In a converted office building just off Blackstone Avenue, teams of average people are working as one to prevent Fresno’s destruction in a nuclear war. Their ability to navigate through riddles, puzzles and locked boxes will ultimately decide whether we live or die.
That’s one of the scenarios presented at Breakout Fresno, which houses the city’s first four escape rooms. The business, which opens Saturday, April 16, brings the popular escape room craze, which is based on dozens of online video games, to a city that – despite the claims of misinformed residents – is fast becoming a hub for off-the-beaten-path adult fun.
“We’re all from Fresno, and we’re bringing an escape room here because we love our community and think they’ll love it, too,” says co-owner Sarah Clem.
Clem, a fan of the online games, first learned of their real-life counterparts while on vacation in Philadelphia with her husband, Brian.
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“We had the opportunity to a play a live one, and we were immediately addicted,” Clem says. “It kept coming up in conversation, and we thought we needed to look this. Our family went for it.”
Clem invited me to head one of about 20 groups testing the escape rooms ahead of the public opening. I recruited fellow Bee columnist Joshua Tehee and some friends to tackle “Wanted,” one of the Western rooms. We played the roles of outlaws looking to escape the hangman’s noose in the 1800s.
Live-action escape rooms first gained popularity in Japan and Europe before spreading to the U.S.
I have lived in Fresno my whole life, as has most of my team, and we unanimously agreed that the hectic hour we spent in that room was unlike anything we have ever done in this city.
Unlike basic trivia or skill-based recreation like paintball, the puzzles utilized every section of our brains. It’s important to bring a full team, because the scenarios each require a variety of problem-solving skills.
Teams are given an hour to escape each room, and I was absolutely useless during the first half of our attempt. I tried to decipher the codes and find the necessary clues to crack the locked drawers on the sheriff’s desk and break my friends out of jail, but I just couldn’t find my rhythm.
At my lowest point, while the other five outlaws attempted to open a nasty puzzle box, I devolved into hysterics. I just walked around the small room yelling “what’s in the box?!” over and over again, a la Brad Pitt in “Seven.”
Clem and the other staff members kept it fun throughout our journey, offering clues on a monitor in the room when we got stuck or frustrated. This is important, she says, because Breakout Fresno wants to ensure that everyone is having fun and feels a sense of accomplishment throughout the game time.
I found my stride in the second part of our escape, immediately finding the hidden combination to one of the three-numbered locks barring our escape and solving a word puzzle.
My team made it all the way to the very last riddle before our time ran out. We left the room defeated, but each doomed outlaw craved more. We are in good company – Clem says she and her husband have never finished one, either.
Our escape attempt went quite smoothly, which is impressive considering the Clems enlisted their family and friends for nearly every aspect of Breakout Fresno’s four-month construction.
They built the rooms – two in the Cold War-era nuclear vein and two in a Wild West theme – using kits provided by Breakout Manchester, a British company that provides scenarios and marketing tools in a sort-of franchising operation. Friends helped with the wiring, marketing and location scouting. Breakout Fresno may look to rotate new scenarios in every six months or so, depending how successful the business is.
The business has no actual employees. Family members will staff Breakout Fresno, at 90 E. Escalon Ave. Suite 108, Thursday through Sunday each week.
The plan is to open Breakout Fresno on an appointment-only basis, Clem says, but they may be able to accommodate walk-in customers. Appointments can be made at breakoutfresno.com or by 559-400-8926. Entry is between $24-$28 per person per game. The fee drops depending on if you have a full group of five or six.
Clem says the opening weekend has nearly filled up – mostly with birthday parties or coworkers looking to improve their teamwork – but she has a few openings. The escape rooms are open to all ages, but Clem recommends only bringing children older than 12, as the puzzles are probably too tricky for anyone younger.
Breakout escape rooms are rated on a difficulty scale, with five being the highest. Fresno’s rooms are rated either three or four.
This is a new adventure for Clem, a veterinarian at Fresno’s All Creatures Veterinary Clinic by day. “I have zero qualifications except that my family loved them (escape rooms) and think they’re a blast,” she says with a laugh.
Clem isn’t the only native daughter to bring a trend catching fire outside the Valley to the Fresno masses. Breakout Fresno is part of city-wide grassroots movement gaining steam over the past five years or so to silence local malcontents who believe there’s nothing for residents – especially adults – to do in town.
Local bars have played a major part. Several host alcohol-assisted painting lessons, while at least four – House of Pendragon, Sequoia Brewing Company, Santa Fe Basque and Yosemite Falls Cafe – hold weekly pub quizzes, or trivia nights. Downtown Fresno favorite Peeve’s holds a coloring night only for adults and also hosts art lessons similar to the painting parties.
Plenty of new spots have opened up for those who feel like staying dry, too.
MB2 Raceway offers serious go-karting at its Clovis location in the heart of the Sierra Vista Mall. No Surrender Laser Tag has dozens of military or fantasy scenarios for kids and adults. Blue Shell Gaming & Collectibles hosts video game tournaments and free-play nights every month, and Crazy Squirrel Game Store holds tabletop, miniature and card gaming events pretty much every night.
A breakout room gives us a great opportunity to enjoy a national trend.
Jennifer Ward, owner of Crazy Squirrel Games
Jennifer Ward, owner of Crazy Squirrel and one of the creators of Fresno’s largest comic book and nerd culture convention, Zappcon, explained the recent surge.
“I can’t remember the exact quote, but it’s something like ‘you have to be the change you want to see in the world,’” Ward says. “I think a lot of people are taking that to heart.”
Ward moved here about 13 years ago from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She heard – mostly from natives – that there was nothing to do in Fresno.
“I got to looking, and there’s stuff to do all the time,” Ward says. “In March and April, there are more things I want to do each weekend than time to do them in.”
Ward says that most of her friends and coworkers are nerds and geeks, who are commonly perceived as anti-social but are, in fact, very social. She believes the recent surge in recreation options is part of a cyclical return to traditional communities.
“The internet exploded, and we found all these eccentric online communities to be a part of,” she says. “Now, a lot of us are going back to sharing our passions and loves with the people around us.”