With a dull slam, the door closes behind Cheri Davidson. The 29-year-old blinks from behind a pair of rectangular-frame glasses as she takes it all in: The oddly shaped room is claustrophobic, barely 200 square feet. The locked door behind her its only exit. Directly in front of her, flowing white curtains cover two bay windows that look out onto the street three stories below. The round eye of a camera lens hangs from the ceiling, watching her. She is trapped.
Davidson is not alone. She and the nine other people who've been sealed inside move to the room's perimeter. They all begin knocking against the walls, running hands along the door frame, searching for anything that could help them get out.
Eventually, the group gravitates to two end tables placed on opposite ends of the room. Identical boxes sit on identical tables, though one is white and one is black. Both are shut tight with combination locks.
"There's something heavy in here," says one of the prisoners, lifting the black box and shaking it.
Davidson gazes up at a poster hanging above the end table. She murmurs the gibberish written on it three or four times:
The others continue to search the room. A man with a black ponytail running halfway down his back finds a velvet bag of oversized Scrabble tiles hidden behind the window curtains. They discover three strips of paper covered in symbols and letters — some kind of cipher or code. None of it makes any sense.
In a corner, the numbers of a timer displayed on a flat-screen computer monitor silently count down. They have less than an hour to escape.
What Davidson doesn't realize is she already has the answer. In fact, she's said it out loud two dozen times but didn't realize it.
"Form orc, lose bees, I lent. Form orc lose bees I lent. For more clues, be silent."
But she can't hear it.
A note slides under the door. It says, "Don't say a word little babies."
"Oh!" exclaims one of the women. "Hush little babies? Is it 'hush?'"
Davidson grabs one of the decoder sheets and translates H-U-S-H. She enters it into the combination lock on the white box. With a tiny click, it opens.
"Yeah!" Davidson exclaims.
Some of the others clap and high-five. But then Davidson lifts the lid, and the room falls silent again. Nestled inside is another, smaller black box. It's locked.
As the timer dips below twenty minutes, panic sets in. Davidson spreads the Scrabble tiles out in a jumble and starts shouting number combinations to a guy who enters the random digits into another white box in his lap. There's a 1 in 10,000 chance of randomly guessing correctly.
Suddenly, Davidson sees it. She rearranges the tiles to spell a new phrase: PATTERNS IN TILES.
She stares, incredulous. She looks left, at the computer screen in the corner. Seconds remain. It's too late. The clock hits zero.
At this moment, the door swings open. In walks a stout Middle Eastern man with a well-groomed beard, his red polo tucked into sensible jeans and a leather cell-phone holster riding his belt.
"Time's up," he says.
Davidson and her friends have just become the latest team to fail at Trapped: A St. Louis Room Escape Volume 2, an elaborate puzzle game that opened in St. Louis for only two weekends this spring. They all paid $25 to be voluntarily imprisoned and figuratively bang their heads against the wall for an hour. Nir Chezrony, the man in the polo shirt who, for the last hour, had watched their futile attempts through the black GoPro lens in the ceiling, walks over to the Scrabble tiles strewn about the floor.
He explains that if Davidson had flipped the tiles from the phrase "PATTERNS IN TILES" over, she'd have discovered another anagram to solve, "DOUBLE MIRRORED," and more numbers on the back. Those numbers form a simple sequence — switch two numbers, double them, switch the next two numbers, double them, etc. — that ends with a four-digit answer: The combination for the second to last box.
"Oh," says Davidson. She thinks for a few moments.
"I don't like you."
The other members of the group crowd around Chezrony. They want to know how they stacked up against previous teams. Listening from outside the open door, Jeff Landow, a high school English teacher and one of Chezrony's partners in Trapped, tries to restrain his laughter. He's watched more than a dozen losing teams clamor for validation this way.
"It's the same every time," he says, shaking his head. "Nir's so evil. They just want to hear that they're smart. And he won't give it to them."
The first ever Real Escape Game — a room where players must escape by solving a series of puzzles that eventually lead to a key that unlocks the door — was produced in Japan in 2007. But the roots stretch back to the primitive video games of the late '70s, a time when the limitations of computers meant players had to use their imagination to supply the graphics. Using nothing but text prompts, games like Adventure and Zork placed users in labyrinthine dungeons and haunted castles, setting the scenes with simple but effective descriptions.
"You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door," reads the opening line of Zork. "There is a small mailbox here."
To this day, Zork is considered a significant achievement in video-game history, despite its low-tech format. Beating it required observation, lateral thinking and creativity.
In 2004, a free Web browser game called Crimson Room revitalized the adventure genre by creating a virtually rendered room with blood-red walls and clues that revealed themselves through mouse clicks. The new genre was called Takagism, after the Japanese multimedia artist who created the Crimson Room, Toshimitsu Takagi.
Three years later, in 2007, another Japanese entrepreneur, a disillusioned salesman named Takao Kato, opened the first Real Escape Game production. Since then, his company, SCRAP, claims to have temporarily imprisoned more than 10 million willing participants in Japan, China, Taiwan and Singapore, with an average escape rate of just 2 percent.
"I was thinking about doing some kind of new event, and the girl sitting next to me said she was hooked on online escape games, so I just tried to make one," Takao writes on the SCRAP website. "When we held the first event in Kyoto, Japan, all we had was a small ad in a classifieds paper. In no time, all tickets were sold out."
Soon after the launch in Japan, other models of the Real Escape Game spread to Europe and on to the U.S. In 2012 SCRAP opened a year-round operation in San Francisco, and others have sprouted up in Seattle, New York City and Chicago. The rooms have themes, like Escape the Moon Base and Escape from Werewolf Village. Last year SCRAP produced an escape room in the belly of a decommissioned battleship and another where participants were handcuffed together in a bathroom.
Nate Martin, a former product manager for video-game giant Electronic Arts, founded and runs Puzzle Break, two permanent escape rooms in Seattle; one is elaborately themed to be a locked movie set, the other a lair of an evil witch. Problem-solving video games have long been in decline, Martin explains, but translating those virtual tropes to reality provides an "unparalleled" high of accomplishment.
"When you have these physical puzzles and solving it is a big deal, the happiness of the moment is indescribable," he says.
In a spacious basement workshop in Freeburg, Illinois, Nir Chezrony looms over George Koval's left shoulder, peering into the wood and wire guts of the final puzzle for Trapped: two boxes, just six inches wide and covered in seemingly random symbols. Their lids have hinges, but neither box has any discernible locking mechanism. One contains the key to the door. The other is nailed shut.
"Whenever I come up with these things, George gets the fun job of figuring out how to build them," says Chezrony, looking down at his master builder's handiwork. "And then he curses my name."
It's eight days before the March 26 opening, and Chezrony, Koval and Jeff Landow are putting the finishing touches on various puzzle pieces. Koval estimates that he has probably spent 50 or 60 hours in the workshop so far.
"I want to bring a modicum of stylization to the puzzles," he says. "So, at least it looks good."
The conceptual work of the puzzle-making comes mainly from Chezrony, and he takes a puppet master-like delight in his work. He's a movie fanatic who gets inspiration for his escape rooms from films like Saw and Hellraiser. He calls the participants "my creatures."
"I do think I'm a smart guy," Chezrony says. "Do I think I'm the smartest? No. But I like rewarding smart people, and I like giving people a challenge."
The overall theme of the room is "inversion," he explains: The teams must open both white and black boxes, then open the next two boxes contained within. Around the room they'll find clues that give them the lock combinations. At that very end, a team will be holding the final two sealed boxes, each covered in symbols and pictures, one holding the key.
"I mockingly say that I'm the mad genius who came up with these," he says. "But at the same time I feel more like a serial killer, in that I want to be caught."
Chezrony met Landow at Parkway Northeast Middle School. They both loved the puzzle video game Myst and giggled at the unhinged wit within The Secret of Monkey Island. Chezrony never forgot how hard those games were or how rewarding the victories. When Landow first found out about SCRAP last summer, he e-mailed Chezrony immediately.
"I thought: Why can't I do this?" Chezrony recalls.
Chezrony, Koval and the fourth member of their company, Enigma Productions, Matt Glosecki, all know each other from their day jobs repairing x-ray and CAT scan machines for Philips. Together they use their creative, technical and engineering know-how to bring Trapped to life.
Chezrony's puzzles have to strike a fine balance. They've got to be hard enough so that the moments of discovery are satisfyingly earned, but they also can't be impossible. In November 2013, 91 people attempted to solve Chezrony's first Trapped puzzle. Just one team of ten people managed to escape. And even then, it wasn't done cleanly.
"The win might need an asterisk on the end of it," says Nick Minor, one of the members of that single, successful group.
With ten minutes left, Minor's teammates manhandled a chess board that contained the magnetized key. It got stuck inside. But Chezrony decided to retroactively award them victory.
"Had that key not gotten stuck, they absolutely would have had enough time to finish the puzzle," he says.
For Trapped: Volume 2, Chezrony and Landow tried to create slightly easier puzzles.
"I almost feel bad for my creatures out there, because I want them to win," he says. "But at the same time, I don't want them to win."
It's a recent Friday afternoon, and the seventh team is about to attempt Trapped. So far, there have been no winners.
Eleven-year-old A.J. Panarejo walks into the waiting room, his black hair swept over one eye, his slight frame looking even skinnier under a fluffy polar bear hat complete with ears. A.J. enters the room with his parents and their friends.
"Just stay in the corner there," says his dad, Albert, as the door closes and locks behind them.
The Panarejos made the two-and-a-half hour trip to St. Louis from their home in Fort Leonard Wood in central Missouri, where Albert is on active duty. One of his wife Jasmine's coworkers had seen the event pop up on Yelp, and they bought all ten tickets for the 5 p.m. time slot. A.J.'s parents told him he should just watch and try not to get in the way.
Thirty minutes in, the team of coworkers and career military staffers is unraveling. It takes them nearly 25 minutes to solve the "for more clues, be silent" poster, while A.J., ignored by all, concentrates on the other inscrutable poster hanging above the large black box. It reads:
Notes begin slipping under the door, and in a singsong whisper, A.J. reads them to himself — "You haven't gotten HIJKLMO yet? It's ELEMENTARY!" and "Or should we say ELEMENTAL?"
He bounds over to his mom on the other side of the room.
"It's fire or wind!" he says. "Fire or wind! Those are elements!"
He's right. "HIJKLMO" is meant to be read "H to O," or "H20," water. The opposite of water is "fire" — and the corresponding code will open the black box.
But no one is listening to A.J. It takes another clue and ten more minutes for the adults to finally translate and enter "fire" into the large black box. Twenty minutes later, time is up.
This is one of the biggest challenges teams face — knowing whom to listen to within their ranks. Many times someone will say the right answer only to be ignored while the rest of the team chases bad ideas. Chezrony has seen it time and time again.
"It's really frustrating to watch," he says. "If you have people who are dominating, and they aren't open to other people's suggestions, it can shut down an entire room."
As for A.J., he sits on a folding chair while his parents collect their belongings, his polar-bear ears back on.
"I got some clues early, just looking at how everything fit together," he says matter-of-factly, kicking his heels.
Despite getting steamrolled by the adults, he's excited to try the next Trapped event. A few feet away, his mom jokes with her coworkers that if they'd only listened to her son, maybe they'd have won.
"He likes problem-solving," she says. "Being who he is, it doesn't really surprise me that he couldn't sit it out."
Seated with Landow in front of an iPad, watching the camera's bird's-eye view of the room, Chezrony is anxious. Yet another team is failing. He worries no one will get to the last two boxes, that no one will win. Just like it is for his "creatures," time is running out for Trapped. There's only one team left to try it before the whole installation will come down.
"I would be disappointed if no team wins," he says. "My goal is around 10 percent of participants to get out."
So far, the teams are easily fixated on wrong ideas, wasting time and energy on dead end after dead end. One woman becomes convinced that the black bordering on the room's ceiling is some kind of map, ranting, "Don't you see it?" at her teammates. One group of cocky graduate students actually pushed Chezrony's notes back under the door, yelling "We don't need your clues!" And then there was the woman who, believing she'd had an epiphany, simply tried the doorknob. Nope, it really is locked.
There have also been moments of astonishing luck, like the team that randomly guessed the correct combination for one of the boxes — a near-impossible feat. Still, they lost.
Landow is sitting on a folding chair next to Chezrony, watching the surveillance of the room from the iPad.
"I have no idea what winning looks like," he says. "I just want to see that moment of jubilation and joy."
On the final day, Chezrony feels resigned to the fact that no one will escape. But there was one thing he couldn't plan for: sheer dumb luck.
It's a Sunday afternoon, and the last team enters the room. It's a team of jocks — several current and former high school wrestling coaches — and the early puzzles stump them just as badly as their predecessors.
They struggle through the "H20" and "hush" puzzles and stall on the Scrabble tiles for over 30 minutes, but eventually — with the help of Chezrony's clues — they figure out the four-digit number in the tiles' pattern and make it to the final puzzle with a little more than seven minutes left.
The vast majority of the prior 26 teams never made it this far. Now a woman named Kylie Greene holds one of the symbol-covered boxes in her hands. Her boyfriend, a coach named Tim Brengle, not-so-gently attempts to pry the second box apart.
"How do we know which way this thing opens?" he says.
"Maybe we should put them together," suggests his buddy Alex Muertz, a systems analyst at Monsanto. "Maybe there's some kind of magnet inside of them?"
Greene holds her box end-to-end with her boyfriend's. Nothing. Muertz takes one of the boxes, presses the opposite side to Greene's.
"There's a key in there," he says, turning the box over, peering at the incomprehensible clutter of symbols printed on all sides. For a moment, the two boxes rest on top of each other, a slightly offset diagonal, and the boxes touch just so — just as Chezrony and Koval designed them to. The magnets inside align, and a latch pops open.
But to Greene — who hadn't gone through the hard work of matching the symbols and figuring out precisely why the boxes needed to touch the way they did — it appears as if the lid magically popped open in her hands.
"Hey," she says, dumbstruck. The key stares back at her, nestled next to a tangle of wires and a battery. "It literally just pulled open."
Her boyfriend snatches the key and walks to the door as the timer ticks past the seven-minute mark. He fits the key into the knob and turns. The door swings open. A beat passes in silence. Then everyone goes nuts.
"I can't believe it!" someone screams.
High-fives ripple across the room. Fists are bumped. The team rushes through the door. Less than hour later, they're all gathered at Llywelyn's Pub to celebrate.
"I never once thought we were going to get it," says Brengle.
The champions aren't the types for deep ruminations on strategy and problem-solving.
"It helps because we know how to talk to each other," offers Nicky Herron, a Web developer married to one of the wrestling coaches.
"We did exactly what we're doing here now," her husband quips back, chuckling. "Everybody speaking at the same time."
Back on the third floor of the rented room, Chezrony packs up the boxes and clues. He'll display them in the waiting room for Trapped: Volume 3 — which he hopes to do in July.
"They were doing average," he says of the winning team. "I don't mean that as any kind of offense; they were doing just as good as other groups were doing. But those other groups that were average never got out. It totally blew me away that they made those leaps as quick as they did at the end."
This isn't the way he'd envisioned Volume 2 to end — with yet another "mistake" win. Not after all the planning, designing and building that went into it. It's a bittersweet ending for the puzzle master.
"We executed the vision perfectly, but it was too hard," he muses. "I have to remember that even a group of ten people haven't seen or experienced a lot of the things I have, as far as gaming or movies and puzzles. They wouldn't pick up these references or these ideas."
Still, by a different measure, Trapped was a resounding success. After just two weekend runs, 265 people attempted the puzzle — nearly triple the attendance of Volume 1 back in November. And he's gotten plenty of interest from local business owners enamored with the corporate team-building potential of his escape rooms.
But the little kid in him is interested in more than just a potentially lucrative enterprise.
"I went into this planning on it being a learning experience," he says. "Not just for running a business, but seeing human nature."