Escape Budapest or bust
‘Megageek' Alexi duggins attempts to make it out of Hungary's hardest escape gamesFeatured February 18 Words by Photography By Tim Ireland
A locked door has sealed me inside a dusty pyramid full of leering canine deities. Ancient Egyptian riddles have foxed me as - alongside two trusty companions - I've sought the secrets that will free us from this accursed tomb. All within a one-hour time limit.
With just minutes left, we think we've perfected our escape plan. It involves crawling through a creepy tunnel containing a corpse and a thick tangle of spiders' webs and - oh, god - as I approach them, I realise those webs look a lot like used women's tights.
“What's scary about tights?” barks my girlfriend, while glancing fearfully at the clock.
“Erm... Old gussets?”
“CRAWL THROUGH, WILL YOU?”
This isn't archaeological high jinks gone wrong, it's the Egypt room of TRAP, one of Budapest's many immersive, interactive, escape games, where a team of people are locked into a puzzle-packed space and given just one hour to figure out how to open the door. Typical challenges involve hunting for hidden compartments containing keys or solving maths puzzles to hit upon the combination to a numerical lock. If you're heading way off track, you'll be given hints via Tannoy from a games master who's watching you via CCTV. After all, you don't want to get locked in, because lord only knows what terrible things will happen when you get locked in. OK, so they, erm, let you out - but you feel like a doofus.
Budapest is the global capital of escape rooms. It's the genre's birthplace, with ParaPark, the first-ever game, opening here in 2011 after its founder tried to replicate the addictiveness of hidden-object computer games in a real-life experience. Once Hungarians realised that it was a brilliant way to use the city's innumerable empty basements, the scene exploded. Last year, Budapest hosted the fi rst Escape Room World Championship, in which teams from 22 countries had to dodge through laser mazes and rotating tunnels in their quest to be crowned the planet's escapiest gamers (a Slovenian team won). A 2018 edition is in the works.
I know all this because I'm a megageek when it comes to breaking out of locked rooms. I've sleuthed my way through every game within 20 miles of London, where I live, so now it's on to Budapest, to tackle its eight toughest challenges over a weekend, aided by a crack team (my girlfriend, Lorna, and Tim, the photographer).
Th is isn't an entirely original idea. Escape game tourism is very much a thing right now.
“I've had people from all around the world coming to play my games,” says ParaPark's founder, Attila Gyurkovics, as he takes us into a dystopian factory full of boxes and ciphers. We race through a series of puzzles to complete this game, then burst out the door in a state of elation, ready to play more. “Be careful. Th ere is a limit to how many you should do in a row,” smiles Attila. “If you overdo it, your brain won't be ready for the next one.”
We decide to ignore this advice. Instead, we wander around the Hungarian capital's trendy Jewish Quarter, goggling at how many opportunities there are to pay someone to incarcerate you. In the course of just a couple of hours, we pass half-a-dozen venues all claiming to be ‘the best escape game in Budapest'. We also see adverts for an extreme experience that involves being abducted by a man in a balaclava and, at one point, overhear a British stag party arguing about the directions to an escape room, rather than the nearest strip club. Although, given that it's called Locked Room, we do need Google to clarify that it's not an altogether more - ahem - specialist establishment.
Soon, it becomes clear that the games on offer in Budapest are pretty out there and cater to all tastes. We decide it's time to dive into a few more. First, we choose a place called White Room, a space so deliberately stark it could be a modern-art gallery. Inside, a single key hangs from the ceiling by a chain that's slightly too short to reach the lock in the door. At another, we try a game called Heaven/Hell that sees us travelling through the afterlife, playing table football in limbo, before stepping into a nightmarish red room with gravestones sprouting from the ceiling, dismembered limbs scattered around the floor and a life-size coffin that requires some poor fool (me) to climb inside and close the lid.
There's no doubt about it, Budapest does escape games better than any other city. Or, as the friendly games mistress puts it when she greets us upon our return from beyond the grave, “Hungarians are pretty creative. Most game owners aren't even professional game designers - they're just people who own a basement.”
Amazingly, despite the fact that these are the toughest tests in the world, we're doing well. As we start our fi nal game of the day, we have a 100% success rate, have been given barely any hints and we've made it out of a few rooms with 10 minutes left on the clock - no mean feat for a meagre team of three. Spirits are high. Until, during the superb 80-minute-long extravaganza that is Verem's Area 51-themed room, Hangar 18, I smash my knee against a metal cabinet so hard that all I can do is hobble around in circles, shouting. We escape with seconds to spare, demoralised, frazzled and with one of us very much in need of an ice pack.
The next morning, within a Soviet-looking industrial complex containing Tupperware factories and innovative tech companies, things continue to prove tricky. Pirate Cave is not just an escape game whose name it's worth pronouncing very clearly when booking a taxi (“Private cave?” titters our driver, clearly thinking we're off to a sex dungeon), it's also unbelievably elaborate. For my teammates, this is fun, but for me, less so. When the other two start whooping with joy at the discovery that we get to burst into a room by riding a life-sized raft along a pair of roller-coaster rails, my face contorts into a grimace at the thought of having to bend my leg. They're having the time of their lives. I'm having two strong ibuprofen. As we battle through the rest of the day, I can feel our energy levels dropping. With each game we play, we get closer and closer to being locked in.
Our final challenge is Time Machine, at Mystique Room: the most difficult there is. Mind and body (specifi cally knee) are pushed to the limit as, for an hour, we stare dumbly at codes, fiddle vainly with padlocks, and gripe and huff our way around the room.
The final seconds are counting down - 20, 19, 18… We're close but, boy, are we struggling. An announcer is desperately trying to off er us hints, but there's no denying our collective will has been broken.
“It's too late,” we shout back. “We can't go on.” And with that, the clock hits zero. Oh, the shame. Maybe we should've listened to Attila from ParaPark and limited our reach. Next time, we'll just have to spread out Budapest's brilliant escape games over a week. We'll be back...