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Hampshire College students design supervillain-themed escape room

  • An Escape Room being created by Hampshire College students. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • left,Tucker Loftus, Feiyi Zhou and Alyssa Graham check that the computer is running correctly for one of the puzzles in the escape room being created by Hampshire College students. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • left,Gabe Pofcher, Zofia Shura, Lucas Kohn and Per Van Dyke work out last minute finishing touches for one of the puzzles in the escape room being created by Hampshire College students. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hampshire College student Rebecca Gringeri works Monday on one of the many props and puzzles at the escape room she and her classmates are creating. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sam Fioretti, a Hampshire College student puts finishing touches on a clear board for one of the puzzles in the escape room created by the students. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • left, Doug Levey and Sam Fioretti, Hampshire College students work on one of the puzzles in the escape room created by the students. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rebecca Gringeri, an Hampshire College student, works on a one of the many props and puzzles at the escape room they are creating. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • One of the many props and puzzles at the escape room being created by Hampshire College students. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS



Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 05, 2018

AMHERST — On Monday evening, the supervillain Madcap gathered a gang of crooks to attempt an ambitious break-in at the secret local headquarters of a superhero team.

“Calling all evil-doers and hench-people!” reads an ad for the heist. “The ever brilliant villain Madcap is in need of minions to aid in a cunning heist to retrieve a special device. The target will be the secret headquarters of the Pioneer Guardians, the Pioneer City hero team always thwarting villains’ plans. All applications are accepted! Bring your own villainy! No experience required!”

When the larceny was finished, a crew rushed in to reorganize the superhero headquarters, where more malefactors were preparing to make their own attempt to snatch the “special device.”

The daring caper is the plot to an “escape room” designed by Hampshire College students with a diverse set of skills and academic interests: game, light, sound and set design, not to mention marketing and live production. The one-hour show — titled “Crime and Villainy in Pioneer City” — premiered this week, and will run through Saturday with performances throughout the day and evening.

Escape rooms are in-person adventures — a combination of games and immersive theater — in which teams must solve puzzles in order to unlock the door and escape in a limited amount of time. The rooms feature their own backstories, and have proliferated across the Valley. Puzzled Escape Games in Easthampton’s Eastworks building, for example, prides itself on creating a deeply immersive experience complete with a costumed guide who leads players through the games.

Across the country, escape rooms have sprouted up in malls, storefronts and even warehouse spaces. One TV news story last Friday from Littleton, Colorado, even suggested that one local escape room had to close because the number of escape rooms in the Denver metro area had “reached a level of saturation.”

​​​​​​“I definitely believe that escape rooms are a growing aspect of game design and theater design,” said Ira Fay, associate professor of computer science and game design at Hampshire College. “I don’t know of any other college that teaches escape rooms … And it’s awesome, they’re really fun!”

For puzzle lovers, the escape room offers a chance to put their skills to the test in an environment with just enough pressure to raise the stakes. Puzzles often incorporate simple cryptography, according to Dane Kuttler, an escape room aficionado; others include mazes, small physical challenges, math problems that reveal combination locks, and the occasional actual puzzle, wherein putting the pieces together reveals a final clue, she said.

Many disciplines

At Hampshire, the 30-person “designing escape rooms” class offered an interdisciplinary opportunity for students to hone a wide range of skills while working as part of a theater-and-game design team.

Fay said the class benefits those who want to go on to design other escape rooms, of course, and also teaches a valuable skill for students interested in virtual reality: directing the attention of a player who can move about freely in the game’s space. But the other skills students learn in the class – including collaboration on a creative project with such a large team— are valuable for everyone, including those not in the game design world, Fay said. 

“It’s one of the only classes so far where I can do game design and music easily,” said Dharambir Khalsa, 20, who studies both of those disciplines at the college.

Khalsa was working on the walls of the escape room set last Thursday, using a roller to paint a white rectangle so that a puzzle could be projected onto the wall.

The Hampshire escape room actually features three rooms that participants move through as they complete puzzles: a superhero trophy room, a common room and a final room where the coveted “special device” awaits.

Fiona Paine, who studies set design and theater management at Hampshire, was helping to paint the trophy room walls on Tuesday.

“I think it has changed my point of view,” she said of the class. “It helped me think about theater in a less traditional sense.”

The challenges

Unlike other kinds of theater, where sets are intentionally filled with rich detail, too much detail can be a bad thing in escape rooms, said theater design professor Peter Kallok, who taught the class together with Fay. Kallok said escape-room designers have to be careful not to create unintentional red herrings.

As students bustled about the set on Monday morning preparing for the first day of shows, Kallok and a student noticed a light switch that played no part in the escape room and its puzzles. But how to remove it from the game? Covering it with vines was suggested, but they realized that might make players think it is deliberately hidden. Ultimately, they used masking tape to cover the light switch.

“This is a little bit different because there is a little more logic in it for the players and for us,” production design student and class teaching assistant Alyssa Graham, who was sporting a “Practice Safe Sets” T-shirt, said of the difficulties inherent in designing escape rooms.

As the semester began, students were split into three groups, with each working on a room. They visited an escape room and did research on what they wanted to do, voted on a theme and backstory, and then began drawing up concepts for the rooms and writing a plot. They brought in outsiders for two “play tests” and made tweaks accordingly.

Kallok said that he and students have worked on immersive theater pieces in the past, but this is the first escape room he has ever worked on. That is true for Fay, too, though he has previously designed puzzles embedded in buildings.

“There are challenges getting everyone on a shared vision, making sure everyone is moving in the same direction,” Fay said when asked about the difficulties of teaching a large escape room class.

There were still some wrinkles to smooth out on Monday morning, but students moved cheerfully through the set, setting up puzzles and props as they awaited the first group of henchmen to arrive.

“It’s been cool doing something in the real world for once,” joked Per Van Dyke, a game design and computer science student. “All three rooms have some really cool puzzles.”

For the first two groups to enter the escape room on Monday, one managed to escape, and one did not. But that’s not the most important part, Fay said.

“In the end it’s about having fun and having a meaningful group experience that you enjoy sharing with your friends,” Fay said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.