Published on February 13th, 2018 | by Dean Love1
InterviewER – The Panic Room (Part 1)
In the first of a new interview series, we catch up with Alex and Monique Souter, owners of The Panic Room in Gravesend to talk about getting into the industry, the troubles of their early days and how they approach game design.
The Panic Room is one of the most popular escape room destinations for enthusiasts in the UK, mostly because it combines a high number of different games (12 open at time of writing) while maintaining a very high standard of design throughout. It’s weirdly located: technically it’s a tiny village east of London, but at just 35 minutes by train from St Pancras it’s actually easier to get to than many London rooms out in the suburbs. We chatted to them in late 2017, just before they opened their biggest room yet, Dino Land.
Escape Review (ER): So obvious first question, but how did you discover escape rooms?
Alex Souter (A): We discovered escape rooms when we were out in America on our honeymoon which was one week in Atlanta Georgia and two weeks in Orlando. When we were out in Atlanta we went to Dragoncon and kept seeing signs for “escape rooms” around and were thinking “What’s that? We’re not quite sure what that is.” As we were about to leave we decided “lets book one and see how it is.”
The first one was Paranoia Quest, a zombie apocalypse kind of room, bog standard kind of one, but it was so much fun. When we were first playing we were trying to do too many real world interactions. We were supposed to go into the next room but didn’t want to get locked out, so we wedged the first door open, not realising that that door needed to be closed to unlock the next door, because it was like a quarantine thing. So it was a safety measure and we lost a good twenty minutes dicking around with that. It’s that first question of discovery: “what am I allowed to do?” The same as with a video game, “What am I allowed to do in this world? What are the interactions I can do.” It’s essentially the same thing. As soon as we finished it we booked up their next room half an hour later and just played that too. It was an Inception-themed room and was pretty bad. But it didn’t put us off.
Monique Souter (M): I’m not sure it was bad, or just that Inception made for quite a confusing theme anyway, because we were in someone’s dream so it was quite odd.
A: We had to work out whose dream we were in, then phone him to wake him up. It was one of the large group games, so twelve people, public as well because it’s American, a Korean couple that didn’t speak a word of English that were just walking back and forth throughout the room clearly not knowing what’s going on.
M: And no one was talking to them.
A: No one was talking to each other. After that we went over to Orlando and they’re all within spitting distance of each other there, so within a couple of weeks we blasted through around fifteen rooms
M: America’s Great Escape Game, The Escape Game, Escapologly, It’s A Trap – that one was wizard themed, you had to pretend you were ill to get a cure from the wizard,
A: So weird
M: It had the best games-master, second best, D.A.V.E. from Bewilderbox wins that, but they had a hand puppet of a dragon and that was your games-master. And it was a very sassy dragon.
A: You had some real banter with it: I accidentally said something about the dragon and he went “I can hear you you know!”, and I went “oh shit!” And at one point the actual wizard comes in and they got everyone to hold hands and skip around this fairy tree, it was very surreal.
M: That one was a little bit more live action but lots of fun. So that was our first foray into escape rooms.
A: While were in America on honeymoon, the company both me and Monique worked for went into liquidation and got bought out by an absolutely horrible, horrible woman. She was just awful.
M: They were our customer for the longest time back when we worked for the company, and when she was our customer we couldn’t do anything wrong, y’know, we were so quick, so cheap, so great. And when she took over we were terrible, couldn’t work fast enough, all the costs were way too high.
A: We’d saved up literally all our holiday that year to go to America, and they said because they took over while were were in America, our holiday allowance reset as they were a new employer, so that would also be all our holiday for the next year used straight away.
[There’s a number of ever more horrific stories here about the employer that we probably can’t publish! – Ed]
A: When we got back we started playing the rooms at Escape Plan Live in Chatham. We played a few of them and it set in stone that we wanted to do something. Then we went over to Enigma… and just went “let’s do something different.” Our honeymoon was September, and it was mid-October that we decided to try and do something. So we started organising the first couple of bits, we started looking at different venues. The first one we looked at was the forts, the historical forts around the corner, thought that’d be a nice location – unfortunately it was too authentic as it’s basically crumbling so isn’t a viable location, so we actually managed through a few contacts to set up getting two small offices at the Gravesend Old Town Hall, and we did a rolling monthly deal with them. It was sort of like a pop-up but we thought, we’re going to start it and not going to stop unless it goes badly. And it absolutely took off, even our first opening weekend was sold out which was absolutely ridiculous.
ER: Which game was that?
A: The original version of The Panic Room, we opened on Jan 8 2016, and it all just went from there. We were actually still working for the other company so were doing 9-5 there and then driving straight to the office to run our 5.30pm game and doing games all the way up until midnight, then going home and sleeping. And then all weekends as well. After a month we just went “err, fuck it”. So we changed the first room really really quickly because we had a lot of people going “When’s your next room? What are you doing next?” and we fell into that… not trap, but we fell into the thing of “okay we want to do our next room now to make sure the previous people who’ve played can play a new room” so we actually ended up replacing The Panic Room [with The Witch House] in the middle of February, so the first room was only open a month and half. Quite a quick turnover, but it was a little bit of a judgement as to how quickly people wanted a new room. Whereas we could probably just have kept that room open in that location and it would still have been full, but it worked to our favour because we got dicked over by the local council who decided they no longer wanted us there and gave us two days’ notice.
M: One days’ notice.
A: But we refused and got them to give us two weeks’ notice.
M: They gave us two weeks instead, but had promised us all of March, so we had bookings all the way through March already. But we didn’t have a booking on the 14th, so we moved on the 14th. Everything. We moved everything on the 14th. We were already in the process of getting ready, as at that point we’d already realised we wanted a bigger venue and one had come up, but we thought we had a month to get the carpets in, paint. No.
A: We didn’t realise it was going to have to be that quick of a move. So literally on the Sunday night we finished our last game about 11.30pm, and we then just moved stuff across town in the middle of the night, in a shopping trolley that was left in the street next to us, so at 1 o’clock in the morning we were moving props from The Witch House across town.
M: At 7am we had a man in a van carry the furniture over and we were open by the Tuesday. Luckily it was low-tech room so we could do that but… it was a bit special.
A: Certainly an interesting start!
Escape Review: How long did it take to do the initial build on the first Panic Room?
A: The first Panic Room was over about a week or two.
M: It was in a listed building so we weren’t allowed to stick anything in the walls, we were not allowed to do anything, so it was literally, we’d bought furniture, we’d created the puzzles and it was just moving furniture into the place and getting the puzzles into place.
A: It was what I would refer to as more of a British Heart Foundation room [British Heart Foundation is a UK charity with high street stores that sell furniture – Ed], we put it together with all the money that we had, which at that point was about two grand, if that. We just put it all together, the idea was that it didn’t matter what the pieces in the room were worth, it was the puzzles and the gameplay that were important to us and we really focused on that and I think it paid off.
M: And they still made sense in the way of why they were there, and to be fair I’m still partial to British Heart furniture because it’s where you find stuff with character, in IKEA, its all so slick and perfect.
A: Like this [gestures to a piece of furniture in the office] I bought this for Defective Detective, I got it off of eBay, and the seller messaged me saying “oh sorry, I didn’t realise this was an auto relist, I’m currently in Spain, can you collect after this date?” and I was like “well no because that’s after the rooms opens.” But it’s very very swish, so this is our drinks cabinet for the office.
M: It’s mostly got paperwork in it.
A: I think going from designing room to room, especially in the first six months we were open, really helped us find our feet design-wise, because that’s one of the things we’ve been very lucky with: the amount of rooms we’ve built. Most companies only build one or two rooms and they stick with those one or two for god knows how long, whereas we’ve actually been able to learn from our mistakes straight away and also learn new things and apply those to the new rooms, rather than have the same old ones.
Escape Review: Did you pick Gravesend as a location because you live here?
M: Gravesend doesn’t have much going for it at the moment but obviously now it has The Panic Rooms and that’s, yknow, pretty good.
A: Pretty good.
M: But it only has like a tiny little cinema, a bowling place, but really nothing to do.
E: You’re no further out of London than some of the London games on the city outskirts.
M: It’s easier to get to here than it is to say, Mystery Cube. I love Mystery Cube but it was hard to get to!
A: We built in Gravesend because we were in Gravesend, but I think we’ve been quite lucky with the weird positioning of it, it’s perfect positioning for Essex, for Kent, for Sussex, and for London. It’s slap bang in the the middle and gets all of those crossover points.
ER: You get the convenience of London without the property issues.
A: And price. Yeah. We’ve been working with lots of local estate agents and all that, we have one in particular we work with and they’ve been so helpful. That’s the thing, I see a lot of companies have issues with estate agents that don’t seem to actually give a shit and want to help people get a place, whereas with our guy he wants us to be able to get a building, he wants us… he’s happy to have us do something in the town. So it gets us on the right foot towards it.
M: Even with St Georges [their latest location -Ed] he was like “I kind of already have someone but I could show you the building tomorrow” and we put in an offer. We just went for it. It was going to be a soft play, but there’s a lot of buildings in Gravesend that could house a soft play. There’s not many that could house us. The St George Centre is like 5000 square feet.
M: A lot of room to play with. The only thing there was the planning permission where the estate agents messed up, we paid them to put it through, then saw 23A Princess Street had gone through, following it online, nothing against it, looking good. Then the day before it was supposed to get a verdict we got a call from the estate agents:
“We’re just calling about your planning permission.”
“Oh yeah it’s going through tomorrow isn’t it?”
“Ah… no we just put it in.”
“But the website says…”
“No that’s the building above you”.
A: And that’s why Dino Land has been delayed. I’m actually a firm believer that things happen for a reason, in a weird way. Although it caused us a bit of an ache, I’m quite happy there was a delay because there were several items that we then got for the room that we wouldn’t have had if we opened earlier, so in the end it’s actually been the best thing for Dino Land – it worked out in the end.
Escape Review: You’re quite prolific in terms of design. I don’t know any other companies that have designed as many games in such a short period of time, where do start with your ideas?
M: He usually starts with waking everyone up at 4 o’clock in the morning going “Hey guys wouldn’t it be funny if…”
A: Yeah unfortunately I’m a “Wouldn’t it be funny if?” designer. We went to Up the Game [a European escape room conference – Ed] and literally in of the seminars one of the speakers said “you shouldn’t make decisions based on ‘wouldn’t it be funny if?’ ” And that’s literally all I do. You’ll find with Defective Detective that was a 2am idea. It’s the one that I was most worried about, even though we’ve done so many rooms, because of the unique way that the room works and finishes. It would either work, or would completely flat line
M: We wanted it to be a comedy room, and comedy is hard to pull off.
M: And his sense of humour is just really really bad puns.
A: Yeah puns, dad jokes, ridiculous stuff.
M: One of the police officers in the game is called Lauran Order.
ER: Yeah we were looking around a while ago to see if anyone had done an outright comedy room and haven’t seen any others.
A: I think we’ve just about managed to pull it off, because it works in way that some people will laugh at it, some people won’t, but the experience isn’t detracted from if people don’t get the joke.
M: It’s kind of hard not to get the joke though.
A: It’s hard not to get the main joke, but there’s loads of tiny details in some of the stuff that’s there if you look into it.
M: It actually has one of the the most detailed stories of our rooms that you can actually discover if you pay attention to it – although most people won’t as they go more for just solving the puzzles, then afterwards you ask them if they realised why something happened and they go “oh yeah”.
A: We always look at story when designing, we don’t just pick a theme out of the air, it’s something we’ve never really done. I look at other people’s designs and ask “what is everyone else doing?” and literally do the opposite. Because even if it doesn’t tick all the boxes – some people like pirates, Egyptian tombs, bank heists, stuff like that.
M: We do have a tomb though. [At the Harlow branch – Ed]
A: Okay we do have a tomb [laughs] but as a designer that doesn’t interest me. Designing a bank heist room or a prison break room feels to me almost like a director filming a remake. It’s the same thing, just a slightly different setting.
M: I still like our prison break idea though. We want to do one with an actual guard in it. You are actually a prison officer, and you’ve been thrown in jail by the prisoners that have overtaken the building, you have a prisoner sitting in the middle of the room, in the office, being on the phone being a games-master but pretending to keep watch, and you’d have to sneak around him, get things out of his pockets, things like that. I think that would be brilliant.
A: It would but would be difficult to pull off though! So we take a very different approach to it, and when we do tread upon the same kind of ground as others we always look for that completely different spin on it. So Defective Detective is, to a certain extent, mocking detective rooms.
M: But at the same time it’s more of a detective room than many detective rooms!
A: That’s the thing, it mocks detective rooms while also being a really good detective room. Because the amount of times with detective rooms you’re trying to find out who the killer is, and you solve a random stream of puzzles and open a box at the end that has a placard in that says “oh it was Joe Brown” – it’s the same thing time and time again. Whereas we wanted something where the ending… with those rooms you always remember just escaping the room. You don’t remember the name or the rhyme and reason. We wanted one with a detective case where it’s impossible to forget the ending, because the ending is the most important thing in the room. By achieving that, it’s one of my proudest designs I think, I love it.
M: For me it was a really hard room to build, as usually he comes up with the ideas and the props that he wants to use, and I usually come up with the puzzles that lead to the solutions for the props and things that he wants to use, and I just kept going “yeah but if I do that… everything’s a red herring. But it’s not! Because it will get you to the end but… argh!” It’s just really hard to explain.
A: Yeah, both everything and nothing is a red herring, it’s a strange thing because red herrings are a big no-no in rooms, but basically the whole premise is that the entire room is to a certain extent a red herring. So if everything is a red herring then nothing is. It’ll make sense if you play it!
M: There’s only one puzzle that leads to an actual red herring, everything else does help you getting towards the end.