Behind the scenes: Project Escape

Posted on 2017-01-04

After the Escapetalk team escaped from both De Duivelskamer and De Drukkerij, we thought it was time to have a quick chat with the enthusiastic team behind these two escape rooms: Project Escape from Nijmegen. They joined the escape room game early: in December 2014 they opened the doors of their first escape room (De Duivelskamer). Since then owner Mark Smolenaars, main force Stefan van Hulten and a team of gamemasters will do anything to make sure their visitors will have an unforgettable experience. According to them the succes of their escape rooms isn't only because of the fun puzzles and surprises, but also because they offer a good story, atmosphere and experience. They think that's the necessary foundation of a good escape room. Aside from that they feel it's important to personalize the escape experience. Of course it's different for each group, but you can think of a peak behind the scenes afterwards, or sending in the bachelor when the rest of the friends are already hidden in the room. 'Everything about the experience needs to be just right and we're getting better and better at this.'
Mark came into contact with escape rooms when a friend of his came back from a holiday in Budapest and was all excited about it. He told him all about it. 'The idea of getting locked up in a room and having 60 minutes to escape alone gave me goosebumps.' He was sure: 'This is what I should be doing'. 

For this idea Stefan came in useful: he graduated from International Event, Music and Entertainment studies, a creative communication education where he mainly was coming up with creative concepts. These skills turned out to be useful for building and running an escape room. A roommate brought him into contact with Mark and that's how he ended up in the escape room world.

‘The idea of getting locked up in a room and having 60 minutes to escape alone gave me goosebumps.’ 

De Duivelskamer
They were toying around with the idea of building an escape room in an old monastery for some time. It didn't happen, but the setting stuck with them. In Nijmegen there's a well known medieval story about Mariken van Nieumeghen. This story's about the devil (Moenen) who seduces Mariken to evil. 'We thought it was fun to do something new with that. Why would a devil only talk to an innocent girl while he's here? It would really be a victory for the devil if he would seduce a man of God.'

After the opening in 2014 De Duivelskamer received some special attention. The Vatican had been tipped by a nearby bishop about the hellish theme of their escape room and requested Mark to seize all blasphemy immediately. A bit later this turned out to be an Aprils Fools joke: 'we had a whole list of possible jokes and this stuck out immediately. We based the use of language and layout upon real letters of the Vatican. Our Facebook post got a lot of response by our followers, so we send out the news to a couple of escape room platforms. They picked it up right away. We even got called by a journalist who wanted to write a detailed article about it. But after a quick phone call with his editors they concluded it probably was a joke. Would have been fun though.'
De Drukkerij
After the success of the first room the opportunity arose to take ownership of an existing escape room in Nijmegen. Two enthusiastic entrepeneurs from Nijmegen were working on De Drukkerij for a long time. Their goal was to keep the history of Nijmegen, and especially operation Market Garden, alive. When they finished the room they realized they didn't actually wanted to run the room. They were the first group to ever play De Duivelskamer and they thought teir baby De Drukkerij would be in good hands with Project Escape. 'We notice a bit more older people playing De Drukkerij, people that have parents who actually lived through the war. On September the 17th, the day we commemorate Market Garden, a couple of groups came especially for that. You totally felt history come alive.' They did change some things in the room though: 'We really liked the room already, but we made a couple of small adjustments to improve the flow of the game a little bit. We always would have made those adjustments by the way. Even when we build the room ourselves. Some things you'll only notice after seeing a couple of groups play.'

'On September the 17th, the day we commemorate Market Garden, a couple of groups came especially for that. You totally felt history come alive.'

De Ramkraak
The build time of the next room they're designing and building themselves, De Ramkraak, is almost starting to take mythical proportions. They stopped building for a moment because De Drukkerij and Kids Escape came on their path and needed their attention. But the fact they're perfectionists also added to the delay. 'We really want to do something unique with this room. Eventually there will be a lot of details that most players will not even notice, but we really want everything to be correct. We do this by asking ourselves a couple of questions the entire process: Why? Why would you enter that room? Why are they puzzles everywhere? Why do you need to solve this puzzles?'

In essence the Ramkraak is an action movie you ended up in. In the game you need to break into a fictional company: Starlife Enterprise. 'We actually made a website, social media, corporate identiy, promo, logo etc. etc. for this fictional company.' What the company does exactly is unknown, but despite all the luxury it doesn't feel right. What you'll eventually find in the safe will remain a secret, until you open it. You don't have too long to think about it all, because the police can drop in any minute. You can also ask yourself: do you really have 60 minutes to do this? 'We always said that we wanted to do more than just create a new escape room. Outside of the escape room we'll have a couple of really cool actions that will add to this. What this is going to be exactly we're not going to tell you yet.'

Kids Escape
More and more we get questions about escape room for kids. Project Escape has one: kids between 8 and 15 years old can go discover the de secrets of professor Schnitzel. On the one hand building an escape room for children is the same as building an escape room for adults: 'children are almost as critical and demanding as adults. The theme and story need to be good. Kids want to know everything, so everything needs to be correct.' On the other hand there's a lot of differences: 'puzzles are more physical, things you need to do. Less thinking, more searching, discovering and trying. And there's always puzzles that don't work as well as planned. Sometimes a puzzle is a bit too hard or kids don't like it as much as we expected. It remains a matter of monitoring what works and improve what doesn't.'

Kids Escape isn't only for kids anymore. If you're 16 years and older you can play this room, the puzzles will be made more difficult in that case of course.

'We want to create experiences that really make you step into an other world. Everything needs to be just right for that. We're getting better and better at this.'

Highs and lows
'Sometimes you see people coming in a bit reluctant, for example when they're on a teamouting and didn't have any say in the activity themselves. They mope a bit, that they don't like enclosed spaces, that they don't like puzzles or think an hour is too long. Most of the time those are the people that are the most enthusiastic and want to know everything about the room. That enthusiasm is great and exactly what you do it for.'

Not everything is positive about running an escape room though: 'On a fully booked Saturday the first group blazed through De Drukkerij like a tornado. They didn't even notice some of the things they demolished. Then it's key to try to fix as much as possible and you'll need to notify the next group that there's an object they don't need to use any force on. We really hate doing that, because we think you need to be able to touch everything. But luckily people understand it when you explain it to them. That's the downside of a room full of furniture and objects from the '30's and '40's. When it breaks you can't replace it right away.

And when can we finally enjoy De Ramkraak? 'We did set a deadline for ourselves, but because of earlier delays we're not announcing it this time!' On Project Escape's website you can read they expect to open sometime in 2017 though. We're already looking forward to it!

Related escape rooms: Project Escape Nijmegen

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