Computer terminal detail at Escape New Haven

Escape Artists

We were trapped within the space station, and time was running out.

We’d begun in a long, thin access corridor, its tire-black floor grooved and rubbery. A silver ventilation tube ran along the ceiling, reflecting strung-up lights across the way.

That was over half an hour ago. Now, through much effort and ingenuity, the six of us had made it to the nerve center of our prison: the bridge. Blue-green light cast an eerie pall over the main command terminal and the empty captain’s chair before it. As we learned of discord and treachery among the station’s absent crew, a pale green message on the computer display made the stakes of our predicament clear:

“Self-Destruct Sequence Activated.”

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That’s as much as I can tell you without giving too much away, but suffice it to say that the relatively new Space Station scenario at Escape New Haven—one of a small wave of “room escape” entertainment businesses sweeping some of America’s edgier urban centers—is out of this world. It helped that one of our crew mates, armed with a small walkie-talkie to ask Escape New Haven’s operators for hints in case we hit an impasse, decided to speak to those operators as if they comprised Mission Control, and as if we really were space explorers.

Immersive like video games and social like board games, room escapes are also visceral like real life. When you have to do something, you aren’t moving thumbsticks or game pieces; you’re moving yourself. And you’re moving with others, as a team.

At Escape New Haven, you and your teammates really do have to move, because the story-lined webs of puzzles that make up each scenario—in addition to The Space Station, for two to nine players, there’s currently The Workshop, for two to four, and The Library, for two to six—are really, really difficult. With only an hour to get through each, the “success rates,” as Escape New Haven dubs them, for the scenarios that’ve been audited—The Workshop and The Library—are just 22% and 14%, respectively.

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Thank Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent and Max Sutter, Escape New Haven’s co-founders and masterminds, for that. Rodriguez-Torrent is the ‘chief architect,’ meaning he’s ultimately responsible for the path players take and the story that gets revealed along the way. “All the puzzles fit together in particular ways, and I create that web—something that keeps a group of four, six or nine engaged,” he says.

Sutter’s title is ‘chief engineer,’ which means generally getting his hands dirty. “I make them go from ideas into real puzzles,” he says, by which he means tangible puzzles that exist in the real world. “Any electronics or carpentry work falls on me,” he explains, before adding, “but there’s a lot of crossover.”

Rodriguez-Torrent, for instance, did a lot of the nuts-and-bolts tasks required to create The Space Station’s environment, they say, because Sutter was preoccupied with an extraordinary load of electronics work. “I spent a lot of time on that,” Sutter says, referring primarily to the aforementioned main terminal, a retro-feeling computer setup that’ll tickle fans of 1970s sci-fi. “Basically, everything that looks like magic is probably Max,” Rodriguez-Torrent says, laughing.

Most of the points along a scenario’s plot are much lower-tech than that, often involving different types of combination locks that can be opened by gleaning number, letter or color sequences from clues within the surrounding environment. Some of these are more obvious than others. In The Library, for instance, there’s an altered chessboard that’s indubitably a piece of the scenario’s puzzle web. But there’s also a bust of Beethoven that, while conspicuously placed, might just be there to provide atmospheric flavor. Meanwhile, sharing a shelf with great literary works from authors like Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac, is an odd man out: an edition of The New York Times Cookbook.

The bust and the book might be red flags worth exploring right away, or they might be red herrings intended to sow confusion. Or they might seem like red herrings at first, only to come into play at a more advanced stage of the plot. Judging from what I saw in The Space Station, Rodriguez-Torrent and Sutter are tricky and clever enough that you can’t rule anything out.

“We’re trying to create an experience that includes being challenged,” Sutter says. “We’d rather have more people feel like they were defeated by a worthy opponent, then have most people feel like they won something easy.”

Escape New Haven
around back at 111 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
View and reserve available time slots here.
(860) 576-9997 | Contact Form
$26 per adult and $22 per child

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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