Stayin’ Alive

By Gabby Landsverk, Sun Sailor Newspapers

There’s really not a polite way to introduce oneself under the circumstances: “Hi, I’m Gabby, we may both be eaten by a zombie shortly, nice to meet you.”

This is exactly what you do, however, at “Still Hungry,” Big Thrill Factory in Minnetonka.


It’s one of the latest in the current trend of escape rooms: interactive, live-action puzzles that require you to think on your feet, work as a team and be persistent to make it out of a locked room in a set time.
The previous “Trapped with a Zombie” experience opened at the Oakdale location while an updated version opened in January at Minnetonka’s Big Thrill Factory.

Barry Zelickson, owner of Big Thrill Factory, said the escape room has been a big hit at both of the business location in Minnetonka and Oakdale.
“It’s an attraction within the other attractions we offer and it’s been a great addition,” Zelickson said. “Ours is a little different than other rooms in that it’s a much more active, and interactive, room. It’s quite the experience.”

I found that out for myself, after meeting the 10 strangers I would be spending the next hour with in a locked room with a bloodthirsty member of the undead. Two couples and a family celebrating a birthday were my companions; out of all of us, only the birthday lady (identified as “Hot Mama” on her nametag) and her husband had tried an escape room before. None of us knew quite what to expect.
Most escape rooms aren’t quite as high-stakes as “escape or be eaten,” but what they all have in common is a wide array of puzzles and challenges to be conquered.

Kevin Gaston, the operating manager of Breakout Games new Minnetonka location at Ridgedale Center, said their offerings include a simulated kidnapping (complete with handcuffs!) an art-theme escapade and a number-crunching casino room.

Regardless of theme, the puzzles range from simple (finding all the objects in a set hidden throughout the room, for instance) to fiendishly clever (a secret door).

Why lock yourself in a room for an hour with a group? Zelickson explains: “Companies and groups are looking for ways to bring people together in team building environments and this is a unique environment for that.”

I had a chance to experience the thrill first-hand by trying “Still Hungry” out for myself.
Here’s what I learned.

Don’t give up
I won’t spoil the fun for you, but the puzzles in “Still Hungry” are not easy. Suffice to say, you will try, and you will fail, repeatedly. As frustrating as it sometimes felt, though, the fact is that door isn’t going to unlock itself, so you’d better made good use of every minute.a413nwescape6
Gaston of Breakout Games said each escape room is completely unique in the style of puzzles it offers, so you never know exactly what to expect. The games are designed by a creative team hellbent on pushing your expectations.
Have an idea? No matter how unlikely it may seem, you never know, it just might work.

Keep an open mind
What is that? Does it open? What does that symbol mean? Where might it fit?
The possibilities are endless for these deviously-designed puzzles. Many things in the room turn out to be far more important, and necessary, than they appear at first glance.
It takes some creative thinking and you need to be ready for some unexpected twists and turns along the way.

Escape room employees, known as games masters, observe each room either in person or via camera, and can offer hints or direction during the experience.

A games master observes a group trying out an escape room at Breakout Games, newly opened at Ridgedale Center

Gaston said his favorite part of running a room is watching that process of discovery, particularly for people who begin the challenge as an escape-room skeptic
“I love watching people who aren’t really into it suddenly start finding clues, realize “Oh, this is a lot of fun,” and get more excited than anyone else,” he said.

Nobody can do everything
Because of my stubbornness, I spent a lot of time working on one task, occasionally contributing to pieces of other clues. Everyone contributed, though, whether it was solving a math puzzle, noticing a tiny detail or just keeping the zombie distracted so the team could search the room.
Gaston explained that most escape rooms are designed for, and best experienced as, groups of two to eight people.
“They can be hard for just one person or a couple to try to solve alone,” Gaston said. “You never know what skill set you’ll need. We loving having different groups in our rooms because everyone has a chance to contribute. Being able to recognize everyone’s skills in than environment is really helpful for any kind of team-building.”
Most of the puzzles build on each other, too, so in order to get out alive, we had to keep track of everything as team, communicating with each other every step of the way.

Play by the rules
Everything in the game happens for a reason, and everything has rules. The epiphany for our group was realizing that the zombie is just another puzzle, with its own set of rules and limitations.

Once that was clear, even a man-eating monster, formerly an insurmountable obstacle, became just another piece in the puzzle. I won’t spoil all the secrets, but we spent many tense minutes trying to run away from the zombie in a room that (intentionally) keeps you in close quarters with your undead foe.
But you can’t flee forever. Sometimes taking a second to think logically is all you need to see the zombie is the room isn’t as bad as it seems. Once we stopped tried to outrun the problem, we were able to out-think it instead — which turns out to be a much better (and less risky!) solution.
We made it out with all of our team intact and four minutes, 53 seconds to spare.
I definitely ended up screaming the in the corner for a moment, with a hungry zombie inches from my face, but it turned out okay.

Pictured, my team (I’m holding the ‘Victory’ sign and sweating profusely) after a close encounter with a zombie at Big Thrill Factory Minnetonka’s escape room attraction. My first shot at trying the escape-room craze, my companions (none of whom I had met before) and I made it out alive with nearly five minutes to spare. (Submitted photo)
Pictured, my team (I’m holding the ‘Victory’ sign and sweating profusely) after a close encounter with a zombie at Big Thrill Factory Minnetonka’s escape room attraction. My first shot at trying the escape-room craze, my companions (none of whom I had met before) and I made it out alive with nearly five minutes to spare. (Submitted photo)

Whether the challenge you’re facing is a locked door, a secret code, a hungry zombie, or something much more mundane, escape rooms are a fascinating and fun learning experience. Keep a cool head, try new things, and make new friends. Not only will you be just fine, but you might just leave realized you’re smarter than you thought and braver than you seem.

Contact Gabby Landsverk at [email protected]