and then once they head out, they’ll get an electronic tag, like a RFID tag. Teams will be typically between two and four players: once you go above four then you can split into more teams and compete against each other.
“You’ll see your team name up on a scoreboard in the hallway, how many minutes you’ve got left, and as you progress through the challenge rooms then your score is updated in real time.
“You will scan into each room. Each of the 25 rooms will have either green or red light in it. If it’s red, someone’s playing it, if it’s green, then you’re free to go and play it.”
Description boards outside each room will provide detail as to the types of challenges — though they won’t give too much away — and each puzzle lasts between one and five minutes.
“It’s a really great concept because then you can just come out and you can repeat that challenge if you like,” explains Ryan.
“For example, let’s say there’s 100 points on offer and you get 20 and you know straight away you can do far better than that. You can come out and scan your tag on the door and play it again.
“We would get some teams playing a challenge seven, eight times because they’re so addictive, you’re engrossed in it, and you know you can do better.”
He describes Prison Island as having “a real playability factor” with customers returning multiple times. Ryan also advises players to be age nine up, though there have been families playing with slightly younger members.
Stephen Crawford’s Forbidden Quest in Bradbury Place will be open six years in July.
“I’d played escape rooms online years ago and I remember when we were on holiday in Eastern Europe, we played one. I just got hooked on it,” he says.
“As soon as I did it, I thought about how I could make something bigger and better back home, if there were any escape rooms in Belfast, and it spiralled from there.”
He describes the decision as “a bit of a gamble” given the experiences were so recent.
“But I knew how much we enjoyed playing it and as players, we thought if we enjoyed it, other people would enjoy it.
“It’s been crazy how much people have enjoyed playing and how much they’ve developed over the years. Even ourselves, how much bigger and more interactive the experiences have gotten.”
More horror based, Forbidden Quest’s games differ in size and subject matter than traditional escape rooms.
“They’re a lot larger; instead of going into one or two rooms, we’ve three, four rooms inside every game,” explains Stephen.
“We also have actors so it’s much less a puzzle room, more like a movie in which you’re interacting with characters. It’s a bit more intense and exciting and it’ll get your adrenaline pumping.”
Though Stephen says the company’s games are more niche, its customer base loves them.
“We have the Dream House game which is based on The Conjuring universe, so you meet Annabel and the Nun inside that experience,” he says of the game where teams must locate a demonic doll and whatever evil is inside it.
“You’ve got Zombie Outbreak 2.0 where you interact with an infected test subject, you get to shoot zombies and go through tunnels.
“We try to make it adrenaline packed; it shouldn’t feel like you’re solving puzzles in a room, it feels like an experience and you’re the lead character.”
There’s also a Game of Kings game which is currently 70 minutes, but they’re working on building it up to 75 minutes to match the other games’ time limits. In this, players must infiltrate the king’s castle to locate an ancient dragon.
“We’re making it bigger to give people a better chance to succeed,” Stephen explains.
Stephen studied film at Queen’s and has always been interested in creating scenes. After working as a journalism trainee and in marketing, he took the plunge and started his own business.
“I’m so glad I did it. But you own your own business so it’s still very intense every week, trying to get people in so there’s always that pressure. But I wouldn’t change it for anything.
“We are going to change up the Game of Kings experience later in the year and go down the full horror route so all games will have horror/action storylines.
“At the moment we’re happy with three games. Because they’re so big, we can still cater for up to 30 people per session.”
His ethos is to give customers something they haven’t seen before and “raise the bar on what an escape room is”.