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Escape from real-life jail cells with Christchurch's newest attraction

7 August 2018

Two award-winning Christchurch filmmakers have turned their attention to real-life drama with a ‘jailhouse escape’ themed game.

Logan McMillan and Andrew Dean, along with McMillan’s brother John, are the trio behind local escape room business Crate Escape.

Escape rooms are physical adventure games where players are given a set time to solve puzzles and riddles using clues, hints, strategy and teamwork.

They are now worldwide phenomenon, with more than 2000 escape room facilities in the United States alone.

McMillan says Crate Escape’s games are based on four basic principles: discover, decipher, unlock and escape.

The company has two escape rooms in Christchurch – The Misadventures of Max Magnus and The Lost Hut of Antarctica, which are both set in shipping containers on Armagh Street.

Its third escape room, which is expected to open in September, is less of a room and more of a, well… an eerie 300 square metres of former courthouse holding cells.

The buildings are now owned by Science Alive, a charitable education trust, and the city’s court services have moved to Te Omeka – The Christchurch Justice & Emergency Services Precinct.

McMillan says when the opportunity arose to open an escape room in the basement of a former court building – complete with jail cells, interview rooms, creaking cell doors, moody lighting and suspects’ graffiti, it was too good to pass up.

“If we didn’t do it, someone else would do something down here. There’s no way we could build something like this. The heavy cell doors by themselves would be thousands of dollars – just for one door.”  

The new game sends four to 10 blindfolded and handcuffed players to a briefing room in a prison that is said to be inescapable.

They get their mug shots taken and are told by a warning speaking to them via video link that they have 60 minutes to use their wits, follow the clues, evade the guards and find their way to freedom.

In another experience, team members start in separate holding cells and have to crack a puzzle together to get out.

“You don’t get phone reception down here. So you can’t get outside help,” McMillan says.

Teamwork is essential – something many escape room groups forget, which makes for some entertaining scenes on the CCTV cameras installed in the rooms.

“The biggest mistake that people make is if there’s an opportunity for more than one person to look at something, like through a porthole, they don’t,” McMillan says.

“They rely on one person to explain everything. But someone else will look through and see something else.”

McMillan and Dean, who met through the film industry, come up with the puzzles for Crate Escape together and Dean makes the magic happen when it comes to the gadgets, buttons, lights and sounds.

Their ideas come from “everywhere” – from what they see online in escape room forums to interesting items that come up for sale on Trade Me. The latest game incorporates a retro vending machine.

“I guess people enjoy the satisfaction of having an obstacle to overcome using a variety of skills,” McMillan says.

“We get all sorts attempting the rooms – from couples on a date to families, flatmates and work groups. I think the best designed puzzles are ones that require lateral thinking and working together as a team. We like to create moments that make people go ‘wow’ and put a smile on their face,” he says.

“Ideally, we have created an environment that makes you feel like you are in a movie or a real-life conspiracy. How many people get to try and escape from a prison?” 

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