Fifteen minutes have ticked by and my partner Tristan is still imprisoned in a tiny pitch-black room while photographer Jamila Toderas and I are rifling through the drawers in a desk. Everyone is yelling. This escape is not going well.
We're locked inside the Riddle Room, Canberra's first escape room game. We've got 60 minutes to break out of this specially designed chamber of secrets, working together to find clues, crack puzzles and discover the locks and keys that will let us out of the room. It is inky black in the room, with just one tiny overhead light in a corner.
The guys behind the Riddle Room are Chris Krajacic and Jesse Mount - two friendly, cheerful guys who play in a band together. They built the room together in this suburban garage in Franklin after trying, and failing, to raise money for the Riddle Room on Kickstarter earlier this year. Undaunted, they decided to go ahead with the escape room because it was a cool thing to have in Canberra. This isn't their day job - Mount is a public servant and Krajacic works at a school - and they funded the whole project themselves. Now they've invited us over to test drive the room.
It's in a quiet residential street off Oodgeroo Avenue. Players will normally come in through the back gate, but they're still doing a bit of work in the yard when we visit, so we meet Krajacic and Mount in the cool, tiled living room, where a black bookcase is filled with row upon row of board games and thriller novels.
They start with a quick briefing - showing us how all the different combination locks work in the game, telling us what's off limits in the room (don't break things), and warning us to communicate and follow the clues in order. Krajacic and Mount also tell us how to signal that you need to stop the game. Although you're locked in, there's still an emergency exit and you'll be able to get out if you really, really need to. You'll just fail the game.
Then we're blindfolded and led into the Riddle Room, clutching each other by the hand so we don't fall over. One of us is wearing a blindfold with two green lolcat ears on it (okay, it's me).
It is very, very dark. We lose Tristan. Jamila and I stand in a corner with our blindfolds on, while a booming voice tells us the (fictional) "backstory" of the room. The idea is that we're in a young woman's subconscious and we have to find our way through her nightmares - Inception crossed with a Victorian horror novel. The voice fades, we pull off our blindfolds and the clock starts ticking.
We're in a small dark study, its walls lined with creepy photographs. We can hear Tristan calling us from behind a door where he's locked in another room. On the desk is our first clue.
Jamila and I start looking through the desk and exploring the room, getting up close and personal with some books, some dark, funny shaped ornaments, and the door where Tristan is imprisoned. It takes way too long to free Tristan from his prison but once he's out we can start pulling the rest of the clues together, finding more keys to open locked drawers and cabinets, where we find more clues.
We unlock one box and are rewarded with a set of torches - which I use to examine the photographs on the wall more closely. Bad move - they're too eerie, ghostly faces slyly peeking out at the back of family portraits, a group shot of formally dressed people wearing gas masks. "This one's a famous photo," Jamila says, shining her torch on it. "I've seen it before." Tristan shines his torch down one end of the room and discovers a new clue.
You really need to bring your brain to the Riddle Room. The clues combine wordplay, codes, and number puzzles. Break a code and you might get the combination key to a lock which in turn provides you with another puzzle. Luckily, the disembodied voice calls out cryptic hints, nudging us towards the answers when we take a wrong turn.
And we make so many wrong turns, some of which lead to chaos. Something happens which leaves all three of us - Jamila, Tristan and I - standing in the dark screaming. Another time, I find myself shining a blue light torch onto a piece of cloth, making a very inappropriate CSI joke. And inevitably, there comes a point when Jamila and I say, "I'm not putting my hand in there." There is really no OH&S training that can ever prepare you for an escape room.
Finally, we pop out of the room and into freedom, which in this case is the glowing, red-lit control room where Krajacic and Mount supervise the players and track their progress through the game. Because we had such a slow start we don't make it out within the hour. With great kindness, Krajacic and Mount assure us that we're not the slowest people to go through the Riddle Room in testing. "The fastest person did it in under an hour - but he owns an escape room in Sydney," Mount says with a smile. They take us through the puzzle step by step ("so there was one bit where you had the answer, but then you got distracted"). And while we were screaming, they were giggling on the other side of a wall.
With the overhead lights switched on, it becomes pretty clear that the Riddle Room is a masterpiece of ingenuity. Let's remind ourselves - this is something two guys built by themselves in a garage in north Canberra. "It's a labour of love," Krajacic says. But there are huge moving parts, switches and triggers that only work if every bit of a puzzle is in exactly the right order, elaborate set pieces that utilise sound, vision and more.
The Riddle Room is a challenge. But it is also extremely fun. Take your friends.
The Riddle Room. $35-$39. See riddleroom.com.au