“Please, everyone, there’s no need to panic. We’re going to get you out of here,” blurts a disembodied voice in a Chicago accent as thick as Ditka’s mustache. I’ve just paid $30 to be locked inside a convincing facsimile of an L car crammed into a small studio in the Flatiron Arts Building in Wicker Park. In the distance, the sound of the actual train heightens the authenticity. My companions are five 20-something bros geeked to get their neurons firing during a nerdtastic bachelor party.
We’re only 10 seconds into our joy ride when things abruptly go off track. The lights flicker, and a shadowy computer-hacker character appears on a fuzzy TV screen to deliver the bad news: Due to some sort of postapocalyptic catastrophe, we’re speeding toward certain death. Our only chance for survival is to solve the riddles scattered around the train car. We have 60 minutes, which begins … now.
“Puzzles require mental strength, not physical strength, so don’t break anything,” the hacker guy tells us. Starting with our orientation a few minutes earlier, this marks the third time we’ve been cautioned not to get too rough with the meticulously assembled set, which was cobbled together from recycled materials, such as old license plates. “You need to work together and communicate with your whole team,” he continues. “Good luck.”
Thanks, I guess. What the hell are we supposed to do now?
Escape rooms—part live-action game, part theatrical performance—originated in Japan in the late 2000s and have been spreading like a zombie plague ever since. This is appropriate, considering that many of the 10-plus local operations, like the Wicker Park company Escape Artistry’s Railcar, involve doomsday themes.
Escape Artistry cofounder Melissa Schlesinger, 29, describes these group puzzle-solving experiences as being like real-world versions of online multiplayer games (think World of Warcraft), which is a big part of their appeal. Enjoyed by everyone from hardcore gamers to companies looking for new forms of team-building torture, they’re immersive and interactive, no virtual reality devices required.
An artist as well as a theater and haunted-house production designer (thank her if you’ve ever pooped your pants in fright at Statesville Haunted Prison), Schlesinger crafted a CTA car that looks and feels like the real thing, even though it’s mostly made of wood. She developed the elaborate clues with Escape Artistry owner Maren Rosenberg, 29, who tells me that the best compliment she’s gotten was from a middle-aged participant who told her, “This made me feel like I’m in The Goonies.”
“It’s like writing a script and the audience are the actors,” says Schlesinger. “But they don’t know their lines and have to figure them out along the way.”
Schlesinger, who introduces herself by the nickname Bandit, was inspired to launch the Railcar shortly after five teens jumped her on the real Blue Line in 2014. “That thing happening to me told me I should build a train—it kind of forced me [to get comfortable] with trains again,” she says.
I’m not feeling so at ease right now, as the bachelor partyers and I frantically bounce around the L car, surveying the seemingly random array of locks and elaborate Rube Goldberg–esque devices embedded in the walls. We’re all working independently to MacGyver our way out of this maze of mental trickery. What’s that on the wall? Is it part of a map? What’s up with these marbles?
Finally, some teamwork: The stocky, blond-bearded groom-to-be, Mark Koester, who is visiting from Colorado, summons his best man, Jack Hanlon, to help him tackle a word problem scrawled on a placard in the corner.
“I’m on it,” says Hanlon, who lives in Irving Park. He grabs a marker and starts scribbling equations on the window. But after five minutes, he’s got nothing. “It’s been a long time since I did a math problem,” he admits, slinking away. I don’t blame him. Ten minutes have elapsed and I’ve contributed bupkis.
But then I notice a DVD of an obscure Mr. T movie stashed in a backpack. I look up, and one of the authentic-seeming overhead banner ads has a picture of Mr. T alongside Stephen Hawking. Coincidence? I think not. What does it mean? I have zero idea.
Eventually, the groomsmen and I manage to coalesce—so much so that I half expect a last-minute invite to Koester’s wedding. We stumble our way through a labyrinth of red herrings. Even for those with short attention spans who get bored with puzzles (like me), it’s exhilarating.
But we hit a wall—and time is running out. After solving several riddles and opening countless locks, which often reveal more riddles, we have five minutes left and need to crack one last code.
Spilling more details would be the equivalent of spoiling The Sixth Sense. Let’s just say we summon enough brainpower to emerge with about two minutes left to spare. The train doors open, and we exchange celebratory high-fives.
“Is that a record? Tell us that’s a record,” says AJ Ferretti of Glenview, a lanky bald guy who is definitely the most excitable of the team.
“Well done, you guys,” says Schlesinger. “You are one of the first groups in a while that escaped for real, instead of me having to give you clues all the way.”
Feeling confident and suddenly highly intelligent, I join my new bros for the requisite photo for Escape Artistry’s Instagram feed. As the crew gets ready to hit the road, I ask Hanlon why he chose an escape room for his buddy’s bachelor party. “The short answer is, we’re a bunch of dorks,” he says with a chuckle. “There are a lot of board game enthusiasts in our group, so this is like a life-size equivalent.”
“Actually,” Koester points out, “a good portion of our registry is board games.”
When I ask Schlesinger if most groups are this well behaved, she says she’s never had to kick anyone out but sometimes ticket holders show up a little buzzed. “If someone plays drunk,” she adds, “they just end up useless. One drink is perfect. Three drinks? You’ll probably just fall asleep on the train.”
A sloppy, unhinged drunk terrorizing unsuspecting passengers? That might make the experience a little too real—I already play a version of that escape game every time I ride the CTA.