News Letter reporter takes on escape challenge based on Titanic tragedy

A cryptex used in Timescape's Titanic escape game
A cryptex used in Timescape's Titanic escape game

When NI businessman Justin Milligan first went public with the idea of creating an immersive adventure based on the Titanic’s final hour he was accused of bad taste.

While escaping a sinking ship is not everyone’s idea of a fun, having taken part in the Titanic-themed escape room in Belfast’s city centre, this News Letter reporter would contend this authentic and enjoyable experience is a fitting celebration of the great ship.

Yes, its focal point is the horror of April 14, 1912, but it cashes in on the ship’s tragic legacy no more or less than any of the Titanic-themed locations in Belfast’s Titanic-themed quarter.

As Mr Milligan puts it: “It’s not crass, it’s not in your face, it’s not disrespectful. We’ve tried to be as historically and factually correct as to what happened when Titanic sank, and the information the people taking part in this game are using is related to what happened then.”

For those who have not experienced an escape room before, it is not as terrifying as the name suggests.

A team of between two and six people – five in our case – are given the task of getting out of a locked room via a process of puzzle solving within 60 minutes. For many that conjures images of iconic TV gameshow The Crystal Maze, but very little physical activity is required to escape, nor is there any chance of getting wet – a particular concern perhaps for those taking part in a Titanic escape room.

News Letter reporter Graeme Cousins briefs his team

News Letter reporter Graeme Cousins briefs his team

Teamwork is vital and a certain amount of mental agility is beneficial in cracking a series of codes which unlock objects, and further codes needed to edge the team closer to escape.

The experience is extremely authentic thanks to the attention to detail paid in furnishing the room so that those entering will immediately feel as though they’ve stepped back in time onto the famous vessel. While the decor is important in transporting the team back to 1912, so too are a plethora of accessories which form part of the game including a sextant, a cryptex code machine, morse code transmitter, and ship’s telegraph system.

While everyone in the team remarked on how immersive the experience was, at no point did we feel we were properly trapped on board a sinking ship. Quite simply, it was a very enjoyable game, made even more enjoyable by the fact we got out with 15 minutes to spare – the record is 30 mins 31 seconds.

There were so many moments during the game which gave the team a real buzz – a feel good factor which we carried with us well beyond the adventure. For example, nothing can compare to the satisfaction of correctly deciphering a series of jumbled letters in order to decode a system of switches which in turn caused a secret compartment to pop open.

Teams have one hour to escape the sinking ship in the adventure

Teams have one hour to escape the sinking ship in the adventure

Mr Milligan explained how he got involved in the global phenomenon of escape rooms: “Myself and my brother have friends all over England. Anytime we were over visiting we did an escape room. It’s top of our list now anytime we go over, we’ll maybe do two or three a day.”

Japanese company SCRAP claims to have invented the first live action escape game in 2007.

The craze became extremely popular in Russia, before spreading to America, and eventually hitting the UK around 2013.

Mr Milligan said: “They’re all over the UK now, but in Northern Ireland we’re just catching up. There are four or five escape room companies here that I know of.

Businessman Justin Milligan

Businessman Justin Milligan

“The escape room industry is in its infancy and there is a lot of room for expansion, for example using virtual and augmented reality.”

In 2016, then US President Barack Obama and his family successfully completed an escape room in Honolulu on Christmas Eve.

Mr Milligan, a former male model, continued: “When we decided we were going to set up our own escape room in Belfast we wanted it to tie in with something that would be very popular with locals and tourists. Titanic was the most obvious choice. We were pretty sure there would be controversy. You’re never going to please everyone.

“The way I see it is, yes, there was a massive tragedy but the Titanic itself was a marvel of engineering that Belfast still celebrates.

“At the minute we feel like a little bit of a black sheep in the Titanic heritage of Belfast, but we can feel people warming to it. I hope in a few years time people will see this as a great addition to Belfast’s celebration of the Titanic.”

He added: “From the start we wanted to create that wow factor when people walked into the room. That’s why we’ve gone to such lengths to recreate the detail. My father who is a joiner was able to help with the manufacture of desks. A lot of the physical props were handbuilt by a firm who specialise in props for movie sets.

Timescape HQ in Belfast's Castle Street

Timescape HQ in Belfast's Castle Street

“We’ve spent around £50,000 on the room to offer a deluxe escape room experience. There can be a lot of variance in the quality of escape rooms. We wanted to make one that made people want to do more rather than put them off.

“We wanted to make sure there were plenty of puzzles that allowed teams to split up so everyone had something to do. We also wanted a variety of puzzle types to engage a variety of people.

“I’ve done about 30 to 40 escape games throughout the UK, my only regret about setting this room up is that I can’t do it myself.”

Timescape opened on December 9, but work had begun six months previously to convert the former solicitors’ office in Castle Street into a premises capable of housing several escape rooms.

Mr Milligan said he plans to open a second ‘murder mystery’ themed escape room in the very near future.

The cost of the Titanic escape room is £16 per person based on a team of six.