Champs, chumps elude chomps in zombie escape teambuilding game

By Ben Smith

Zombie arms

They’re coming to get you Barbara. Closeted undead ready to pounce in Trapped in a Room with a Zombie.

No matter how loud I sang about “the little silhouetto of a man, scaramouche scaramouche,” every five minutes the chain holding back the zombie loosened another foot. I was locked with my family in an otherwise nondescript office in a Tucker industrial park, and this wasn’t a nightmare.

We were playing “Trapped in a Room with a Zombie,” and we were working (and singing) frantically with eight strangers to solve puzzles to find the key and escape the hollow-eyed monster (who looked a whole lot like an extra from “The Walking Dead”).

“Real-life room escape” adventures are a pandemic that have swept the planet since the concept moved off the video game screen and into real spaces with human participants. Versions of the zombie theater game are currently playing in 17 North American cities, including metro Atlanta.

The adventure game has gone corporate as some CEOs look for a way off the ropes course. “Escape the Room: NYC,” for example, challenges group of employees to escape the office in 60 minutes before the boss returns—or they have to remain at work “forever.”

“It’s truly a team building experience for corporations,” said Marty Parker, president of Ohio-based Room Escape Adventures, which created Trapped in a Room with a Zombie. “You have to use critical thinking. You have to work under a deadline.”

“It’s kind of like a mud run for your mind,” Parker said.

What have we gotten ourselves into

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The zombie “real-life room escape adventure” game is playing in 17 North American cities, including metro Atlanta.

The zombies, as we all know, usually come looking for us. No wonder we got lost trying to find our chained one. Despite using MapQuest, we might have missed the place altogether had it not been for the whiteboard sign on the curb of the industrial park with the word, “ZOMBIE,” scrawled in red.

In the parking lot, my 14-year-old said she was “creeped out.” Her sister joked, “We can’t sue if we’re dead,” even as she bobbed her foot so anxiously that we felt the shaking in the front seat.  The game is for ages 8 and up, but we were wondering if we had made a mistake trapping our whole family in a room with a zombie.

In the waiting room, we met two groups of friends, one from Georgia Tech and another from Suwanee. The 12 of us put on name tags with made up names ended up calling ourselves Team Dead Meat. One guy who called himself Hugh Jackman had played a game like this in Nashville. He noted that the success rate of escaping this room was 29 percent. “That’s the lowest I’ve seen,” Hugh Jackman said.

Wow. Thanks, Hugh Jackman.

Maybe Hugh Jackman would help us. In the movie Zombieland, the 11 rules for surviving a plague of the undead include keeping fit (which he was and I am not). Another rule was always knowing the way out of a room. Easy for Jesse Eisenberg to say.

Before we entered the room, a bespectacled woman who called herself Professor Von Gutenberg. explained in her thick German accent the rules and backstory of our adventure.

We would be meeting Dr. Oxy, or rather, what was left of her. Dr. Oxy was an epidemiologist who had been trying to develop a vaccine against a global zombie plague. Dr. Oxy had accidentally pricked herself with a syringe of the virus. She knew what that meant, so she locked the lab door, hid the key and placed a series of complicated clues for humans to use to find their way out of the room. Dr. Oxy then chained herself for the good of all of us before turning into a groaning brain muncher with an appetite.

Dr. Oxy thought of her emerging inner zombie too. She made it so her heavy chain would lengthen by one foot every five minutes while we were in the room. If we didn’t find the key to get out, in precisely one hour we would all become zombie chow.

The clock is ticking

A digital timer in the corner of the ceiling reminded us all of what we were up against. And the zombie was a snarling, hollow-eyed mess. The chain rankled and thudded as we tried to concentrate and communicate with people we didn’t know.

I won’t spoil the secrets of the game. The 12 of us, quasi-led by Hugh Jackman, tried to collaborate and rely on our skills of spatial observation, logic, math and documenting, to decipher complicated and seemingly unrelated clues that ended up pointing us in five directions.

Within the first five minutes, I solved a clue that involved weights and measurements. After that, with all the chattering and moving around, I couldn’t focus on what to do next. So I spent the rest of the time trying to distract the zombie by singing songs by Queen and Journey (she seemed to like “Who Wants to Live Forever” a lot) and luring her away from the others

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Team Dead Meat bit it, so to speak, living up to its name. Only 29 percent of teams solve the clues, find the key and escape the room in time.

I bit the dust, so to speak, in the 43rd minute when the zombie got me and I had to sit on the duct-taped “X” on the floor. Seventeen minutes later, the rest of our group fell just short of solving the final clue and getting the key. Despite the presence of Hugh Jackman, we all went down to Zombie Town.

“Communication and the ability to divide and conquer (tasks) are essential to the game,” said Alicia Landrum, the Atlanta actress who played Von Gutenberg. “Very rarely does someone come in and play the quarterback. A lot of people are needed to solve this puzzle.”

Von Gutenberg handed out award titles and praised Team Dead Meat members for their contributions. They included awards for team spotter, team vigilante and team scribe.

Von Gutenberg dubbed me “Master Distractor” and “our very first martyr.”

“May you rest in peace,” she said.

Ben Smith can be reached at [email protected]

Columnist Ben Smith, who writes this column with his wife Michelle Hiskey, is a veteran reporter and website designer who has freelanced articles for The Toronto Star, CNN, AOL.com, the Daily Report, among other publications. He worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 22 years covering primarily politics and government. Ben earned his bachelor's degree in English from the University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn. Ben and Michelle live in Decatur with their two terrific daughters.

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