In the Hungarian capital, ‘escape games’ are all the rage. Can Oliver Thring find the exit?
The shuttered address is on a quiet street that smells of petrol. I press the buzzer. There’s an unintelligible mumble and an electric drone, then I shove the door open to reveal a stairwell with peeling paint and some stuffed, smelly bins. Up a flight, the door to one flat is ajar. I walk, unescorted, into the apartment and shut the door behind me, whereupon it locks. A key dangles on an adjacent chain, padlocked in such a way that it just fails to reach the hole. A ticking clock gives the time as 12.02pm. I have 58 minutes to get out.
Escape games, in which contestants are locked into a room, or a series of rooms, and have to solve puzzles to leave them, have rapidly taken hold in Budapest. The city now has dozens, and the best designers and creators are being hired to develop games around Europe and in America. Although their origins are obscure, possibly Japanese, the games suit the grubby boulevards and mouldering stucco of this cultured, faded city better than anywhere else. Rents on flats in central Budapest can be as low as £164 a month: this is one of the few ways to make money from a crumbling asset.
In the room, stalked by incipient panic, I look around. Two doors lead to adjacent rooms: one of the doors opens a few inches on a chain, giving an unsettling glimpse of the space beyond, which appears to be divided by chicken wire. The second door, padlocked, has three nuts screwed into it, the kind a spanner might fit, with arithmetical signs drawn cryptically between them. My new, and hopefully temporary, home is also found to contain: a cupboard, holding an incongruous hairdryer; a large trunk, locked; an intercom, which I press to hear a Mitteleuropean accent rasp, “You have one hour”; and — aha! — a little old suitcase, which contains a few open-ended spanners. You’ve probably worked out the next step.
Being locked in an unfamiliar room, in an unfamiliar city, carries an instant and jarring feeling of alienation. The weirdness is automatic, bolstered by low ceilings, communist-era wallpaper and unreadable books. A printed A4 page in broken English playfully advises drunk people not to take part. The injunction serves as a reminder that Budapest is a young, back-of-the-bus party city — one reason these games have become so popular is the flow of InterRailing students and stag weekends. Yet I can’t think of anything more annoying than trying to fiddle with magnets, stamps and Allen keys in a locked, looless flat after 17 pints of Pecsi Sorfozde.
Eventually, I manage to open the door to the next room, which contains more tests reminiscent of the ones to which Richard O’Brien used to provide a harmonica soundtrack on the 1990s Channel 4 show The Crystal Maze. It contains locked desk drawers, old bookshelves, an ancient birdcage and a vintage train set, some of it inaccessible behind glass.