When University of Michigan alum Patton Doyle, co-founder of Decode Detroit, opened his first escape room in Ann Arbor last October, he knew it was one unlike the rest. Doyle took his passion and knowledge of puzzles to create escape rooms as a tool for urban planning in Ann Arbor and Detroit.
“I started Decode Detroit because I was trying to come up with a way that we could take our knowledge of puzzles and escaping and creating fun games, and putting that into a way to use as an urban planning tool,” Doyle said. “(We’re) binding together areas of southeast Michigan as a single sort of urban unit. Retail is suffering in the age of the internet. So, we’re trying to use this trend (of escape rooms) to promote local tourism.”
The multi-dimensional, “urban adventuring” Minerva Project is an intellectual challenge that first takes players through part one of a one-hour excursion where they must work through a fantasy world and “work together to save humanity.” Doyle said what makes his escape room unique is the story, which centers around Minerva, an artificial intelligence whom participants can either team up with or work against.
“Every escape room is a unique experience,” Doyle said. “The way that I would describe ours is a puzzle-adventure where you and a group of up to 10 friends have to solve a series of puzzles to advance the story and get out of the room. It’s like being dropped into the middle of the climax of an artificial-intelligence movie, and you happen to be there when things go wrong.”
After playing part one in the escape room, part two of the story takes players to about 15 Ann Arbor stores to solve a scavenger hunt. Doyle hopes to have more than 30 stores participating by the end of the summer, creating an intellectual challenge that focuses on the storyline in order to engage players even after they play part one.
“Ann Arbor is a wonderful town,” Doyle said. “Being from Ann Arbor, I’ve found that I know a lot of the shopkeepers who we’re partnering with to post these puzzles around the city.”
Doyle said he wants to use the puzzles and games around Ann Arbor and Detroit to help revitalize urban areas. He is trying to get people to go to shops and stores they might not normally visit and increase urban tourism as best he can.
“The thing that I’m most excited about that we’re doing right now is we’re opening a series of puzzles around Ann Arbor, and soon Detroit, that are free to play,” Doyle said, "that are introducing people to unique places — unique, locally-owned shops — that people might not otherwise discover. What we’re trying to do is use this escape room trend as something that can be a positive force for tourism for downtown areas in Michigan.”
Engineering freshman Kaelan Oldani worked at Decode Detroit over the summer and developed one of the puzzles for the scavenger hunt in Ann Arbor. Oldani said every puzzle takes particular attention to detail.
“Patton knew I was about to begin my first year as an engineering student at the University, and was willing to give me the opportunity to get a head start with hands-on experience through his company,” Oldani said. “So much thought and planning went into every single detail of the puzzle room.”
Rackham student Meghan Clark, chair of the CS KickStart program, brought her group of undergraduate mentees from CS KickStart through the escape room last fall.
“Around the time we were organizing our fall social event for alumni, we got an email from Decode Detroit describing their escape room,” Clark said. “It sounded like a fun, computer-themed outing, which was exactly what we were looking for.”
Clark said Doyle gave her group a behind-the-scenes tour of how things worked, which she said was a valuable way to learn more about computer science.
“(This) was very educational for them as budding computer scientists,” Clark said. “Seeing how computers were used to create the awesome experience they just had made computer science look cool.”
Not yet complete, part three of the Minerva Project will take players back to the escape room with new puzzles, in order to finish the adventure. Doyle said this is significant because, for most users, escape rooms are a one-time thing.
“They (escape rooms) don’t have much replayability,” Doyle said. “We’re building what is effectively two escape rooms in one location.”
Additionally, the co-founders wish to open a second escape room in the New Center area of Detroit, with hopes of taking what they have now in Ann Arbor and replicating it in another city. The location will be connected to the midtown and downtown corridors through the QLine light rail, which will help them in having puzzles throughout the city.
“The goal is to harness this game and these creative ideas to help the ongoing revitalization of southeast Michigan,” Doyle said. “We have one and a half (escape rooms). We have one that’s fully operational, and one in Detroit that’s in progress. We’re working to turn that into something that can be used as an escape room, either indoor or outdoor.”
Doyle said many students, young professionals and families have come to their escape room, with 55 percent of groups “escaping”—winning—part one.
“One of the first groups we had was a student group,” Doyle said. “They still to-date my favorite group that went through. The students that come through really seem to enjoy it. The entire game isn’t open yet, but plenty of players have beaten what’s been released. Some people really enjoy the puzzling part of it, some people are more there for the story.”
Oldani said the escape room could have a big impact on the region, and would recommend University students go try to solve the escape room for themselves.
“It's impressive to see the company grow from a mere passion for puzzles and interest in escape rooms into a successful company spanning across the region,” Oldani said. “It's a local escape room right off of campus, and is tons of fun. Regardless of how clever you think you are, this escape room will be an exciting challenge.”
In a broader scope, Doyle said the games serve to bind together urban areas, especially in an era where retail has been suffering in the Internet age. Clark added she is looking forward to playing part two in Ann Arbor in the near future.
“I’m really excited about the new stage of puzzles that Decode Detroit just released, where you walk around downtown Ann Arbor solving clues and find out what happens to Minerva,” Clark said. “I haven't done it yet, but I can't wait to see what happens next in the story.”
Though Doyle doesn’t know how long this trend will last, he is looking forward to giving users an experience they will want to continue. Furthermore, he hopes to work with the creative culture movement in Detroit.
“Our long-term goal is to turn this not into just an escape room,” Doyle said. “We want it to be something that’s more of a community of puzzlers, of game-designers, who create games that are physical in nature. Doing the puzzles around the city has brought people to us. This is different. It is clearly no longer just an escape room. I hope this lasts for 10 to 20 years.”