Published on February 15th, 2018 | by Dean Love1
InterviewER – The Panic Room (Part 2)
In the second part of our interview with Alex and Monique Souter, owners of The Panic Room in Gravesend, we talk about acquiring other designs, accidentally playing their own game, the launch of Dino Land and some of Alex’s stranger ideas for the future. You can read Part 1 here.
Escape Review (ER): As well as your own designs, you’ve bought in LOOP and Enigma as well, how did that come about?
Alex Souter (A): So Enigma we ran in our Harlow location, we opened it back in February 2017. We found that the audience over in Essex didn’t really take to Enigma – it’s a different style of room to what they’re used to.
Monique Souter (M): They seemed to more interested in more physical puzzles.
A: More physical, interactive rooms.
M: Doing rather than deducing.
Escape Review: Do you find there’s a difference in audiences between Harlow and Gravesend then?
A: Definitely, with the Essex audience they seem to prefer more interactive and linear rooms. We’ve seen the reactions to both The Witch House and Enigma, and with those rooms there’s puzzles to solve, but once you’ve solved them you have to process the details afterwards – it’s not just solving a code then going onto the next puzzle and solving a code, there’s actually an element of processing the information that you’ve found, and that, for any audience really, can come across not as well. That’s why we wanted to bring Enigma back here, because I wanted to work on honing the design in a little bit, but also reworking the theming so it’s a lot more immersive and bring in much more story to it, making it flow as a more cohesive room.
M: Initially we got Enigma because we played it in Milton Keynes ages ago, was probably one of the first twenty we played, and we absolutely loved playing it, and when we heard that Audrey and Richard were stopping, we thought it would be a waste for that room to just disappear, so we took it over so it would keep existing somewhere else. Although funnily enough we recently went to Berlin and found out that you can also play it there!
A: Sera [Escape Room enthusiast and master of booking admin -Ed] booked all the rooms so I had no idea, and suddenly the games-master starts giving us this briefing to a room called “Secret Service” and I’m like “I recognise this… who’re the suspects?” and she showed me the sheet and I was like “shit, we’ve done this”.
M: So we went into the room, Sera and Sharan had also already played it quite a while ago, so they started playing and I was going around all the locks going “yep, that opens” and then closing it again so we didn’t spoil it for Sera and Sharan, who already knew some of it anyway!
A: Literally every code was the same.
M: I was like “I know all of this!”
A: So we ended up doing it in about fifteen minutes.
M: Because I know every single code here. I could press the suspect right there and get out in less than a minute technically!
A: It was a very surreal experience because I recognised it but it was also completely different.
M: We have an Enigma machine in our room, funnily enough because it’s called Enigma, that you have to use to get a code. In the Berlin one there are three pillows and you have to listen to an audio recording and figure out which animal you don’t hear to get that code.
A: A little bit different.
M: Slightly different puzzles, slightly different theming. So that was absolutely hilarious. Identical to our room but only a single room whereas ours is a double.
A: So LOOP came about when we played it three days before it closed [it originally ran as a limited run pop-up in London for a few months -Ed]. It’s bloody incredible, just so good, and the concept and twist of it are really really good. After we played we just joked “what’s going to happen to the room afterwards, are you selling it on or something like that?” And they basically said “Yeah, we’re looking to sell it on,” and we were like “Ooh, cool!”. Because as much as we’re designers for our rooms and all that, we’re not above having someone elses’ room if it’s a really really awesome room, especially as it was closing down, to continue the legacy of the room, and keep it going for other people to get to experience that.
M: Some of our staff members wanted to play it.
A: I think about half of them have played it, half haven’t, so we haven’t spoiled them. When it was originally open it was only open for about four months, and no-one was really too spoilery about it as they didn’t have enough time. We’re going to have it for about two years, so I’m curious to see if people start spoiling it to people. Because with the way that the room works, if you know how it works it might effect how you play. We started emailing back and forth with the guys [Clockwork Dog, designers of LOOP -Ed]. They came down here and played a few of our rooms to get a feel for what The Panic Room is about and we got on really, really well.
M: We had a lot of similar thoughts, we were talking about how we would change the visuals a little, as they had it as a pop-up and it was quite basic, so I was imagining the Portal video games and they said “yeah, that’s exactly what we wanted to do.”
A: One of the things we’re going to be doing in it’s new form is bringing some of the original concepts and ideas that they wanted to bring in but didn’t have the time to, so essentially it’s going to be the optimal evolution of the LOOP. Plus we’ve got some game changes that we’re going to look to implement while working together with Clockwork Dog.
M: We’re very open when we acquire a new room – we will announce it as “this is someone elses’ room, and we’re taking it because it’s good.” We don’t pretend, we’re not going to say “We made this.” we give credit where credit is due, and when we buy a room it’s because we really enjoy that room and want to share it.
A: It’s great for the customers as well, as there’s almost assured quality I guess – if we feel that way about the room then people should be quite confident in it.
Escape Review: So Dino Land is coming soon… [It’s open now – time travel Ed]
A: It’s going to be ridiculous. It’s about 2000 sqft, 3-4 times the size of a regular large room. The idea is to create an experience like literally no other. We asked ourselves “how can we create an experience that literally no-one else will bother to try to make?” Because one of the things about being unique and having individuality is making something that no-one else will make, or try to make, or go through the painful process of making.
But also, these days there are a lot of new escape rooms opening up, and you get a lot of people playing the basic escape rooms and come out thinking “oh I could do that” and then they go out and do that and you get another basic escape room opening up, causing a ripple effect. We wanted to kick it up to an absolutely ridiculous level, set the bar, essentially. I almost want Dino Land to be our legacy – so in the chronicles of escape room history, “back in 2017 Dino Land was built”. We wanted to contribute something on that level to the industry.
One of the things we looked at when planning the design and how we were doing it was how Time Run do their rooms. They’re done to such a higher production level and you’re moving swiftly from space to space, with puzzles in between. It’s working out how to do that, but on a larger scale and as a longer, movie-like experience. It’s not an “escape room” escape room, it’s much more of a “living a movie” experience. There are escape room puzzles along the way, we’ve set designated points where the action comes off for a few minutes, and you’ve got a room where you’ve got very traditional escape room puzzles to work on, and then you get through to the next bit and get back into the action. It means there’s something in the room for literally everyone. For people who want the big “wow” effects they’re there, for people who want “puzzle puzzles” they’re there, for people who like interacting and stuff like that, it’s there. It’s going to be ridiculous.
We’re even going be using three games-masters to run the game, one park ranger who will be in the room with you, although not always – they might send you down a corridor into a room, and once you’ve done the bits in the room you’ll come back and meet up with the park ranger, another that’ll be [spoiler redacted] logistics depending, and another games-master that will be monitoring from the main station – we’ve got 24 cameras set up in all so they’ll have a massive TV screen rather than a poxy monitor, so they can see and hear literally everything.
M: So if you’re wondering why Dino Land is more expensive than the rest of them…
A: Yeah, one of the things we’ve encountered so far is people grumbling about the price a bit, but I think when people have played it, they’ll start to realise why. And even Dino Land is still not the most expensive escape room around, the top is £150 for 8 people, for a 75-minute, 2000 square-foot dinosaur experience. The only thing is it’s not good for smaller groups. The game will work for smaller groups but it’s like £70 for two people. But if you’re a couple and you really want to do it, it’s not a massive spend for a very different, unique experience.
M: We’ve wanted to play games in London before where two players has been £80 and we’re like “hmm”, so we’re definitely not the most expensive two-player experience either. Not going to say it’s cheap, it’s definitely not cheap, but three game-masters…
ER: Yeah, when you have sort of space and it being a guided experience, you can compare it to something like the Crystal Maze and it’s much cheaper than that.
A: I think once it’s open people will get it, because some of the detail we’re adding in… in the outdoor area we’ve made – they’re called “green walls” – greenery forest wall panels that look absolutely beautiful. But the wall panels are in an area you spend maybe ten, fifteen minutes at most in, and just those wall panels set us back four grand, so it’s like “yeah, that’s why we charge a little more than our usual price”.
M: And dinosaurs don’t come cheap.
Escape Review: What are your other future plans?
A: Straight after Dino Land we have Ten Fathoms Deep, our versus room. It’s for two teams of 2-5 players. We wanted something where – it’s not just the usual versus, we wanted interactive elements, so there’s going to be a part where if you do something wrong, that can benefit the other team. We’re treading a fine line in making sure the game feels fair and still functions correctly for both teams, but they have to try and make the right choices and do it correctly. We want to maintain the stress of the environment. We want it to be a bit of a stressy room.
ER: Yeah, even the idea you can get something wrong and it have a consequence is something you don’t really see in escape rooms.
M: We did play a versus room in Berlin with Sera and Sharan but Sera didn’t want to play competitively so we just kept communicating anyway.
A: We shouted through the wall: “Have you just done this?”
M: “Try looking up there!” – It had the possibility to do spells: if you found a particular code you could cast a spell, we only tried one spell, and apparently it created darkness, in a room which was already very dark, and no-one really noticed.
A: We used it way too early, apparently.
M: We were working together anyway, although Sera and Sharan still won.
A: No surprise there! After Ten Fathoms we’ve got LOOP and Enigma opening, and we’re talking about doing a 2-3 month Christmas room pop-up [still open for a few more weeks at time of publication – Ed] and see how that plays for families. We’ve also room for another game at the new site which is TBC.
A: I have a google document called “Game Design Graveyard” which has the list of all my weird and wacky different ones. And one of the things I’m looking at for our future rooms is having changing goals throughout the game, so halfway through there’s a twist and it’s not this game anymore, it’s this game. So one of the first ideas I thought about was having a World War Two trenches room, where you’re spies going into a Nazi trench to try and recover some battle plans, but partway through, just as you get to the battle plans, you find a live actor that’s a prisoner of war who’s been captured, and your goal changes to breaking the prisoner out of the trenches. If the room changes around people, it feels more real, I think. Rather than just “this is my mission, this is my set objective to win the game”. So if you’re having to think on the fly, because your goal has changed, it makes you think more about what you should be doing to get the outcome you want, and changes the way people approach playing the game. It’s odd. Because we’ve started designing rooms in bigger spaces, the themes and set-ups I’m coming up with seem to be bigger, but we don’t have that space.
M: He wants to make a campsite.
A: Yeah that’s the horror game, what I wanted to do was a Friday the 13th kind of room, where the killer is in the room the whole time, so the opening is: the games-master takes you into the room, an outdoor, campsite area, and they sit you around a campfire and tell you the introduction, the story of the local legend of the killer. The idea of that alone, as a horror fan…
M: Can we go a little bit Don’t Breathe on it, so the killer is basically blind, so people can escape by not moving at all – just imagine that, with the killer there the whole time and comes out and people go [Monique freezes in place].
A: So part of the idea is having the outdoor area, then the cabin where the killer starts, and you’ve got to crawl under the panels of the cabin and sneak in through a flap in the floor.
M: Somehow he thinks he can do that…
A: Yeah the trouble is where the ideas can apply to an actual so space. So we’ve got two smaller spaces which we need to have designs for, and my brain is going “just what could go in there?”
M: Any normal room could go in there.
A: Any normal room could go in there.
M: But we don’t do normal.
Escape Review: Thank you for your time.