Arts & Entertainment

Escaping into a Game

Hidden Key Escape Games in Whitefish offer life-size, immersive puzzles with detailed storylines

WHITEFISH — You’re in a hurry, but for good reason: there’s an emergency.

Some hikers have gone missing, and it’s your responsibility to help find them. As part of search and rescue efforts, you wander up the North Fork, looking for the missing people, when you stumble upon a cabin. It would make sense that they might be in there, so sure, why not check it out?

But something is amiss as soon as you walk in — you can feel it. The door closes behind you and — click — you’re trapped.

And that’s when the game starts. Can you figure out the puzzles inside in time to escape from this cabin?

A lock on a mount in the North Fork Cabin room at Hidden Key Escape Games in Whitefish on Oct. 4, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The cabin interior is actually space within Hidden Key Escape Games, newly opened on U.S. Highway 93 just south of Whitefish in what was formerly the Stumptown Anglers building.

Owner Sandy Welch fell in love with escape games while visiting her father and brother in Florida. In these games, which are gaining popularity around the country, two to 10 participants are placed in a locked room full of hands-on puzzles to solve as they work to escape within an hour.

“It’s just so much fun,” Welch said one morning last week as she fixed up some of the props.

Welch played several escape games in Florida while on vacation and couldn’t shake the desire.

“Since then I’ve played in Tennessee, Arizona, New York, and Canada, and just thought it would be something really great for Whitefish,” she said.

When she decided to dive in and start up Hidden Key, Welch hired a consultant to help with the actual puzzles. Though the game is specifically built to mirror a Montana situation, Welch wanted it to be accessible for everyone. That means not making the puzzles too challenging, not quite yet.

Welch beta-tested the consultant’s work and found it was almost too easy. So she and her family and friends added their own puzzles, which have become her favorites.

Already, Hidden Key has ushered a considerable amount of participants through the North Fork cabin scenario, including a law firm, a health-care office, a 12-year-old’s birthday party, three generations of one family, and bachelorette parties.

Various types of locks at Hidden Key Escape Games in Whitefish on Oct. 4, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In her first month in business, Welch reports that she’s hit the target averages she was hoping for, and she hopes business will continue to pick up with the addition of new games.

In November, Hidden Key will introduce another game, this time set in Bannack, Montana in 1864. It was a time of unrest and infamous vigilantes and gold rushes, and players will be deputized before entering Sheriff Henry Plummer’s office.

Plummer was a real sheriff in the Montana and Idaho territories in the 1860s, and vigilantes hanged him in 1864. Game players will be faced with a series of challenges in the office as well as the neighboring saloon.

Welch was working on the new game sets last week, with barn wood already installed on the floors to give the rooms a sense of time and place, and was planning on painting a piano from 1875 before constructing the bar.

Little details help bring the game to life, as do the five game masters working for Hidden Key who are on hand to make sure the experience runs smoothly.

“We’re here so that people have a good time,” Welch said, showing a control room where game masters can watch cameras and listen to microphones in every room.

People who haven’t played before generally have two concerns, she said. First, they’re actually locked in a room, and second, they worry about feeling stupid because they can’t figure it out.

“You can always get out the way you came in,” Welch said, noting that the point of the game is to exit a different door.

And there’s a job for everyone, she said.

“There have been people who say, ‘I’m not good at this, but I like puzzles.’ They usually figure out the hard stuff,” Welch said with a laugh. “Everybody gets to do something, even if you’re just a good searcher.”

A third game, which will likely take up the back building currently used for storage, is expected in late winter or early spring. Welch has been dreaming of the puzzles for it already, and of the smiles and laughter from the people escaping.

“It’s just a great communication and teamwork kind of experience,” she said. “By the time you leave, you now have a shared experience.”

For booking and other information, visit www.HiddenKeyEscapeGames.com or call (406) 823-0564.

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