Rattling a key in a padlock in a locked, windowless room and desperately wishing the next five minutes would last longer than scientifically possible, I paused to consider whether this was the right way to spend a long weekend in Budapest.

I was taking part in a szabadulós játék, a live escape game, in which teams of between two and six people lock themselves in a room and then spend 60 minutes working through numerous riddles in a bid to get out again. It involves not only solving puzzles but also, crucially, identifying them in the first place.

A note had given us a brief outline of our task as we entered the nondescript building on traffic-filled Erzsébet körút; the objects inside wove a piecemeal narrative about an eccentric traveller with an apartment full of bounty, pillaged from various Grand Tours.

We collected clues, tripped switches and upended cartons, but one conundrum just led to another. Could we complete the final task before time ran out? And what the heck was the hairdryer for? My co-puzzler watched with equal desperation, sweaty and panic-stricken, as the clock ticked down to zero…

Got what it takes?

You'll need your wits about you to unlock the peculiar pleasure of a live escape game. Image courtesy of Claustrophilia.

Escape games require lateral thinking, and a healthy dose of collaboration, communication and team spirit. It’s mentally challenging – games vary enormously but teams frequently don’t solve them – and addictive. And the fear isn’t, of course, that you won’t escape – it’s that your long-held belief in your intellect will be shot to pieces in public.

Birth of the brainteaser

Budapest’s first escape game, Parapark (parapark.hu), opened in 2011. Its creator, Attila Gyurkovics, a sociology student, came up with the idea while playing an escape-the-room video game. He combined that concept with the theories behind professional team-building. Gyurkovics was particularly fascinated by Hungarian-American Csíkszentmihályi’s flow theory, the state in which we become immersed in the task at hand, briefly forgetting the world around us. This is a state frequently observed in escape-gamers – and one of the pleasurable aspects of taking part.

Escape games go global

Many of Budapest's live escape games take place in atmospheric old apartment blocks, but Trap Factory hosts games in a creepy warehouse. Image courtesy of Trap Factory.

Although Parapark has certainly caused an avalanche of escape games across the city (and elsewhere in Europe), the idea was not unique. Back in 2007, Takao Kato, who runs SCRAP (scrapmagazine.com) in Japan, was similarly inspired to create an escape game but on a much larger scale. SCRAP’s one-off events see hundreds of people testing their powers of deduction in a variety of venues such as disused hospitals, amusement parks, stadiums and even on ships. These events are now held all over Asia as well as a number of US cities, where there are also smaller scale escape-the-room style games. Plenty of other companies across the globe are starting to offer similar experiences.

Gaming in Budapest's derelict spaces

Hungary’s homegrown version of these games is, in part, a product of time and place. At the turn of the century, as the city began to fill up with empty apartment blocks falling into disrepair, young entrepreneurs started to open shoestring bars – the now famous ruin pubs – spurring a city-wide craze and transforming Budapest into one of Europe’s more unusual nightlife destinations. With a readily available stock of flea market bric-a-brac, escape-game creators were able to make a similar virtue of these decrepit spaces, especially basements – in fact, you’ll often find an escape game above or below a ruin bar.

Conundrum crazy

Live escape games often riff on themes or characters from the world of fiction - in this case, Miss Marple, Agatha Christie's super sleuth, provides the inspiration. Image courtesy of Trap Factory.

The games have proved incredibly popular with tourists and locals alike; Budapest now has as many as 100 of them, with more appearing all the time. Some of the first are still the best: Parapark, Claustrophilia (claustrophilia.hu), TRAP (trap.hu) and Mind Quest (mindquest.hu) all offer testing challenges with themes ranging from Ancient Egypt and medieval to Cold War and sci-fi settings. Newer openings like Trap Factory (trapfactory.hu) takes things to a grander level, with six large games, all set in a deliciously creepy warehouse.

Tell me how to triumph

Failing is half the fun but if you want a head start, game creators suggest the following:

  • Don’t waste time; don’t hesitate; try out all of your ideas
  • Search everywhere: look up, under, behind, and go back and forward between spaces
  • Share your findings with your team – cooperate and listen to each other
  • Don’t be ashamed to ask for help – your captors will happily give you clues along the way
  • Don’t think too hard – make sure you enjoy it!

Other ways to immerse yourself on your travels

  • International Spy Museum: Make like James Bond and accept one of two missions. Take to Washington, DC’s streets with GPS-delivered clues and codes to help you uncover an espionage network; or adopt a cover and journey to the fictional country of Khandar in search of a trigger device and those responsible for its theft. Check out spymuseum.org for more information.
  • Take to the stage: London’s Secret Cinema (secretcinema.org) puts on cult films (such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Bugsy Malone, Back to the Future) in quirky venues with elaborate sets based on the chosen film. Punters arrive in costume and recreate scenes as the movie plays. Interactive theatre goes one step further and allows you to be part of the play as the actors, set and story unfold around you. Punchdrunk (http://punchdrunk.com), the pioneer of the genre, has run immersive productions in the UK, US and Australia.
  • Zombie apocalypse: Enter a realm where the undead are on the rampage, and pit your wits against a world of almost-real zombies. Across the UK, companies recreate zombie-focused disaster scenarios in atmospheric settings. Check out zedevents.co.uk, thelastsurvivors.co.uk and 2.8hourslater.com for more.

Sally Schafer is a Lonely Planet author who knows how to find her way into, but not necessarily out of, a locked room. Follow her tweets at @rightsideofcity.

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