Twenty minutes in and the only clue we had was a circular wooden puzzle piece with a silver moon on one side. We had 40 minutes left to figure out the rest of the puzzles, unlock a room next door that surely contained pertinent information, and release the mermaid, stop the torrential downpour, save Charleston from falling into the sea and escape the room. Things were not looking good.
Our group of six players were in Dr. Trott’s Apothecary at Charleston Time Traveler Escape Games on King Street. Charleston Time Traveler is just the latest escape room company to open in the area, part of a larger trend that started in Japan in the past decade that has been growing in popularity. The first escape rooms in Charleston opened within months of each other in late 2015 and early 2016. Escape in 60, owned and operated by Amelia and Robert Webb, is located at 45 S. Market St. while Jason Pap operates three rooms, one in West Ashley, one in Mount Pleasant, and his newest location at 65 Spring St. in downtown Charleston.
"Immersion is what I like the most (about escape games)," says Meghan Lowther, co-owner of Charleston Time Traveler. Her partner, Elise Wilkinson, who left a job as vice president of communications at Wells Fargo in Charlotte to move to Charleston and start the company, says, “I’m a big puzzle fan and I like hunting for hidden objects. I like the teamwork aspect of it. I’ve always been good under pressure, too.”
Escape rooms are as varied as their creators. Charleston Time Traveler’s approach is to plumb Charleston’s history books and find unique stories to turn into fun challenges.
My group tackled Dr. Trott’s Apothecary, based on an obscure tale about an epic rainstorm in 1867 that rumor said was caused because Dr. Trott had found a mermaid washed ashore and was holding her captive. They tell the story on the website: “As the storm battered the city, hundreds of angry residents gathered outside the Apothecary of Dr. William G. Trott to demand one thing: an end to the storm. … Residents believed that this was what had brought such a devastating storm to the city — and unless the mermaid was released, the storm would sink Charleston into the ocean.”
Games cost $28 per person and most rooms can handle eight people. Call ahead to accommodate …
We had 60 minutes to find the mermaid and release her to end the storm. Seemed easy enough, but as our mostly novice group of gamers soon found out, finding the mermaid required us to figure out a series of puzzles in order to unlock doors, open secret rooms and make our escape.
The game takes place in a room or a couple of rooms, depending on the game design. For this one, it’s set up to look like an apothecary with a large antique hutch loaded with jars and objects. There are also shelves and locked cabinets and drawers throughout the room. Gamers have to figure out what to do, mainly by exploring the objects and discerning their meaning and applying them to the puzzles.
Like I mentioned earlier, we spent the first 20 minutes not figuring much out. Somehow we had missed the biggest and most prominent clue, which was spelled out in letter blocks on top of a table in the middle of the room. But finally, slowly, we started making progress.
While you play, a game-master is watching you on a closed circuit television. They are available to give hints if needed and they’ll also pipe in to give you updates on your time. It’s maddening to get stuck, so we did rely on clues to keep us moving along.
Other experiences at the Charleston Time Traveler are based on Lavinia Fisher, the famous female serial killer, and Vincent Chicco, the king of the blind tigers who was pursued by state authorities for defying Charleston’s first prohibition in 1903.
“What we are doing is different but related to typical escape rooms,” says Wilkinson. “I love history and I’ve played escape games all across the country and we hadn’t seen any based on local history. So we found interesting parts of Charleston history that some locals don’t even know about.”
Indeed, I had never heard the quirky story of Dr. Trott and the mermaid and it made for a fun experience.
Across town at Charleston Escape Games on Spring Street, owner Jason Pap takes a creepier approach with the Cannibal Collector, a challenge that puts you in a dank room with bodies and lots and lots of locks. You will have to handle an eyeball at some point.
Pap also owns Charleston Break Out Games in West Ashley and Elite Escape Games in Mount Pleasant. He got started after visiting one in Budapest during a backpacking trip after dropping out of college.
“It was cool but not well done,” he says of the game that was set in a real World War II-era bunker. “I came home and there was nothing like this. I had $1,200 in life savings and my friend had an empty business space in Pompano, Florida, where I put my first one.”
He now has six rooms, including the first one ever in South Carolina that he opened in Myrtle Beach, plus two franchises in Atlanta and St. Louis.
Pap and his team, which includes designer Daniel Szarka, pride themselves on creating nonlinear, multi-room games. “No one game play will be the same,” says Szarka. “Each group has a unique experience.”
At the Mount Pleasant space on Houston Northcutt, the team has designed a game called Derailed, which simulates the movement of a subway car. You are locked on a hijacked train that has been rigged with explosives. You have 60 minutes to derail the evil plot. They also have a nuclear meltdown scenario, an Area 51 alien situation and the dreaded “undead outbreak” where zombies are likely to eat your brain if you're not fast enough.
Down on the Market, Escape in 60 owner Amelia Webb has been working to retool and update all her games. The most popular room, she says, is Davey Jones Locker, a pirate-themed game, but we played the most challenging one called Ransom. For this one, we only had four players and we ultimately failed to figure out how to save Jimmy, a little boy who’d been kidnapped and was being held ransom.
The puzzles in Jimmy’s room were numerous and difficult. My favorite had to be the one that had us making a real phone call to receive our next clue from the kidnapper. Had we just a couple more players, I'm sure we would've been able to save poor Jimmy.
Webb is putting the finishing touches on a new room called the Egyptian Chamber. It looks remarkably like an inner tomb of a pharaoh, with whom you’ve been buried. You’ll have to decipher the clues in 60 minutes to get out of that predicament.
Overall, escape rooms provide an immersive experience that feels like a mashup of video games, haunted houses and scavenger hunts. It also requires a group of people to work together to succeed, which is why they're often used for team-building exercises.
Be warned though, once you start you might not be able to stop. Lowther and Wilkinson at Charleston Time Traveler have played 50 games all across the country and continue to seek out unique opportunities to play.