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Escape the room! An 40th anniversary APR encore presentation

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Stan Ingold
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Alabama Public Radio is observing forty years on the air in 2022. The APR news team is diving into our archives to bring you encore airings of the best of our coverage. That includes this story from 2015. APR student reporter Josh Hollis took us at an unusual attraction in Tuscaloosa. Here’s his feature called “escape the room.”

Picture this: you find yourself in an unfamiliar room. The only obvious exit is locked and there are no windows. Hidden in the room are locked boxes, random clues, and secret keys—all things you’ll need to escape. But you’d better hurry, because you only have 60 minutes to get out...

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Escape rooms are a growing trend across America and this form of escapist entertainment, literally speaking, has just reached Alabama. Three different escape room businesses have opened in the state since April.

Kim Parker’s one of the co-owners of Breakout Tuscaloosa.

“You’ve got to go through puzzles and clues and things and figure out how that relates to that to open multiple locks to get to your final lock that will get you out of the room.”

Parker got a visit from some friends when she was living in Nashville. Together they went through an escape room game. Afterwards Parker says they all looked at each other and the light bulbs went off. 

“So right that moment, in that parking lot, the idea was birthed for us to come here.”

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Over the six months that followed, Parker and her partners made their idea a reality, building early versions of escape puzzles in their living rooms.

“We start with, ‘What is it they have to find to get out of this room?’ and then we go backwards. So then you begin to stage your activities and clues to where they had to have everything else open before they got that last lock.”

Parker says in order for people to escape their rooms, they have to change their outlook:

“You’ve just got to think way out of the box and for people who do that easily, they can get through fairly quickly. But most of us are not wired to think that way.”

Escape rooms are real-world versions of the popular online game genre. That’s where players have to click a mouse to find clues and solve puzzles that aid in their escape. But escaping from a digital room online is very different from breaking out of an actual room with real locks.

“Part of the appeal of the real-life spaces is that there’s a certain physicality that’s there that you don’t have in virtual puzzle games.”

Dr. Matthew Payne is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. He teaches in the Department of Telecommunication and Film and studies video games. Payne says playing games can provide more than just entertainment.

“They are an escape, but at the same time allow us to work through emotional issues, cognitive issues, under the larger auspices of simply playing a game.

Birmingham boasts two other escape room games. Phoenix Perez is co-president of Locked-In Birmingham. Even though the three businesses are located relatively close together, she says each one can provide a unique experience.

“Ultimately you have the same goal—get out of the room in under 60 minutes—but puzzles are completely different, the flow is completely different, the structure is completely different. So you can do ours and do someone else’s and have a great time doing both.

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Back in Tuscaloosa, a group from Valley View Baptist Church is visiting Breakout as a team building exercise.

Senior Pastor Dr. Billy Joy seems pretty excited

“We’re not 100 percent sure what it entails, but we’re looking forward to finding out, to see how smart we are.”

Kim Parker explains the rules and ushers the group into their prison for the next hour.
 
Then the fun begins.

Over the next hour, the group attempts to solve a number of puzzles, each one more challenging than the last. But soon enough their time soon runs short.

While the group was unsuccessful, they say they got as close as they did thanks to MVP Chad Keathley.

“It was challenging. You had to learn to look at things differently. Clues don’t always clearly stand out. You just kind of go with it. You have to have a good supporting cast because when you’re crossing the river with alligators, you’ve got to have bait.”

Former APR student intern Josh Hollis produced a feature on a new playground structure built by a Danish company in Tuscaloosa. Other topics included the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame and a local "Escape Room." One of his stories also helped APR win an Alabama Associated Press award for best newscast.
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