5 Wits before Wits’ End

My son is a slug. If he were left to forge his own life choices, I think many of those choices would involve reclining—specifically, reclining in front of a video game. Like a lot of kids, he rejects every alternative I throw at him: How about practicing karate in the living room? Taking the dog for a walk? Playing basketball in the schoolyard? Going for a bike ride? No, nope, no thanks, nuh-uh. Occasionally I can talk him into a stroll if I slap five dollars into his palm and tell him to treat himself to ice cream along the way, but my parental conscience tells me that negates the point of walking.

On the other hand, when I drag him away from the screen and insist that he do something that causes him to use a few voluntary muscles, he becomes a ball of kinetic energy. Everything is a party. It’s not unusual for him to have a fantastic and memorable time at the grocery store. The grocery store. He’s like a party waiting to happen.

But the reclining.

Recently on a quest to find a new and unusual activity that he would get excited about, I did a search on escape rooms, thinking that he might enjoy the challenge of using his noggin. I came across 5 Wits in Albany and read that it’s less of an escape room and more of an immersive experience. It seemed like the best of all worlds: high-tech video game appeal combined with the kid getting off his keister. His birthday was the perfect excuse for giving it a try.

5 Wits, located in the Crossgates Mall, offers three different adventures: Drago’s Castle, in which you must work with a princess to rein in a dragon on the loose; Deep Space, where you teleport to an abandoned spaceship to discover what happened to the missing crew; and Tomb, wherein you’re an archaeologist trying to solve an ancient Pharaoh’s puzzles on your way to unsealing his tomb.

Photo of players entering game space: With only flashlights to see by, the young adventurers make their way into the dreary depths of The Tomb; photo by Regina Velazquez.
With only flashlights to see by, the young adventurers make their way into the dreary depths of The Tomb; photo by Regina Velazquez.

I called the main number to ask some questions before we went. Connor in Group Sales was friendly and helpful, and—get this!—he was enthusiastic about the adventures but never pressured me to add on to the package I wanted to reserve. (Plus he laughed at my jokes, which meant that I was completely sold.) When I asked which adventures would be best for a group of fifth-grade video game fiends, he gave me honest answers as a guy who well remembered being a gamer kid himself. He discussed the physical vs. cerebral qualities of each choice. Is the princess in Drago’s Castle hot, my son wanted to know? “In a standard interpretation of traditional beauty, she’s an attractive princess,” Connor replied diplomatically. I decided on the two-adventure package and chose Deep Space and Tomb.

The Facts

HOURS Monday – Thursday 11:00 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.
Friday – Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Sunday 11:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
GROUPS: From two to twelve
COST: Varies by selected package
PHONE: 518.759.2288
WEBSITE: https://5-wits.com/albany/

One step across the threshold of 5 Wits tells you you’re onto something different. In the lobby, the entrances to the different adventures look like a cross between a movie set and a theme park. Rumbling and dramatic music drown out the sound of the mall. Players who have just finished an adventure stand beneath their scoreboard and pose for selfies. It’s not entirely clear whether you’re about to walk into a room or hop onto a roller coaster.

In an interview with Vincent Santamarina, general manager at the Albany location, he agreed that many people walk in not knowing what to expect.

Once people find out what we are, and understand it,” he noted, “then they start to get really excited. But that’s not always the case at first — they can’t always comprehend exactly what this is. Some people think of us as an escape room. We are a bit differentiated from that, a bit more enhanced with a lot more special effects.”

Photo of the inside of the adventure game, Deep Space; The local observatory might be a great place to learn about the heavens, but probably won't deliver the pulse-quickening drama of a catastrophe at the edges of the galaxy ; photo courtesy 5 Wits.
The local observatory might be a great place to learn about the heavens, but probably won’t deliver the pulse-quickening drama of a catastrophe at the edges of the galaxy ; photo courtesy 5 Wits.

Our guide led us into an orderly party room as we assembled our group. Just before starting our adventure, she had us swing by the restrooms. I mention this because it was one of those little courtesies that’s often forgotten, and it immediately made me think that 5 Wits cares about providing the ultimate experience for their customers. Who wants to be trapped in an adventure room with a full bladder? Or worse, who wants to be trapped in an adventure room with a bunch of 11-year-olds who have full bladders?

Assembled again, we received our instructions at the beginning of Deep Space. Now, if this had been a group of polite adults, we would have watched the video and perhaps garnered a few clues. Most of our group, however, were amped-up boys who appeared to have been mainlining Red Bull. I didn’t hear a word of our instructions. All I knew was that once we were herded into a small elevator-type room, flashing lights gave the effect of us shooting into space. It was so cool, and our group kept screaming to that effect.

Once we were “on board” the abandoned spaceship, I honestly felt as if I had been transported somewhere far beyond the mall. Screens, lights, diagrams, schematics, a captain’s chair—this is everything you would imagine a futuristic spacecraft to look like. As appealing as it is to closely inspect everything, once you realize that the clock is ticking, the desperation to solve the puzzle nearly induces panic.

Because no one had heard the instructions, our party spent a lot of time smacking buttons, flicking switches, pulling handles, and sitting in the captain’s chair. (If this was all they had done, I think they would have been pretty satisfied.) Eventually a more calm-headed kid figured out that we all needed to work together to accomplish a task, and, voilà!, another door opened to a new room.

Photo of kids working on solving the mystery of the abandoned space craft: The excitement of such a realistic environment could threaten to overwhelm the determination of young galactic heroes to work together—there's so much to see! Remind your space cadets of the importance of working together! Photo by Regina Velazquez.
The excitement of such a realistic environment could threaten to overwhelm the determination of young galactic heroes to work together—there’s so much to see! Remind your space cadets of the importance of working together! Photo by Regina Velazquez.

Our pattern of shouting-thinking-solving continued through two more rooms. Because the computer-led system self-adjusts to each group, the experiences are always different. I got the feeling our computer threw us a couple of bones to let us move to the next room in Deep Space, though it didn’t let us win in the end. At the end of 30 minutes (the duration of each adventure), we were kicked back to Earth and ushered to our waiting pizza.

After the kids had their pizza party (I’m hazy on whether I really bore witness to a bunch of kids shouting Chug! Chug! Chug! Chug! to each other when the cans of soda arrived), we entered Tomb. Although they were still on the exuberant side, they were feeling the sting of defeat from our space adventure and realized that they needed to listen. Flashlights in hand, we entered a dark Egyptian tomb and were greeted by a severe Pharaoh’s ghost, who didn’t seem to appreciate our presence in his digs.

Santamarina chuckled and agreed, “Yeah, the pharaoh’s kind of upset that you’re inside his house. So he kind of yells at you for a second. For most, it’s not too bad, but younger kids can get a little freaked out.”

Photo of the interior of the Tomb: Walking into a convincing slice of ancient Egypt, the Crossroads Mall immediately recedes into distant memory; photo courtesy 5 Wits.
Walking into a convincing slice of ancient Egypt, the Crossroads Mall immediately recedes into distant memory; photo courtesy 5 Wits.

Although the youngest of our party was at least ten years old, it was obvious that some of them hadn’t expected such immersive spookiness. As the pressure to solve puzzles in time mounted, the playful tension mounted. Santamarina suggested that, while parents are in the best position to know what their children’s anxiety thresholds are, the Pharoah’s Tomb might be most appropriate for kids age seven and up. What if an adventurer of any age gets to feeling like the walls are closing in?

“It might be a little intimidating, just to warn you,” Santamarina admitted. “But we always try to set up the expectation ahead of time that if you feel like you’ve got to get out, you can just pop out, and we’ll help you out.”

Parents can certainly appreciate the value of being able to make a hasty exit in any room of any adventure. A quick break from the fiction into the ordinary might be all the reminder that’s needed to reset the emotional spring and get back to enjoying the experience.

This time, the kids talked to each other more and made decisions together. I was amazed to stand back and watch them running, stretching, and jumping to solve the puzzles while also working as a team and respecting one another’s suggestions. They seemed to get the hang of Tomb much more readily and enjoyed their successes. Eventually they managed to free the Pharaoh’s spirit.

Admittedly, I had worried a little that the kids wouldn’t like it; after all, we had never been before ourselves. But on the way out, I heard some of them saying they’d like to come back and do it again. The girls in the group thought a girls vs. boys session would be fun. Best of all, the little slug himself said it was “epic.”

Photo showing detailed hieroglyphics on a column inside the Tomb adventure game: The combination of intricate detail and subtle special effects create more than enough of a illusion to transport even the most rigorous skeptics of the supernatural into the plot of a lost Indiana Jones movie; photo courtesy 5 Wits.
The combination of intricate detail and subtle special effects create more than enough of a illusion to transport even the most rigorous skeptics of the supernatural into the plot of a lost Indiana Jones movie; photo courtesy 5 Wits.

So where did 5 Wits come from? Founder, president, and CEO Matthew DuPlessie once worked for a company in Florida that contracted with Disney and other businesses to create themed activities. An MIT grad in mechanical engineering, DuPlessie wondered if those kinds of experiences could be done on a smaller scale—a sort of micro theme park—so that more people could visit them instead of making a grand trip to an expansive (and expensive) theme park. Later, he entered a Harvard Business competition with the basic idea for 5 Wits and soon after opened the first store in Boston in 2004.

If the 5 Wits experience feels like the realization of a child’s fantasy, there’s a reason for that. DuPlessie notes the recent upsurge in superhero movies and the appeal they hold for many of us. Why do we want to watch movies and play video games, he asks? His answer: “You want to play a game that’s transformative and that makes you get to do something larger, something heroic.” It’s not enough to watch Indiana Jones uncovering archaeological secrets and escaping booby traps at the last second; most of us want to be Indiana Jones, as did DuPlessie when he was a kid. And 5 Wits offers that opportunity.

Those cinematic-level effects are what drew Santamarina to work for the company in the first place. Having worked in hospitality, he had an good understanding of the importance of making a good impression on customers. He said he wasn’t quite prepared for the impression 5 Wits make on him during his first visit.

“I remember it to this day,” Santamarina recalled. “I was just hanging out with some friends and we walked by and [the staff] drew us in. We tried out the tomb adventure. As soon as you get into the first moments of it, you see yourself daunted by cave paintings and artifacts. It really puts you in a place that you never thought that you would be. The production value is just, it’s just so high. And you really don’t recognize that until you set foot in there.”

Photo: Birthday party-goers race the clock (and the frozen void of space) to complete an intricate series of tasks in order to stop a terrifying shipboard disaster; photo by Regina Velazquez.
Birthday party-goers race the clock (and the frozen void of space) to complete an intricate series of tasks in order to stop a terrifying shipboard disaster; photo by Regina Velazquez.

It wasn’t long, he said before he knew he wanted to be a part of 5 Wits.

While DuPlessie doesn’t seem to mind the comparison to escape rooms too much, he makes a few distinctions when the subject arises. Back in 2004, when 5 Wits opened their first store, no one had heard of escape rooms; having gained popularity in the last five years, escape rooms are nearly all copycats of the original concept. In escape rooms, you’re trapped in a room and must solve the puzzle to get out, and there’s only one puzzle to solve. With 5 Wits, you are the main character moving through a story, where the focus is on you and the outcome is variable. You’re far less aware of people coming before and after you at 5 Wits, as each group moves smoothly through several rooms throughout the 10,000 square feet of space, with no groups bumping into each other. . In escape rooms, only one or two people may take the lead while others fade into the background, so there’s a greater chance that some of your group may end up not participating. But the adventures in 5 Wits are carefully calibrated to appeal to all audience members, no matter their age, abilities, or physical capabilities, and they encourage social interaction.

The biggest difference really lies in the production values: escape rooms typically have less sophisticated environments—“most of them are still kind of a drywall box with some props hung on the wall,” DuPlessie says—but 5 Wits is loaded with the type of video, sound, and graphics technology that puts you in the moment and is so smooth, you barely notice it. To achieve this, the team at 5 Wits does a lot of research. With Tomb, for example, DuPlessie says they studied books of Egyptian artifacts and tombs and visited museums featuring exhibits on ancient Egypt. Artists work with a photo beside them to avoid creating something from their own preconceived notions rather than an actual item. It makes a difference in everything you see in the adventures, from Pharaoh’s tomb to the star-dotted view from a spaceship.

Photo of game feature: Adventurers will be convinced that ancient archaeological sites hold mysteries and magic that transform common stone into keys to other-worldy realities; photo courtesy 5 Wits.
Adventurers will be convinced that ancient archaeological sites hold mysteries and magic that transform common stone into keys to other-worldy realities; photo courtesy 5 Wits.

5 Wits now has seven stores and a design and production studio spinoff that handles other attractions in addition to the 5 Wits adventures. The stores are located in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The three-tiered system of the store teams, the corporate maintenance team that oversees the stores, and the production company that designs and builds the attractions keeps everything running smoothly.

The level of behind-the-scenes sophistication is likely what has earned it a reputation both across the United States and beyond. General manager Vinnie Santamarina marveled at the number of people who either make a long distance trip just for the experience or be sure to include it on their itinerary during visits to the area for other reasons.

“We’ve had a lot of people come down from Canada to try us out,” Santamarina said, “as well as just from across the country. We had some people from Japan that came during a trip. It’s just pretty amazing, because it’s different than most of the escape rooms that people have actually tried.”

Having been in operation for 15 years now, 5 Wits is still pushing forward to develop new experiences. Virtual reality? Not yet, says DuPlessie; “It doesn’t yet feel real to me . . . it’s a video game, right? When you turn your head, the image stays in front of you. You don’t feel the details.” Most people can’t identify exactly what makes the VR experience feel artificial, he says, but those details might include hearing stereo sound rather than a real-life surround, reaching out to touch a wall and discovering it’s a few inches closer to you than you’d expected, and missing the feeling of vibrations and impulses when things around you are crashing or dropping. Right now, DuPlessie believes that 5 Wits is already creating a much more real, tactile experience than VR can offer.

However, DuPlessie does say that they’re working on a new adventure that’s a murder mystery theme in a turn-of-the-century manor. And he teases that 5 Wits is developing something “newer and bigger” that will be announced in the next few months.

I can’t wait, and I know a certain boy who will be all in.

I foresee more visits to 5 Wits, especially on those days when summer vacation goes from everything a kid could hope for to boring. They could sit in a darkened movie theater with a tub of popcorn (which has its merits), or they could run around like crazy trying to save themselves from impending doom.

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