For an hour one recent evening, Ms Melissa Zheng found herself trapped in a darkened room with three friends, surrounded by eerie music, strange paintings and a series of jumbled numbers and letters.

To get out, the 22-year-old economics graduate had to solve an array of mind-boggling puzzles that required a combination of wits, powers of reasoning and an observant eye.

No, she was not filming the next instalment of Saw. Neither had she been kidnapped by a mad scientist.


Gamers looking at paintings for clues in the Whisper Of The Dead room -- ST PHOTOS: JAMIE KOH, RAJ NADARAJAN

In fact, she and her friends had happily paid $22 each to be locked up at Xcape Singapore, a company in Purvis Street that features "puzzle rooms".

Even though they did not manage to get out of the room before the one-hour time limit, she says: "It was quite exciting and things got a little scary towards the end."

Xcape is one of three companies here that host puzzle rooms. All were set up this year and another is slated to open officially later this month.

They charge $15 to $37.50 for one attempt to solve puzzles in a room and this usually lasts an hour. Some sell drinks on the premises, although these are not allowed to be taken into the puzzle rooms.


Gamers trying to piece together a puzzle to identify the mystery killer in the Chamber Of Secrets room at Xcape Singapore -- ST PHOTOS: JAMIE KOH, RAJ NADARAJAN

All the rooms are equipped with a telephone or button so that participants can seek help if need be.

They usually have about an hour to come up with solutions to a series of challenges, with the ultimate goal of escaping the room. Some of the challenges are physical, such as retrieving a key from a hard-to-reach place in the room, while others involve arithmetic brain teasers or breaking codes.

Mr Zoltan Jakab, who opened puzzle room company Think Your Way Out at *Scape in July, says these rooms started about three years ago in Japan and Hungary. In Budapest alone, he says there are about 30 such rooms.

That puzzle-crazy city is the hometown of Mr Jakab, 29, who came to Singapore more than three years ago to work as a trainer in positive psychology.

"In these rooms, you can have fun, be engaged and focused. You feel like you are in the here-and-now and nothing else matters," he says.


Gamers trying to unlock a box using a combination code found earlier in Think Your Way Out escape room. -- ST PHOTOS: JAMIE KOH, RAJ NADARAJAN

Think Your Way Out has only one room, which is set up to look like an office from the 1980s with accessories from that era, such as lamps and clocks.

On average, about one to two teams comprising two to six people attempt it a day. Weekends usually draw about three to four teams. So far, only about 25 per cent of the teams have managed to break out of the room before the time limit.

Mr Jon Ye, 29, spokesman for Lockdown.sg, another puzzle room company which is officially opening later this month, says puzzle chambers from different regions vary. "The Asian ones focus more on pen-and-paper puzzles. After you clear one, you move on to the next one," he adds.

In the European style, people start searching for clues once they enter the room and solving puzzles usually requires the use of a prop. "The classic example is a screwdriver," he says. "If you find a screwdriver, you look for a screw to unscrew, which might open a compartment. This compartment may hold a magnet, which allows you to retrieve an object and so on, until you find the key to unlock the door of the room."

The rooms in Singapore tend to lean more towards the European style or are a combination of both.


Gamers looking for hidden clues in books in the Bail Out puzzle room at Lockdown.sg -- ST PHOTOS: JAMIE KOH, RAJ NADARAJAN

Lockdown.sg in Eu Tong Sen Street has a total of three rooms, each with different puzzles and story- lines. Mr Ye says they cost a five-figure sum to set up.

Since the soft launch on Aug 8, about 100 teams have tested two of the three rooms, with a successful escape rate of 20 to 35 per cent.

To beat the time limit, some teams use brute force to smash their way through locked boxes or get clues.

Mr Jakab recounts how one team lifted a table which was bolted to the floor, tearing it loose from its screws. They did not have to pay for the damage but he says: "I always tell them, it's 'think your way out', not 'break your way out'."

Ms Teo Ke Huey, 28, co-founder of Xcape Singapore, has also seen her fair share of overzealous customers. "One group tried to remove the ceiling panels in the room," she recalls. "We have also had people pouring water into places where water should not be poured and destroying some of the traps."

To deal with such damage, Xcape spends about $1,000 a month to maintain the props. So far, it has not asked errant customers to make good the damage.

Founded in February by a four-man collective called Dr Hachi, Xcape offers four movie-themed rooms such as Inception and Chamber Of Secrets.

More than 10,000 people have tried the rooms, with a success rate of between 30 and 50 per cent.

Ms Teo says the custom-built props and tricky puzzles cost about $100,000 to set up in total, and the company has already recouped its investment.

Xcape also caters to corporate customers. Engineer Shirley Wong, 25, a team-building coordinator for a semiconductor company, organised a session at Xcape in July for more than 40 of her colleagues.

"They bonded well within their teams. Some wanted to visit the rooms again on their own," she says.

While the sudden proliferation of puzzle rooms may mean stiffer competition, Mr Ye of Lockdown.sg sees it as a positive sign. "Different people may enjoy different styles. Some may enjoy paper puzzles while others may enjoy physical challenges," he adds.

Ms Zheng, who played the game with friends she had known from her secondary schooldays, will be returning to a puzzle room soon.

She says: "My favourite part is getting to spend an hour doing something with your friends without distractions such as mobile phones."

WHERE TO FIND THE ROOMS

LOCKDOWN.SG
Where: 03-51/52 The Central, 6 Eu Tong Sen Street
Open: 11.30am to 10.30pm daily (it will open officially later this month)
Number of rooms: Three
Recommended group size: Three to five players
Admission: $19 a person on weekdays before 7pm, $22 a person on weekdays after 7pm as well as on weekends and public holidays
Info: Go to www.lockdown.sg

THE ESCAPE ARTIST
Where: 11-02, Bukit Timah Shopping Centre, 170 Upper Bukit Timah Road
Open: Noon to midnight daily
Number of rooms: Four
Recommended group size: Two to eight players
Admission: $15 a person on weekdays before 7pm, $18 a person on weekdays after 7pm as well as on weekends, public holidays and the eve of public holidays
Info: Go to www.theescapeartist.org

THINK YOUR WAY OUT
Where: 05-03, *Scape, 2 Orchard Link
Open: 9am to 10.30pm daily
Number of rooms: One
Recommended group size: Two to six people
Admission: $20 to $37.50 a person, depending on the number of people
Info: Go to www.tywogames.com

XCAPE SINGAPORE
Where: 8 Purvis Street, 04-01
Open: Mondays to Thursdays, 11am to 11.30pm; Fridays and Saturdays, 11am to 2am; Sundays, 11am to 1am
Number of rooms: Four
Recommended group size: Four to eight people
Admission: $22 a person on weekdays before 6pm, $28 a person on weekdays after 6pm as well as on weekends, public holidays and eve of public holidays
Info: Go to www.xcape.sg

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on September 1, 2013. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.