Part I: Pre-game
Amber, Janine, and Jenny as a group decided to go to Breakout for their ethnography. According to their website, Breakout Philippines “lets you live in different scenarios with well crafted storylines full of unexpected twists and turns that you have to solve in order to escape. Immerse yourself in an interactive game where you need to find clues and solve logic puzzles based on various storylines and themed rooms. The goal is to ESCAPE THE ROOM IN 45 MINUTES. Players are encouraged to PLAN as a team, SOLVE puzzles collaboratively in order to ESCAPE before time expires.” There are other escape room establishments around the country like Mystery Manila, MysteryEscape, among others. Each of them work in similar ways where players are locked into rooms they have to escape from. Often, there is a storyline, a mystery that must be solved along with the puzzle games. In Breakout Philippines, a team with a maximum of 6 players may solve a room together.
The group had three choices on which room to escape: “Clown House,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Detention.” Although the “Detention” room was the most difficult and complicated room, the group chose it because, the remaining two, “Clown House” and “The Walking Dead,” had creepy set-ups and might just add to the tension of solving the puzzles. Also, Jenny was certain that she would not want to be inside an isolated room with a clown, and the thought of zombies scared both Janine and Jenny. Therefore, instead of choosing the rooms, which could only add to the nervousness and tension, the room with a much more calm setting was chosen. They chose the room called “Detention” which is set up like a classroom. The story line is as follows: After being caught sleeping in class, you and your friends are punished with detention. Upon entering the classroom, the door shuts behind you and you can’t get out. Are your classmates playing a prank on you or is there someone teaching you a lesson you will never forget?”
Since the maximum number of players can reach up to 6 plus the hearsay that it’ll be funner if there were more people, they decided to invite some friends to make the experience more fun. Their blockmate and fellow SA classmate, Kevin, tagged along. Jenny also brought her boyfriend Caleb and his blockmate, Lee. With an even number of girls and boys, they decided that they were set to go to the event!
Breakout Katipunan is located across from Ateneo de Manila, on the 2nd floor of the building where Cello’s Donuts can be found. There is a narrow staircase from the donut shop entering Breakout and the vibe of the surroundings went from bright to dark, from safe to that feeling of uncertainty. Some of the group members, like Jenny, were starting to feel the jitters.
Amber took a video of the giving of rules and you can watch it here.
They began their event by meeting with their key informant, Mej, who currently works in Breakout. He sat them down proceeded to give some rules. The rules were relatively simple: find clues that will help you unlock the codes and eventually let you out of the room. Additional warnings were given such as that they were not allowed to peel the posters off from the walls, to stay away from things labeled “OFF LIMITS” because there would be no clues there, and that someone may or may not be inside the room with them. That statement brought out a variety of reactions: Amber felt like it was fun because the idea of someone in the room ready to give a jump scare seemed more comical than suspenseful; Janine was mostly curious because the room they picked did not have a horror theme and wondered if the jump scare still applied; Jenny, however, started to feel alarmed because she hates jump scares. She has little to no exposure to horror films and haunted houses and became worried because she’s easily traumatized. It also didn’t help that she currently lives alone. Caleb, Lee, and Kevin did not think much about the statement and instead started poking fun at each other. Mej also gave some safety procedures should someone have a panic attack during the game. He told them to simply wave at any of the CCTV cameras present in the room and he will intervene to address any pressing health concerns.
The group was not allowed to bring any of their belongings inside the rooms so after they put their bags away in the lockers provided by Breakout, they proceeded upstairs where the Detention room was. Outside the Detention room, Mej handed everybody blindfolds. He told them to put them on and not to peak as it would result in a deduction in the 45-minute time given to finish the game. Blindfolded, the group formed a single-file line, holding onto the shoulders of the person in front, and entered the Detention room. The group’s other senses were heightened and mostly relied on their sense of touch and hearing to know that the others were nearby. Amber used her sense of direction to calm herself down but then felt anxious when she didn’t hear some of her friends making any noise. She would try to get hold of her group mates but was wary about touching anything else, like another person or actor who was part of the room. Jenny noted distinctly that there was a musky smell around the room, like old yellowing pages from a book and old furniture. Janine realized that they were made to sit down on armchairs separated far from each other before they heard a loud door-slam, which elicited a scream from Jenny.
After they got settled, muffled voice-over repeated the instructions and told them to remove our blindfolds. Everyone was surprised to see that the room was not that dark and that Mej was standing in the back against a set of lockers. Amber thought that the room would be pitch black and empty but have a small window with a little natural light coming in, much like the way the poster depicted it. Janine thought the room would be bigger and expected other personnel inside to scare them. The setting was pretty much the same as any classroom setting: a teacher’s desk in the front, an old projector, a blackboard with a pull-down projector screen, a bookshelf, and a set of lockers in the back. Some of the lockers were open, some were locked. Everybody knew that in order to get out, the locks on those lockers must be decoded. In contrast the a typical classroom, though, the room had an eery vibe because of the yellow lighting, old furniture, and even a little smoke from smoke machines. The books in the room were all torn. Some had no covers and the others had ripped pages scattered around the shelves. Each seat had a bag filled with an empty pencil case and a broken book. There were writings on the board regarding homework and readings on world history. Mej briefed them again on their task asked if they had anymore questions before he left the room and locked the door behind him. The timer on top of the door started ticking and the group began to search the room for their way out.
Part II: Game proper
After Mej left they all got up from their seats and saw that each one had a bag hanging on it or placed under it. They rummaged through the bags which contained nothing more than torn books and, in the case of one, an empty pencil case. They thought we could find clues in the books; one of them had writing on it, but the first clue found was in the teacher’s desk. There was a blue record notebook on which the fictional teacher wrote about his or her students. He or she apparently had a favorite, knew who the bully in one of the classes was and changed the code in the lock at one point because one of the students had found out what it was. The teacher had written that the combination to one of locks was based on the students’ birthdays which were written on a laminated card hanging from the corkboard near the bookshelf. They spent a long time to trying the different birthday combinations to the four locks on the drawers (one of the drawers had three locks) until Mej came into the room around 15 minutes into the game and asked us how we were doing. The group told him that they had made no progress with the drawers. He then gave a clue. “What is the most obvious lock combination among the birthdays?” There was one month that had three birthdays in it and all the locks needed three digits. He told them to try the different combinations of those numbers which they did and in a few tries, were able to open one of the drawers. Inside were pieces of torn paper and piece of notebook paper with drawings on it. This led them to open the next lock which was a switch that opened a secret door in the bottom half of the bookshelf leading to another room. The room was dark and had to crawl in to get inside.
The opening to the secret room made everybody anxious. Nobody wanted to go in first. Amber, seeing that they couldn’t waste any more time, decided to go in first and the rest eventually followed. Jenny stayed back for a while, feeling her nerves taking over and had to be comforted by Caleb. It took a while for the others to find the light switch but when they turned the lights on, they saw that the walls were covered with engravings of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and paintings similar to the Paleolithic cave paintings found at Lascaux in France. Seeing the presence of light in the room, Jenny entered the secret room followed by Caleb.
The clue was a piece of paper instructing them to count how many there were of several symbols on the walls of the secret room, which was the code to one of the locks. Caleb was able to open one of the lockers where we found a notebook the supposed bully wrote on that left clues. The clue was that he vandalized the code onto something but that they couldn’t see it if it was open. They struggled with this for a while because time was running out and they were getting frustrated. Jenny tried the lights of the room. Lee tried the lights in the smaller room. Janine tried the projector screen. Caleb tried the lockers. However, it was Kevin who solved it when he turned off the electric fan and we found numbers scribbled on the blades. They were able to open one lock on the middle drawer but proceeded to get stuck because there were 2 other locks for which they did not have enough clues to open.
They had roughly 15 minutes left to get out of the room. The 2 locks left on the middle drawer consisted of letter codes and number codes. Lee thought that the hieroglyphics on one wall corresponded with the letters on the other. However, he found no success. Everybody was essentially just moving to and from and secret room. While searching, they could hear muffled screams outside and came to the realization that other groups playing in the different rooms with the The Walking Dead and the Abandoned Theme Park theme were the one screaming. Jenny joked, “Aren’t you guys glad we didn’t do that room?” Ignoring the screams and going back to the task at hand, they realized they had made no progress and were stuck. Nobody knew what to do anymore. Some tried to look through the broken pages and tried to piece them together but found no new clues. This went on for 12 minutes.
By the time the clock read 3 minutes left everyone gathered in the center of the classroom and started talking, not really bothering looking for any more clues.
At the 1 minute mark, everybody gave up.
After the clock hit 0, Mej entered the room with a smile on his face and asked them what happened.
Part III: Post Game
They all said that they got stuck and found no new clues. Mej then told them that they were simply not looking hard enough. Some offence was taken at that. He told them to look again inside the recent locker that they opened. The guys volunteered to look, Kevin and Lee even going as far as to stick their heads into the lockers. When Kevin was feeling around the locker, he was able to find a key wedged at the top left section of the locker. Everybody let a simultaneous sound of frustration because it felt like they should have been able to find it. They asked each other, “Who was the one who opened the locker?” and when Caleb answered that it was him, we all half-seriously joked that we lost because of him. They tried the key on the last locked locker and opened it. Inside the locker was an envelope which the group wanted to open. However, Mej said that time is up and that they could not further know what was inside that envelope. Everyone felt a little sad and disappointed, knowing that they could have exited the room after all.
Still in the room, Amber, Janine, and Jenny asked Mej if he could answer some question regarding the game and the place itself. They are listed here below.
Since Detention is the hardest room, what’s the ratio of those who get out?
Out of 2,000+, less than 200 so that’s less than 10%
How far were we into eventually getting out of the room?
Around 60-70%. He said that if we found the key inside the locker, “tuloy-tuloy na yan. For sure, makakalabas kayo.” (We got sad because of this and joked again that it was Caleb’s fault.)
There were other groups in another room the same time as us. Did they make it out?
Both teams made it out but it’s ok because theirs were easier than yours. However, the themes of their rooms were scarier–The Walking Dead and Clown: Abandoned Carnival–which included jump scares.
Who thinks of the flow of the story and the clues?
Mej said that he himself is part of the logistics group and that they make the story first and then base the clues from there.
Among the other groups who take the Detention room, how far do most of them make it?
Most of them don’t even get the first clue; only few get as far as your group did.
Do you offer discounts for people who make it out of the rooms?
Yes! If you get to break out of a room, you get 50% off on the next one, but it has to be your first time in that room. We also have membership cards that offer different discounts.
Downstairs, the group took pictures with the Breakout sign and even included some props. The props that they used included an arrow saying “It’s his fault” that was pointed at Caleb, another sign saying “Frustratingly fun” which held true for the players. After they exited the premises, they were able to talk about the game more thoroughly and had some insights. Caleb said that the problem of those games is that people become too fixated on finding the next clue that they forget to check the previous one–which is what happened.
They also realized the pros and cons of having a big group play in one game. The pros included that there were more minds to help during the puzzles and should the room have jump scares, being in a big group would be a bigger comfort. However, the cons were that everyone would be too scatter-brained: too many people who have different ideas trying to make it work but really it’s useless. They all then remembered from the pictures they observed that the top team who made it out of the Detention room–a record of 22 minutes–only consisted of 2 people.
The group’s experience at Breakout shows the different kinds of people there are: there is Amber who was game for anything, there was Jenny, who for some parts, felt jittery and was overcome by nerves, and Janine who was stoic and calm most of the time. She was calm because the theme was not as scary as the other two rooms. She said that if we chose those rooms instead, she would feel scared.
The people who participate in Breakout have to be comfortable in working under pressure and unusual external factors such as scary themes, mannequins that may actually be people, and jump scares. This proved true because friends who we know who work well under time pressure such as Lee and Janine, were able to maintain their composure while those who are not exposed to working under time pressure, such as Jenny, break down.
Overall, the group had a fantastic time experiencing Breakout for the first time and agreed that given the chance, they would do it again.
What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
You really get the hands-on experience rather than just watching other people do it. You feel things you wouldn’t feel otherwise if you just observed.
What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
Firstly, he helped us solve our first clue, and he was helpful in answering our questions when it came to the end of the event.
What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
The real experience of how people react to certain external factors. You can’t gauge how they’ll react unless you fully immerse them in the environment.
For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
An interview ensures that we don’t assume the other’s person’s experience of the event. We get confirmation.
Using our cafeteria observation exercise as reference, what insights did you gain about Philippine society and culture from the event that you observed and participated in?
The rooms in Breakout Katipunan as well as in other Breakout branches all have Western themes; we don’t really serve detention time in schools here, “The Walking Dead” is an American T.V. series, as for the “Clownhouse” room, carnival culture is not very prominent here. The closest we have are parks like Enchanted Kingdom and Star City which don’t really feature clowns as attractions, nor were clowns popular in Philippine culture before the Americans came. This tells us that Philippine society is highly influenced by Western culture so that even though we don’t practice some Western customs, we can still relate to them.