Exit Santa Cruz

I am part of an “elite 20 percent,” Steven Cleek tells me. Unfortunately, he’s being ironic. About 80 percent of the people who play the games at Santa Cruz’s new escape room Exit Santa Cruz solve all the puzzles and unlock the door at the end to make their escape, he says. My group was not among them.

First, a little background: Exit Santa Cruz is part of a trend that to most people probably seems to have come out of nowhere. Inspired by video games whose plots revolve around using clues to solve puzzles and get a character out of a spooky house, castle, laboratory or other such locale, the first escape room opened in Japan in 2007. At that time, they were called Real Escape Games, or REGs, and the company behind them, the Kyoto-based SCRAP Entertainment, brought the phenomenon to the U.S. in 2012, challenging Bay Area thrill-seekers to “Escape from the Puzzle Room in San Francisco!” At that point, the rooms appealed mainly to the puzzle-solving elite: drawing around 6,000 REGers in its first year, the San Francisco room proudly claimed a mere 2 percent success rate—which frankly would have made me feel a lot better about not making the grade. The San Francisco setup was a prototype for what most escape rooms offer now: As the game begins, you are in a locked room, with a “bomb” strapped to you. There is no key in sight, but the room is full of strange objects, patterns and codes. A video plays on which the person in charge of your fate tells you, “You have 60 minutes to find a way out. Otherwise … BOOM!” At that point, you and 10 teammates in the room begin trying to figure out the puzzles that surround you, in the hope of getting out within the hour.

Of course, there is no bomb, maniac, or threat of any kind, and thanks to fire codes, you’re unlikely to find an escape room that doesn’t hilariously have a clearly marked unlocked door out of which you can walk at any time. But none of that matters—the combination of adrenaline and brain-teasing is a potent mix, and the phenomenon took off quickly. By October of 2014, there were more than 500 escape rooms registered worldwide; less than a year later, that number had ballooned to nearly 1,800, with more than 300 in the U.S. alone.

Steven and Christy Cleek first did an escape room on the East Coast while visiting family last year. Before they had even gotten back to their car, they had decided they were going to open one in Santa Cruz. But when they said they wanted to open an escape room here, most people didn’t even know what they were talking about.

“The hardest part was just getting landlords to take us seriously,” says Christy. Eventually, though, they landed a great location on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz. Setting up the rooms and developing the puzzles took months, but they now have escape rooms for groups of all sizes, from a close-quarters two-person escape to those designed for large parties.

I went in with four co-workers, and Steven laid out the rules, including explaining that we didn’t need to go in and start smashing up the place to find the necessary clues we expected to be hidden around: “This is a game of mind, not strength,” he said. “If you can’t remove something with your pinky, it wasn’t meant to be removed.”

And it’s true—once inside the room, with the set-up explained, it’s pretty easy to figure out which elements around you are puzzles you’re going to have to tackle in the course of the hour. They can be pretty complicated, though, and relate to each other in ways that aren’t immediately clear, so figuring out which puzzle to tackle first is probably the hardest part. At Exit Santa Cruz, you get three clues over the course of the hour, and after we stumbled around for way too long poking at and pontificating about entirely the wrong things, I can give you this advice: don’t be stingy with those clues. “One” clue can have some follow-ups if you’re really not getting it, so use at least your first clue early on to get your bearings. Once you start rolling, it becomes easier to figure out which puzzle comes next.

To be fair, we almost made it—seriously, the final key was that close to being in our hand when the hour expired. I feel like if I go again, I’ll be ready for whatever scenarios Exit Santa Cruz has ready to throw at me. But I’ll definitely ask if there are any with a 100 percent success rate.