JoAnne Filipkowski, Kami Boell, and other four members of their team were tasked with stopping a scientist from unleashing a toxin into New York City's water supply. It was early afternoon on Good Friday, and the six of them were locked inside a laboratory trying to synthesize an antidote. Five minutes remained before the city's fate would be sealed.
Monitoring their movements upstairs on closed-circuit television was Jose Otero, who sat hunched in a swivel chair with a walkie-talkie in his hand. Otero checked in periodically and provided some guidance, but time had just about run out.
To be sure, New York City and its water supply were never under attack. Filipkowski and Boell are mothers from Long Island, their adolescent kids their team, and Otero is the "gamemaster" at OMEscape New York, a business opened in July that charges customers between $33 and $38 each to escape from a locked room.
"We almost made it to the end without help," Filipkowski told NBC News. "We got little hints along the way, but I think we might have done it if we had five more minutes."
"I think three more minutes," Boell interjected.
Escape rooms are a physical spin-off of point-and-click video games that require players to solve riddles and puzzles to open locks and flee a virtual space. SCRAP Entertainment Inc. takes credit for creating the world's "first live action game" in Japan in 2007, according to its website.
Over the last decade, escape rooms have grown in popularity, spreading from Asia to Europe and the United States and attracting an eclectic fan base that includes parents planning birthday parties and companies like Facebook and Google looking to build camaraderie. Today, there are at least 3,781 escape game rooms throughout the world, according to the Escape Room Directory, a fan project dedicated to finding new locations.
After coming to New York for graduate school in 2011, Kevin Huang and Cindy Zhang never imagined they would open their own escape room business, one of at least 215 in the U.S., according to the Escape Room Directory tally. In China, where Huang and Zhang were born and raised, the couple had frequented escape rooms before and enjoyed them. But three years ago, when Huang tried one in the U.S. as a team-building activity while working as a consultant in New York City, he was left with a less-than-satisfied feeling.
"It only involved unlocking locks," Huang told NBC News.
Huang, 26, and his now fiancée Zhang, 27, hoped to change that by opening a branch of OMEscape — a franchise chain founded in China in 2012 with 42 locations worldwide — in New York, Huang said. With locations in San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Toronto, among other places, OMEscape combines traditional puzzle-solving with hi-tech add-ons, such as green lasers that need to be aligned to open trap doors to other rooms, or a radio that broadcasts a message in Morse code to be deciphered.
Like OMEscape, a growing number of escape room facilities are also designing games built around narratives and technology. One example at OMEscape is Laboratory of Biohazard, which Filipkowski, Boell, and their kids were playing when NBC News visited. One of three games at OMEscape, the Laboratory features four interconnected rooms, one of them resembling a sewer with a large green water pipe. Between two and six participants are given 70 minutes to solve puzzles to find an antidote to the mad scientist's neurotoxin and unlock themselves from the room.
This is also Otero's favorite. Otero, who moved to New York a few months ago and responded to an ad hiring a gamemaster for OMEscape, told NBC News he had visited a game room before in Seattle and enjoyed it.
"You have several boxes with several codes on it and you get pieces of keys," he explained. "Then you put those keys in somewhere, and that would open locks."
But the game had its limitations, Otero added. "That was it — one room, several locks, several keys, and just shove them in," he said. "When I came here and saw this, it was so much fun."
OMEscape New York's space on West 38 Street, a 3,200-square-foot former clothing store, houses a total of 15 rooms in their basement and ground floor. The games are designed in China, and the equipment is shipped over to the United States, Huang said. Depending on the OMEscape location, some parts of the game narratives are altered to reflect local culture, with a reference slipped in, say, about the Empire State Building or George Washington and the Declaration of Independence.
Otero said that with extra time and hints, which the OMEscape team might provide to players, the escape success rate ranges from 60 to 70 percent. Without those hints, it drops to between 30 and 40 percent. Otero said that Penitentiary, in which up to 12 players are divided into three teams, is the most difficult. It also draws the loudest shouts and cheers when teams, working on separate puzzles, figure out how to coordinate with one another to unlock themselves from the room. (In case of emergencies, staff can quickly open the doors.)
"If you focus on one puzzle at a time, you're just not going to make it out," Otero said.
Zhang — whom Huang, accompanied by a flash-mob dance, proposed to inside their store in January — told NBC News she enjoys running their business, even though their wedding in July will be the first time the couple will have taken off.
"It's worth doing this," she said. "Every time, the players are really excited."
Sometimes, though, participants are not so enthusiastic, while others might damage equipment inside the rooms, either from being overzealous or drunk or both. This is always a challenge to the OMEscape staff, who have players sign waivers before starting a game.
Zhang recalled one time when she had to try hard to summon the patience to deal with a man so intoxicated he couldn't physically stand. She offered to reschedule their session for free, but they insisted on playing — until about a half-an-hour in when the team realized they couldn't go on. Zhang then entered the room and handed a cup of hot water to the man as he sat on a couch trying to sober up.
"So far, 99 percent of the customers, they are really good," Zhang said. "It's only the one percent."
Huang and Zhang said business has been booming, so much so that they signed another contract with OMEscape to open a second store in Manhattan by year's end. As of last week, they were still looking for a 5,000-square-foot space to house rooms for four or five new games. While Huang said they haven't gotten back all of their investment yet for their first location, an amount he declined to specify, he added they were still willing to take a chance on expanding.
"We feel people love it and feel there's a future," Huang said.
For Filipkowski and Boell, the mothers from Long Island, the escape rooms were something novel to try with their children who had off from school for Good Friday. Filipkowski said she found it rewarding working as a team since everyone brought different talents to solving the puzzles.
"I think it would be good for all ages," she said. "If you come with kids or all adults, it'll be fun no matter what."
"Yeah, we're already planning a ladies night out," Boell added.