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You're a spy. Well, no you're not. Thankfully you have a group of friends with you to help you think like one.

You're locked in the office of an ambassador in a foreign country.

The clock is ticking. There's only an hour to find a cipher that will save the world. You need to unravel a series of puzzles and break codes, hidden around the desk, bookcases and locked drawers.

If you don't find the cipher in time, the world won't end. You're not really a spy. You're a customer at Big Sky Breakout, one of two brand-new business that are bringing the trend of escape rooms to Missoula.

The rooms are designed to create a suspenseful group activity, a "live experience" in an era of screen-based entertainment.

The scenarios vary as widely: some have zombies or mad scientists, others are jail breaks. Big Sky Breakout has a jail break. And so does Break Out of Missoula, which is opening on Stephens Avenue at the beginning of next month.

***

Ralph Walters and Jaime Rauch, a married couple and business partners, opened Big Sky Breakout on Friday.

The two, who have backgrounds in stagecraft, camerawork and lighting, first tried an escape room last August in Denver. It was a family outing, and they noticed how engaged even the 10- to 15-year-olds were.

"We basically walked out of there and did the 15-, 16-hour drive back and talked about it the entire time," Walters said.

They immediately began looking for a property, and found a circa-1910 house on the Northside, large enough to house two games to start off. They designed the scenarios themselves and built the rooms, relying heavily on tools and materials from the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project and Home ReSource salvaged hardware store. The spy scenario is called "Embassy Escape," and they have an "Alice in Wonderland"-themed game called "Through the Looking Glass" opening soon.

The other opening game, "Du Frank's Break," is based on the story of Joseph Du Frank, who was indicted for murder in Missoula in 1867 and imprisoned in a log jail at Fort Missoula and escaped twice, once to get help after a fire break out.

Inside the Du Frank room, the couple built two suitably old-timey-looking jail cells, plus a desk for the sheriff and props everywhere that could disguise clues.

The games are designed and recommended for groups because of the volume of puzzles. They said the "Embassy" takes two to six people, while "Du Frank" is three minimum. The rooms are equipped with cameras, and Rauch and Walters act as "game-masters," goading along groups that may be stuck with hints or clues.

"You want to build a room that takes the entire hour to solve. In fact, to us, to me at least, the perfect game is you have the last clue and you're reaching for the door and time expires," Walters said.

***

Jennifer and Jake Hanson are opening Break Out of Missoula early next month. The married couple first heard of the concept on an episode of "Big Bang Theory" and tried one in Spokane.

In their "Jail Break," your team has been framed for a "heinous" crime. Some are handcuffed in the sheriff's office, and some are in the cell. Left unattended for 60 minutes, the team needs to bust out, referencing clues and hints hidden throughout the narrow room the Hansons built. (They, too, hit up Home ReSource, and found an authentic prison toilet.)

Their other room is "The Secret Laboratory," in which a deadly flu is threatening the global population. A scientist who may have found a cure has gone missing. The team needs to comb through the lab to find the antidote.

They've tried to vary the difficulty levels: "Jail Break" is the easiest, "The Secret Laboratory" is trickier. Their third room, "Un-Lucky 13," will be the most difficult. That one will be open in a few months.

They figure the turnaround time will be eight to 12 months per room, and they can redo a scenario with new clues and puzzles to keep it fresh.

***

Escape rooms have also found success as team-building exercises for employers, a niche that Rauch wants to engage by earning a certificate.

Employers are already trying it out though. One of the groups that beta-tested Big Sky Breakout's Du Frank puzzle was the staff of the Roxy Theater.

"It might be my favorite thing to do in the whole world," said Mike Steinberg, the Roxy's executive director.

He said it was layered, smart and complicated – they finished with perhaps 5 minutes to go.

From the "team-building" angle, he said it was a microcosm of what the nonprofit aims for every day: solving problems via clear communication.

***

The most definitive history of escape rooms that Walters has found is "Peeking Behind the Locked Door: A Survey of Escape Room Facilities," a 2015 white paper by Scott Nicholson, a professor of game design and development in Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. Nicholson notes that his history is "incomplete," partially due to the predominant number of escape rooms in Asia.

Nicholson surveyed escape room owners, and found that many had opened independently of one another and had numerous inspirations "from a variety of genres such as live-action role-playing, point-and-click adventure games, puzzle hunts, interactive theater, and haunted houses that created the spark in someone's head to create an escape room."

A company in Kyoto, Japan, in 2007 holds "the earliest well-documented activity" of an activity billing itself as an escape room, according to Nicholson.

"Rooms grew rapidly in 2012-2013 first in Asia, then across Europe (with Hungary being a significant hub), and then over to Australia, Canada, and the USA," he writes. 

Now that the escape rooms are here, Hansons said the hardest part of the business might be introducing people to the idea. There's one in Billings and another in Belgrade.

"The rest of the world really has embraced it and caught on the last 10, 12 years," Jennifer said. "It's a relatively new concept to the United States and it's slowly making its way into places like Montana."

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.