Break Free: live escape game tests logic and skill

Photos Courtesy of Rodney Johnson Players celebrate with a ‘facebook’ shot.
Photos Courtesy of Rodney Johnson
Players celebrate with a ‘facebook’ shot.

UNION, NJ — The door shuts slowly behind you as you hear the ominous click of the lock. Your eyes adjust slowly to the dark. To your right stands a tall, wooden cupboard, a heavy lock hanging from its handle; to the left, an antique desk strewn with broken pieces of sculpture, an ornate, gilded chest, a pile of old maps, and yellowed parchment-like paper covered in hieroglyphics and numbers. In the corner, a wine rack sits next to a globe and an antique treasure chest. The walls are covered with large framed paintings by Degas and Monet. You have entered a famous collector’s gallery, and you have just 60 minutes to get out.

In order to gain your freedom, however, you must first solve a series of codes, discover hidden clues and follow a trail shrouded in mystery and suspense. You must rely on sheer brainpower, logic and a little help from your teammates in order to escape. Do you have what it takes to break free?

Welcome to Break Free, a live escape game located in Union. Started six months ago by owner Rodney Johnson, the latest trend in live, interactive gaming is beginning to really catch on.

Johnson, who recently moved to Union from Hillside, says that starting a business like this was a dream come true. “I have always been an entrepreneur,” said Johnson. “I have never been afraid to try something. I liked going to escape rooms and escaping so naturally I wanted to do my own.”

Johnson has a background in mechanical engineering, but caught the live gaming bug once he tried it for himself. “I became interested in the industry after trying a few escape rooms and enjoying the experience,” said Johnson. “It is pretty addicting.”

Johnson says that his business has been growing exponentially as word spreads of this unique live game experience. “We generally get about 180 people a week. Saturdays are always booked in advance so it’s tough to get a same-day Saturday booking,” said Johnson. “We started slow with about 150 people in December. However, now we are averaging about 790 people a month.”

Currently there are two escape rooms. The first, called, “The Murder of Detective Jack Robinson,” centers around the discovery of a murdered detective in his study, in which the player has been named the prime suspect. In order to prove his innocence, the player has 60 minutes at the scene to solve the crime. The second room, called, “The Heist,” is played in the dark and with flashlights, and places the gamer in the role of a criminal whose purpose is to steal the world’s most precious key from a famous collector’s gallery in order to gain access to eternal life.

Johnson says that his background in engineering comes into play when planning each of the rooms. “I come up with all the scenarios for the games,” said Johnson. “I generally come up with one main puzzle and start to build the story around it. I am an engineer so naturally I like the more technical puzzles.”

According to Johnson, there are plans in the works for a variety of new scenarios, with a new, military-themed escape room opening as soon as this week.

“There are tons of ideas in the works,” said Johnson. “We want to stay at three rooms, however we want to change themes out after about three or four months. We have a theme called, “The invitation,” which is a horror-themed room coming out in August. We also have a Mayan tomb escape that I am planning.”

Johnson says that part of the fun for him is sharing in the experience with his customers. “Recently one of our guests wanted to surprise his girlfriend with Beyonce tickets,” said Johnson. “We had them hidden in one of the puzzle pieces so she could find them. She was over-the-top excited once she did.”

Johnson says that the idea of being locked in a room adds to the suspense. “We used to joke about an emergency key in the room, just in case someone goes into labor, until we had a customer who was 41 weeks pregnant play the game with her husband,” said Johnson. “She was tired of being home and wanted to do something exciting. She had a great time and we didn’t have to use the emergency key.”

Johnson, who operates Break Free with manager Latisha Parsons, says that he tries to give his customers the most memorable time possible. “I feel that we are a little bit different from many other escape rooms,” said Johnson. “We are more about service to our customers than just getting them in and getting them out. Most customers love to stay around after their games and chat with us about their experience. We feel like the experience starts from the moment they walk in the door to the moment they walk out. It’s been great so far and I think the people of Union County and the surrounding areas will enjoy Break Free.”

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