Couple bring immersive-adventure games to Santa Fe

RIGHT: Bill Hernandez monitors the Lost in the Tomb escape room from the control center. Here, he watches as participants search for clues to escape and can give hints during their hour in the room.

You have one hour to figure out how to open the ornate, golden sarcophagus and escape from the pharaoh’s tomb. If you fail, you will spend eternity there.

Not really. It’s supposed to feel thrillingly real, but it’s only a game. Lost in the Tomb, it’s called, and it’s one of three interactive, real-time adventures now available in Santa Fe that require you — and your friends — to solve one puzzle after another, using only the clues embedded in the locked rooms and your own brains.

This latest entertainment phenomenon evolved from the video game industry, and the settings include such situations as space stations, casino heists, haunted houses and jailbreaks, as well as Egyptian tombs. The immersive-adventure idea, which appeals to puzzle lovers and video gamers, got its start in Japan and China in 2007 and spread to Europe and now the U.S., where there are an estimated 1,500 “escape rooms,” including four in Albuquerque. And now one is Santa Fe.

At Escape Room Santa Fe, participants can choose Lost in the Tomb, an Egyptian-inspired puzzle room. Participants have one hour to unlock all the puzzles hidden around the room that will let them escape. Elayne Lowe/The New Mexican.

Escape Santa Fe owner Mary J. Nungary and her husband, Bill Hernandez, opened their new business this month in a small shopping complex at 505 Cerrillos Road. It faces the former Talin Market (soon to become a kiosk marketplace), and its neighbors include an Ohori’s coffee shop, a cider house and, soon, a new restaurant/nightclub.

Hernandez, an insurance broker who now works from home, was introduced to the escape room at his company’s executive retreat. The minute Nungary, a former international litigation specialist, heard about it, she thought, “It sounded like my cup of tea, solving puzzles and mysteries.” Hernandez attended a trade show in St. Louis were he began making contacts and assembling ideas for their own escape room in Santa Fe.

Nungary formed a corporation, then found a building and hired architects and contractors to build the rooms in the old DeSoto dealership. They bought the games, but tweaked them to meet their needs, scaling one down to fit into the space available and adding things to “make them even more interesting and challenging.”

The first room in the tomb game, the office of the archaeologist, also is fitted out with his leather bag, books, Egyptian statuettes, an old globe with a stand, a desk, a chess board that might figure in to one of the riddles, a map of Egypt and a historic photo of Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. Hernandez built the walls in the tomb room himself.

For another game, Situation Critical, the first room looks like an unassuming insurance company office, but it’s actually a front for the missing CIA operative who has been compromised and must initiate evacuation protocols. The object of this game is to defuse a bomb set to detonate. The interior room includes maps, computers, printers, clocks, a map of Manhattan and plastic firearms mounted on one wall — items that might help you solve the puzzle.

TOP RIGHT: At Escape Santa Fe, participants can choose Fredo’s L’Ultima Cena, an Italian restaurant and mob-inspired puzzle room.

Players, who pay $30 each, are required to sign a waiver promising not to disclose the secrets in these rooms — if they decipher them — but eventually the owners will swap them out for new games to maintain the excitement.

Controllers, in a separate room, monitor your efforts and sometimes offer some clues, often in exchange for a requirement that you do something silly, like a cheer or a dance. Although the equipment would voice these exchanges, mostly the controllers write their tips (some of them programmed) on a computer. The gamers can then read the information on monitors in each room. There are also white boards where players can take notes if needed. There’s normally one controller for each game.

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