An astronaut awakes from hypersleep – disoriented and in the dark – to find that her spaceship has been damaged by a meteor shower. She and the crew have only 60 minutes to power up the escape pod, or they will be pulled into the event horizon of a nearby black hole.
This isn’t a movie, but it’s not exactly real either.
It’s a live-action game called an escape room. The experience is now available to Jacksonians, thanks to third-year student of the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry Clint Sistrunk and his wife, Paulina.
A team of participants enter a theme-based room and are locked in. In order to escape, players must work together to find clues and solve puzzles. Each mini-game encountered leads closer to the key that opens the door. The goal is to open the door and “escape” before the timer runs out.
World-wide, escape-type games are not new. The first escape room was started by the publishing company SCRAP in Japan in 2007, according to a whitepaper by Dr. Scott Nicholson, a professor of game design and development at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. The games spread from Asia to Europe before finally making it to the United States. Escape the Room USA claims to have held the first escape game in the U.S. in October of 2013.
Sistrunk, a Jackson native who now lives in Pearl, played his first escape room when visiting his soon-to-be wife in her native country, Poland, after his first year of dental school.
“I knew it was our last summer break, probably forever,” Sistrunk said. “I wanted to go see Paulina. So I booked a flight and said I was going to spend my three months of summer just taking it easy.
“When we were planning things to do, she said there’s something in Warsaw called an escape room. It sounded interesting, so we booked a room.” After that first experience, he said, they fell in love with the games. “We played one more that summer and then started brainstorming about bringing it to Jackson.
“Of course in the fall, with second year of dental school, I was focusing on boards and making sure I was on top of schoolwork,” Sistrunk said. When the holidays brought a respite from classes, the couple were married. They spent Christmas break honeymooning across the western United States.
“We got married on a Friday and rolled out Saturday morning,” he said. “We just got in the car and knew we would end up at the Grand Canyon.”
Along the way, they stopped to play escape rooms in Phoenix, El Paso, Austin and Albuquerque with themes like a UFO abduction and a kidnapping.
“The alien abduction was really cool. It took place in a cellar, an actual basement of a house,” Sistrunk said. “We walked outside and around to the back of this house into an underground room. It was designed for 8 people, but she and I were the only ones who booked that night. It was tough. There were too many games for us to keep up with, and we did not get out.”
When they returned from the honeymoon, the couple began the work to open their own business.
“As soon as we got back in January, we hit the ground running,” Sistrunk said. “It worked out really well in that the early part of the spring semester gave me extra time to focus on a project.”
JXN Escape Room opened on Valentine’s weekend and about a month later added a second room. A third room will open soon.
“We have two themes right now. One is called “The Investigation,” and it is built around the idea that players are trying to solve a murder,” Sistrunk said. “The fastest time we’ve had for that room was 48 minutes and 30 seconds. The record for the spaceship-themed room is around 52 minutes.”
While Sistrunk describes “The Spaceship” as being more science and math oriented, no special skills or knowledge are required to solve the puzzles. The information is there in the room, if you can find it. One skill that will help is the ability to communicate.
“We don’t ask you to do differential equations or anything like that,” he said. “The number one thing we’ve found is communication. Communication is 100 percent of the game.”
This may be the reason escape games have become popular team building exercises for corporate training and are being incorporated into classrooms as a teaching tool.
Sistrunk advises that groups should share what they find in the room with each other and use teamwork to solve the puzzles. “You never know what is going to trigger somebody else’s thought process and move you along. We design our rooms to be challenging. Players need to solve a puzzle every six or seven minutes to keep progressing and escape.”
In order to stay on top of their “escape game,” the couple travels frequently to scope out the competition and get new ideas. “We write off these games as research. We try to play as often as we can,” Sistrunk said. “Probably one of the best rooms we’ve done was in Atlanta. The theme was a haunted, creepy hotel.
“Out of the first four or five games we played, we probably escaped only two. Now we’ve got a good little team. We try to make sure we break records.”
He and his wife often travel with fellow SOD classmates, Ronald Young and Alyssa Swenson.
“We are pretty proud of our team,” Swenson said. “We actually set one record at Break Out “Kidnapped” in Atlanta of about 40 minutes.”
Young said that the furthest the team has traveled is Orlando where they completed a game at America’s Escape Game.
“The room had a 9 percent success rate with 10 people,” Young said. “We got out with only four people and about five or six minutes left on the clock.”
What about the teams name? “A Team Has No Name,” Young said. Game of Thrones fans will understand.