Virtual Escape: Local puzzlers find innovative ways to pursue their passions during COVID-19

With escape rooms closed during the pandemic, the virtual escape room format poses endless opportunities for escape room and puzzle hunt enthusiasts.

Illustration by Hailee Schievelbein

Hailee Schievelbein

Illustration by Hailee Schievelbein

From major Twin Cities theater companies closing their doors until 2021, to local venues indefinitely shutting down, the Twin Cities entertainment industry has indisputably suffered a loss of business due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, some areas of the entertainment industry consider these novel challenges as opportunities to try their hand at virtual platforms. 

Jamie Fassett-Carman, co-founder of Trapped Puzzle Rooms St. Paul and Northeast, began his business in 2015. An avid puzzler, he described his business as an “experiential entertainment company,” whose mission is simple: keep people having fun. In the early days of its conception, Trapped was a brick-and-mortar escape room business, but recently the company found a new way to adapt to the socially distanced restrictions imposed upon its customers — audio escape rooms. 

An audio escape room, he described, is a combination of a standard escape room and an audio-based role-playing activity. Guided by verbal descriptions of scenarios and maps of rooms, players confront various situations as they solve an array of puzzles. 

Available for $15 per person for groups of three to six, the two audio escape rooms currently offered are Herbert’s Laboratory, a laboratory-esque escape, and Prehistoric Park, a dinosaur-themed escape. The audio escape rooms were created by Trapped’s developers during the first few weeks of the pandemic and have garnered success not just in the Twin Cities, but also in locations like Montana, New York, Romania, Vienna and Japan, according to Fassett-Carman. 

Fassett-Carman looks at the restrictions of quarantine as a reminder that, whether Trapped Puzzle Rooms is physically or virtually run, the company can still provide customers with entertainment. Despite the ambiguity of a lockdown, he prides himself and his team on their enduring creativity and flexibility in the wake of change. “It’s a tricky time, but not everything is bad,” he said with an optimistic chuckle. 

David Ha, a computer science major who recently completed his second year at the University of Minnesota, is also making the most of the free time provided to him in quarantine. From June 6 – 14, Ha will release his own virtual puzzle hunt, The Final Frontier, a Star Trek-inspired virtual escape that he worked for a month to develop. Similar to Trapped’s audio escapes, The Final Frontier is an interactive game with audio-based puzzles. 

With 40 participants currently registered, his puzzle hunt will be free of charge. A puzzler and escape room fanatic himself, Ha intends to make this puzzle hunt accessible to everyone, especially novice puzzlers. 

Both Fassett-Carman and Ha agreed that the virtual and audio escape rooms provide players with new and untapped opportunities. Unlike physical rooms, where clues and pieces of the puzzle are hidden within the framework of the space, the virtual format relies on challenges that can be created through audio and visuals that would be impossible to physically manifest. 

Players are asked questions about which potion they should drink and which doors they should choose to explore. This new sense of creation via virtual escape spaces creates, as David describes it, “an opportunity rather than a restriction.”