WASHINGTON — Can you thrive for a day in 1518? That’s the question posed to all who enter Wigwam Escape, the new history-themed escape room at Washington’s Institute for American Indian Studies, a museum and research center dedicated to providing informative and engaging experiences relating to the world of Native Americans from prehistoric to contemporary times.
An escape room is an adventure game where groups of players race to solve a series of puzzles in a set period of time, using clues found in the room.
Unique among area venues, Wigwam Escape invites visitors to step into a Native American village in the Scattacook Hills, an area reknowned for medicinal plants, just before dawn on a late summer day in 1518, prior to European contact.
An illness has befallen the neighboring village of Metachiwon and the people need help.
Through sequential puzzles, players must gather and prepare food, water, medicine and other supplies for the seven-mile journey, using only the resources found in the village and surrounding forest.
Participants are meant to question everything they see in the room, exploring all aspects to “forage” for clues.
The time allotted — 60 minutes, more or less — represents one full day in the village. With no clocks, watches or cell phones, players must rely on the position of the sun and the sounds of the forest to gauge their progress.
A permanent installation, Wigwam Escape was created by Woodbury residents Griffin Kalin, Lauren Bennett and Jesse Stephens.
“It’s a totally immersive experience,” said IAIS Executive Director Chris Combs, “and that’s exactly what they were trying to get to. It’s been a great process for everyone who worked on it.”
There were no escape rooms in the U.S. when Lauren, Griffin and Jesse were students together in the mid-2000s at Nonnewaug High School. More than a dozen years later, the three friends reunited to pool their varied skills and interests and collaborate on Wigwam Escape.
Griffin is Wigwam Escape’s creative director. Drawing on deep knowledge gained from a longtime association with the institute, he came up with the design of the project, creating the puzzles, the aesthetics and flow of the room.
Jesse, an accomplished artist who was inspired by the landscape of nearby Steep Rock Preserve, painted the murals that line the walls, placing players convincingly in a woodland setting in western Connecticut.
Lauren, who studied archeology and anthropology at Philadelphia’s Temple University, brings years of experience in history-based immersive tourism to her job as Wigwam Escape’s program coordinator.
Construction began in June 2018 with carpentry help from IAIS board member Craig Nelson. Much care was taken to ensure maximum authenticity, safety and engagement while also keeping costs down.
A rock wall was built from a material strong enough to withstand use, but soft enough to protect anyone who fell against it. Cornstalks fashioned from masking tape and PVC pipe closely resemble the real deal.
Griffin and his father built a wigwam using stone tools and traditional materials, including copious amounts of tulip bark that fortuitously became available after the May 15 tornado.
“Except for two trees, we built the entire room from scratch,” said Lauren. “Griffin designed the puzzles and we made them. Most of the props, we made.”
The 20x20-foot escape room opened to the public in December in the museum’s research building.
The creators estimate that “a couple hundred” people have experienced Wigwam Escape so far, most in groups of four to five. The feedback they’re getting is that Wigwam Escape is incredibly different from other escape rooms, and that the builders used every inch of available space.
“A lot of escape rooms rely on locks and numbers and words,” said Lauren. “Because they didn’t have numbers and written language in 1518, we couldn’t rely on that technology. We had to get really creative. We pride ourselves on how that works.”
At Wigwam Escape, creative lighting simulates the movement of the sun through the day, from a dimly lit predawn through the glare of high noon and eventually sundown.
A sound track represents the passage of time, with birdsong greeting the morning, loons calling in the afternoon and nocturnal animals heralding the night.
“We took the escape room concept and made it work for us,” said Lauren. “We added the educational aspect, encouraging people to think critically about what’s in front of them.
“Some escape rooms are pretty dramatic,” she said. “Our’s is based on getting supplies for a journey, from collecting water to cooking two types of food and making medicine.
“It’s meant to be a fun, educational experience.”
Wigwam Escape is meant to be a collaborative experience. The creators suggest that visitors come in groups of three or more.
A maximum of seven people can play at once. Groups of children must be at least 12 years old; younger children are welcome to play if adults are part of the group.
“Kids are really good at understanding the context of what’s going on,” said Griffin. “Adults tend to be more mechanical, where kids are more imaginative.”
The experience is suitable for all ages, from school groups and families to adult friends and corporate groups.
Difficulty is determined by the number of clues, if any, players choose to accept.
“Every group is different,” said Lauren. “It really depends on your learning style, how you go about solving a problem.”
Tyler Loormann is Wigwam Escape’s experience host.
After a 15-minute introduction, Tyler admits players to the escape room. He then monitors the action on four video screens. When players appear to be stuck on a task, he asks if they would like a clue.
After the 60-minute experience, he hosts “wrap-up” sessions where participants can discuss what they’ve learned over popcorn — a Native American snack.
“We want people to talk about the tasks and the materials, to further contextualize the puzzles,” said Griffin.
“The goal is to help people access history in a different way, as hands-on and immersive as possible,” said Lauren.
“It’s a way for people to make the connection with what life was like 500 years ago, living in this area.
“How would you gather food? How would you cook or preserve it? What would your home be? Why was fire important? All those things are addressed in the puzzle.”
“Everything is related,” said Chris. “The game drives you to a certain point, then opens back up again. Everything starts to fit together.”
According to Griffin, information gained in an immersive way is easier to retain. Some people visit the museum exhibits next door before they try the escape room; some visit the museum after. Either way, he said, one experience enhances the other.
Chris told Voices he hopes Wigwam Escape helps the museum to attract new visitors.
“Every year, we get 7,000 kids under 11, from fourth grade on down, and 3,000 visitors over 60,” he said. “I want to get the demographic in between.”
“High school kids, people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, that’s a group that we’re missing in the museum,” said Lauren. “We’re attempting to engage them in a different way.”
Modern escape rooms evolved from video games, with the first one appearing in Japan in 2014. But the concept goes back further than that. Ancient Egypt had its labyrinth; medieval England had its hedge mazes and for the past 25 years, corn mazes have been sprouting up each fall on American farms.
And who doesn’t like a puzzle, particularly one where you can work with a group of friends, family or co-workers to solve it together.
Located on the grounds of the Institute for American Indian Studies, 38 Curtis Rd., Wigwam Escape is open by reservation on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Office hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday.
Admission is $25 per person or $20 for IAIS members.
Those seeking reservations or additional information may visit www.wigwamescape.com or call 860-868-0510.