Red House Mysteries – Escapism, Escape Room Style!
Ben Pering and Mark Nicholls – RED HOUSE MYSTERIES
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye, Photography by Eve Hazelton
I miss my childhood. There, I said it. Don’t get me wrong though, I don’t dislike my adulthood. There are just some things about being a young person that were really, really cool.
For me, one of them was finding my place in as many sub-cultures and interest groups as possible. You know, the Board Games Club, the Ska-Punk Aficionados Collective and the Japanese Culture Appreciation Society. I was ‘that guy’ and I loved it.
Now that I have my own children, I somewhat get to relive that part of my life vicariously through them, but it isn’t quite the same and, occasionally, I meet someone who fans that side of my character into flame.
Several weeks ago, I met two such people; Ben Pering and Mark Nicholls, at the Exploding Bakery on Queen Street, Exeter. Ben and Mark are the owners and founders of Red House Mysteries (RHM), an Exeter-based provider of top-quality Escape Room and Interactive Game experiences. For those of you who don’t know, Escape Rooms are a series of rooms, set up especially as an interactive, problem-solving experience where the aim is to solve the various puzzles and escape the room. Escapees usually have one hour to work together in co-operation and solve a series of connected puzzles, varying from simple number or letter puzzles to more challenging cyphers or cryptographs.
So, let me introduce you to Ben and Mark…
They are two of the most intriguing, creative and downright lovely guys I have met in Exeter and their passion for their craft is second to none. After they met at Torquay Boys School at the age of eleven, they went on to form a strong friendship based around a shared love for immersive experiences, narrative storytelling and the merging of these two things in multiple art forms (books, computer games and music to name a few).
Mark’s background is firmly rooted in the love of all things fantastical and mysterious. He spoke at length about his love for Film Noir, Dungeons & Dragons and 1940’s fashion and I found him to be debonair, poised and hugely confident in his own skin. He is clearly very creative and has a keen eye for design and style. Looking back over our conversation, in retrospect, perhaps Mark has held on to some of the things that people often let go of as they move into adulthood – that wonder, curiosity and intrigue that most children have.
Ben, on the other hand, has a wealth of experience as a sound and light technician, having travelled internationally to run the audio-visual elements of big shows around the world. He brings that expertise into the design and delivery of their Escape Room experiences, making them truly immersive and convincing. His aim, he says, is “to create environments that are so convincing, that you forget that you are in a game at all”. This starts one of many discussions about shared cultural experiences – in this case, the fantastic 1997 film, ‘The Game’ which stars Michael Douglas as a super-rich man who takes part in, what he thinks is, an elaborate game which starts to take some sinister and life-threatening turns. Ben also has a passion for logic puzzles, problem solving and adventure games which play a vital role (coupled with Mark’s creative design) in delivering a truly first-class experience for their customers.
Having spent about eight years making their own treasure hunts and interactive games for friends, it got to the point where things had grown significantly, and more and more people were interested in what they were doing. Mark humorously recalls how they ended up booking hotel rooms to stage fake murder scenes for their murder mystery interactive games and, around that time, they realised that they needed to formalise their hobby – if for no other reason but to avoid some awkward conversations with hotel owners or even the authorities!
After leaving his globe-trotting audio-visual role, Ben moved back to the U.K and, rather than seeking more traditional employment opportunities, spoke with Mark about making a go of their hobby and starting a business together. Ben quips “Why bother just making money when, instead, you can do something fun that you are really passionate about?”. I completely agree Ben.
By this point, it was towards the end of 2015, when they launched RHM and caught the tail-end of the first wave of mainstream Escape Room popularity and interest. And why did they choose Exeter? It was a no-brainer for them, they say, as they grew up 20 minutes away and it has the perfect demographic population for an Escape Room; a high student population, diverse cultural mix and a love for the arts. Also, there wasn’t an Escape Room in Exeter at the time, so it was the perfect moment to launch. Mark expands on this by saying “although Plymouth is bigger, Exeter is the capital of the county and presents a real draw for people from all around the county. Also, it just feels more ‘arty’ and hip – there are no two ways about it.”
Ben adds, “At the time, Exeter had the highest number of mobile devices per capita in the country, which proved to us that it was a modern city, striving to keep up with the developments and projects that had started to take place.”
From talking with them over a coffee, it was immediately clear that they pored over every detail that goes into making these experiences special and extremely high quality. Ben and Mark both talked about their painstaking efforts to make the environments which they created as close to film-set quality as possible – to deliver a truly realistic and lifelike experience. And whether escapees are colleagues on a team-building exercise, friends up for an alternative night out or siblings trying to solve their age-old arguments about who is the cleverest, it is clear from reading public reviews that their client base are extremely happy with the RHM offering. And that is no mean feat, as their Escape Rooms only have about a 50% completion rate (meaning that the other 50% of customers are unsuccessful in escaping the room within the one-hour time limit).
With a growing team of passionate staff (Andrea, Jude and, recent addition, Tom), Ben and Mark have recently been able to take a bit more time away from the day-to-day running of the business and gain some creative headspace to explore new ideas and ventures. This is one of the real challenges of starting a business; how to take care of the everyday important tasks, whilst having the time and headspace to be creative, come up with ideas and execute them well. Mark wonderfully sums up this challenge, when he says, “We sell the unexpected. Every detail of the immersive worlds that we create is vitally important because all it would take to break that illusion would be for one small detail to not be considered.”
And they really mean it when they say they take every detail seriously. One of their experiences is an immersive laser-dodging crime-thriller called ‘The Heist’ where participants have to break into a museum, steal a priceless artefact and get back out within an hour – all whilst avoiding CCTV cameras. Their second room is currently being re-designed as a 1940’s private detective agency, for a game called ‘The Shadow Darkens’, where a crime has been committed and, whilst solving a series of puzzles, participants slowly uncover the crime that has occurred, finding evidence and, essentially, solving the mystery in order to escape.
The core value that the RHM guys keep front-and-centre when planning their experiences is that they want to provide a route by which people can escape their everyday lives and enter an alternate reality, even if just for an hour. When people walk through the RHM doors, the team want to transport people to another world, where they can be free and enjoy themselves. It is clear that both Ben and Mark derive great pleasure from providing that opportunity for people. This business is not simply a money-spinner (although I’m sure they do very well indeed). Rather, it is a complete labour of love that is built, down to the finest detail, with the customer’s experience in mind.
And the RHM team offer more than Escape Room experiences too. They have ‘pop-up crime scenes’ that people can hire from them and use at their own functions, as well as a variety of interactive games that are staged in other locations (for example Torquay Museum or Exeter’s RAMM). They have also just launched a new interactive online game called ‘The Rising Water’ whereby participants exchange emails, letters, case files and notes back and forth with a ‘Private Detective’ and try to solve the murder case of a 20-year-old girl. They research suspects and evidence online and, as the case progresses, participants find themselves going deeper into the dark heart of the case.
As our conversation drew to a close, I could feel that I had started to drift into Ben and Mark’s delightfully creative and playful worlds. I felt like I was back at school in one of my clubs again and felt the same excitement and joy that a person feels when they have discovered something new.
I will definitely be immersing myself in some of Red House Mysteries’ experiences in the future and would recommend you do the same. They are living their childhood dreams and they could help you do the same.
To find out more about Red House Mysteries, visit www.redhousemysteries.co.uk or call one of their friendly team on 01392 277109.