Crack the Code is a hidden thrill in beautiful Staunton

Story by Gillian Dukoff

Photos by Julia Nelson

A great escape Crack the Code features three new escape rooms for the Shenandoah Valley
She closes the wooden door behind us with a mischievous smile on her face. We hear the click of the lock. Locking eyes with my fellow teammates, a clock ticked down on the screen. We only had 60 minutes to crack the code. Crack The Code Escape Room in Staunton, Virginia, is the newest interactive escape game in which teams are locked in a room filled with clues with only 60 minutes to find their way to freedom. Escape rooms are becoming increasingly popular, with thousands emerging all over the country. Crack The Code currently has three different rooms to choose from: Da Vinci’s Office, Bunker and Asylum.

In each room, there are clues that a team must find. Teams are encouraged to tear the room apart in search of clues that will get them closer to freedom. The game calls upon riddles, word games, math equations and other brain blasters to help aid in your escape. Co-owners, Beth Brown and Heather Olsen, completed their first escape room in early 2016. “We travel a lot and we would always try and find the nearest escape room,” Brown said. “We thought it looked like a fun business to be a part of so we said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Olsen agreed. “Each time, we just got more and more addicted,” Olsen said. Brown and Olsen decided that Staunton was the perfect place to open up their first escape room. “We were fixated on downtown Staunton,” Brown said. “It’s such a unique and cool area with a ton of foot traffic from the different restaurants, breweries as well as the Stonewall Hotel. We have built-in customers here.”

Escape rooms usually feature different props and players are locked in a room and forced to find clues in an hour in order to escape.

The pair signed their lease last October and opened on Jan. 27, 2017. While some rooms follow a linear path, meaning that you must find one clue to discover the next clue, others are non-linear, meaning that any clue can be discovered at any time. Oftentimes, the latter is more challenging because there are several possible paths a team can take to escape. Our team struggled with the non-linear format; we found that there were so many clues to be found that it made it difficult to decipher which clue led to another clue and so on. Newcomers are encouraged to try either, but linear is probably a safer bet. Every team has an hour to discover the one clue that will help them escape.

Asylum is their newest room and was introduced to the public in February. “You need to change your themes to keep things fresh,” Brown said. “This allows for repeat customers to come back and find something new and exciting.” Brown and Olsen came up with themes on their own. They think of scenarios that would fit well into an escape room format and go from there when it comes to designing appropriate clues. Building an escape room is much like writing a story; an author comes up with a story idea and builds characters and plot points based on the story. Similarly, an escape room designer comes up with an idea for a room, and then develops clues and chooses props.

Simply designing each room can take hours because of the tinkering that ensues — when a customer messes with one aspect of the room, you open up the rest of the room to be altered with. “We design the rooms based on what we would like to experience as a customer,” Brown said. “Then we ask ourselves ‘Can I make this happen? What do I have to work with? Where do we go from there?’”

Meghan Tocci, a senior communications studies major at JMU, has always loved escape rooms. “The puzzles engage your brain and the hour time limit cranks up your adrenaline,” Tocci said.

“Even if you don’t get out of the room, you end up laughing, having fun and feeling like a MacGyver-type genius.”

A common misconception of escape rooms is that they are claustrophobic and scary. Crack The Code definitely breaks down those misconceptions, as Brown and Olsen are always monitoring the game and communicating with team members while they’re in the room. If you’re lucky, they’ll even provide you with a couple clues if you get stuck. According to the website, the different rooms have a 40 to 50 percent success rate, meaning the team escaped the room within the one hour time frame.