By ETHAN HARTLEY You glance up at the clock - seconds mercilessly tick down as you fumble with the combination lock in your trembling hands. You know the code, thanks to the work of your new friend, whom you just met an hour ago, deciphering a cryptic
You glance up at the clock – seconds mercilessly tick down as you fumble with the combination lock in your trembling hands. You know the code, thanks to the work of your new friend, whom you just met an hour ago, deciphering a cryptic message in a newspaper clipping. The lock pops, and you shout in excitement before realizing all you’ve accomplished is revealing the next clue. In the back of your mind is one thought. Tick. Tick. Tick.
The thrills are undeniably real and whether you succeed in cracking the case or you don’t, so are the connections made with family, friends, work colleagues or even complete strangers. And it’s the reason why the public craze over escape rooms has not died down since coming into widespread popularity in the last five or so years.
It’s also the reason why Byron Delmonico, co-owner of the Rhode Island-based Riddle Room, cannot contain his excitement about being able to assemble these time-sensitive, clue-based puzzle games for a living.
“I did one about four years ago now, and absolutely fell in love with the concept. I instantly knew that this was what I was meant to do,” he said on Friday from inside the lobby of the Riddle Room’s new Warwick location on Route 2 (1150 Bald Hill Road). “Wanting to build and create things, wanting to entertain and facilitate people experiencing my creations. It really just completes me.”
Delmonico and his business partner, Kara Zanni, who have known each other since middle school while growing up Scituate, started the Riddle Room as a mere side project hobby after experiencing one of the games themselves. But it lit a fire that hasn’t died down since.
“She came to me and said, 'We need to do one of these, we're going to open one.' Then, walking out of it, I'm like 'We're going to open one,'” Delmonico recalled. “And a month later we had an LLC and three months later we had our doors open.”
Their first location, located at 20 Water Street on the waterfront of downtown East Greenwich, boasts four different games – each with their own theme and challenges – and a nearly perfect 4.9-star rating on Google Reviews with nearly 200 reviews. The Warwick location will be celebrating a grand opening ribbon cutting Tuesday, but already has one game operating, set in a mystical forest. A sixth game is currently under production, which is set to launch Oct. 1 and takes place in a haunted hotel.
Delmonico and Zanni hit the sweet spot in terms of timing, opening up their first location when escape rooms were just starting to gain popularity, but before the industry totally exploded.
“We quickly saw that change as more opened up. It became more competitive, games got crazier, the cost of building games went way up and marketing was more expensive because it was competitive. We're lucky we got in when we did,” he said.
Now the pressure to build unique, challenging (but not too challenging) and, most importantly, fun escape room games is fully on. However, it’s a challenge that Delmonico – who designs each game himself and has grown the operation from just him and Zanni to now having eight employees – relishes.
“We're doing some things here that are unprecedented,” he said of the new location, which he bought as an empty warehouse – a literal blank slate that he has been able to mold into an image completely born from his own creativity. “We focus around fun designing a game, but we also focus around elements that we want to create. We want to create an experience.”
For those unfamiliar with what an escape room actually is, the concept is quite simple – and no, contrary to what some might think, Delmonico emphasized you are never actually locked into a room or prevented from leaving at any time.
Anywhere from one person to a group of 10 are placed in the room. They are given a basic plot or scenario explaining the setting and what their goal is. Then they have one hour to utilize teamwork and their logical skills to solve various puzzles hidden throughout the room – which can be anything from math-based equations, cracking safes or deciphering codes to learn padlock combinations.
Each puzzle successfully solved either leads to another puzzle or gains the group access into a new area. Escape rooms will often have at least two different areas in which players have to run back and forth from to progress, while Riddle Room games often have three separate rooms. All puzzles lead up to a final puzzle, which if solved within the one-hour time limit, leads to some sort of “reveal” and the players are deemed victorious.
The point of the games, to Delmonico, is to create an authentic environment where even complete strangers can come together and earn a legitimate sense of accomplishment, which has all kinds of benefits for those who participate.
“The adrenaline pumps, the endorphins are running. It raises self-esteem,” he said. “I create that. I create puzzles that make you scatter around the room and work together that create the sense of urgency and then there's a big reveal moment where everyone is like, 'Oh my god!' And then we create moments where things slow down and it's a hard puzzle and people are almost frustrated because it's difficult. But then they solve that difficult puzzle and it's incredibly rewarding.”
Escape rooms are excellent team building exercises, Delmonico said, because they break down barriers between people and focus them on a singular goal – one in which they will be much more likely to succeed if they work together and trust one another’s talents.
He used the example of a team of accountants who were forced to play one of the games by their boss as a team building exercise. The group was complaining in the lobby, disinterested, unhappy to even be there.
“Ten minutes into the room when they solved the first puzzle, they jumped into the air with an aerial high five,” Delmonico recalled. “I can't even imagine how well these people went in and worked together the next day at their job, just based on this experience. It turned the most bleak people into the most excited I've ever seen anyone, like they were children again. I'll never forget that game.”
But you don’t need to have the brain of a CPA to have a chance at cracking the case of infiltrating the Providence mafia or discovering the secret behind a mysterious treasure found in the woods. Delmonico said proudly that they have hosted an endless array of people within the age range of 7 to 102.
“The 102-year-old had a blast,” he said. “What other activity can grandparents actively participate in with their grandchildren and actually do? Almost nothing these days. So, this brings families together, it brings companies together, and even total strangers.”
For those who have been through the pulse-pounding experience before, there is something almost magically nostalgic about the thrill of working through a series of physical puzzles with friends or people who you’ve never met. It’s a throwback to days where you had to seek out enjoyment from things that didn’t exist in a digital realm.
“It's everything you want. You get to live an experience that you don't normally get to live,” Delmonico said. “It's completely adaptable, and people love video games. This is just a video game where you're the player. You're not in front of a screen, and we desperately need that nowadays with being stuck to our screens.”
Delmonico also prides the Riddle Room on being “logically challenging,” meaning that the escape rooms are difficult – according to their website they hover around a 40-45 percent success rate – but not so difficult that they are impossible.
“My optimal goal is to get you to finish one of my rooms with a minute or less left. Those one-second wins are the most exciting,” he said. “I'm a strong believer that if you finish one of my rooms in less than a half hour, I have failed you, because you paid for an hour.”
Delmonico recommends beginners should go with a larger group, as the more people are involved, the more fun everyone will have in feeding off one another. For more experienced players, he says smaller groups are better as you will get to participate in more puzzles and interact with more of the room. But no matter what, he says his ultimate goal is to let as many people experience the fun as possible.
“We have a flexibility guarantee we call it. We're flexible. We'll open when we're closed, we'll give you a private room if you want it as long as it's not on our busiest day on Saturday. We'll allow payment the day of if people want to split it. We do a lot of things for our customers that other escape rooms don't do,” he said. “I want everyone to be able to experience it.”
Delmonico swears by the lasting affect that tackling an escape room can have for people – and how it has changed his life as well.
“Having someone walk up to you and give you an embracing hug and saying, 'I really needed this,'” he said. “Or a mom comes in and is like, 'My youngest went up to my oldest and said I couldn't have done this without you.' For a mom to hear that her boys couldn't have done something without the other – creating that is an extremely humbling, extremely rewarding and extremely intoxicating thing.”
Delmonico said that momentum for the business is not slowing down, and he is excited about continuing to craft new games and improve upon the old games that are already successful. The price for a game is around $30 per person, but he insists that there is a lasting power to these games, which is far more valuable than the cost of admission.
“When people leave they are way closer than when they arrived,” he said.
To book an escape, go to www.ririddleroom.com.