Sewickley Academy students create crime scene escape room
On a Friday in 1968, an investigator receives a frantic call from the Saucekly family construction site.
The caller is panicked. There have been several murders, they say, before the call abruptly ends.
A crew is sent to investigate, and while on the scene, an officer goes missing.
That's when you and your investigative team go in.
Once inside you're forced to play the game the killer has set up — and you do all you can to survive.
That's the scenario groups of Sewickley Academy students and teachers have played as part of the private Edgeworth school's Interactive Design and Development class's Escape Room.
Under the direction of technology coordinator Cristy McCloskey, six students — seniors Max Gillespie and Kahmil Shajihan, and juniors Tessa Juliano, Katie Malus, Blake Powell and Sheraj Singh — planned and built the three-room physical adventure game in which small groups of players are locked into and must solve clues within 60 minutes to unlock the door.
The room is open for Sewickley Academy groups through next Friday ... the 13th.
Among the labyrinth of clues includes solid leads and decoys, sometimes intertwined among shelves, tables and walls all while the repetitive and creepy 1929 song “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” by Nick Lucas — used in a 2015 episode of “The Walking Dead” — plays in the background.
When the 60-minute timer begins, the group first can solve a clue to unlock a switch to provide light in the dark room.
Taking part in a session Monday were seniors Bella Albanese, Emily Amato, Sophia Carlson and junior Sam Sauter.
“Wait the lights are off? How do we turn on the lights?” Amato asked as student organizers locked the door behind the group and watched via webcam feeds from McCloskey's office next door.
Of the eight groups who had gone through as of early Monday afternoon, just two were able to solve the mystery and escape the room, McCloskey said. The class opened the room April 20.
“It's been hilarious,” student organizer Shajihan said of watching groups via three webcams stationed in the escape room. “We don't anticipate people to latch onto certain clues we have in there. So we have to send in clues to straighten out their path a little bit.
“We have a goal of getting people into the second room at least half way through. Our clues will get stronger the closer you get to that 30-minute mark.”
While watching the group Monday, the students and McCloskey debated when to leak a clue.
“We're not going to get out,” Amato said to her teammates about four minutes into being locked in.
“I think we give (a clue) to them at 45 (minutes),” Shajihan said to his classmates.
“No,” Malus said, suggesting it was too early to offer hints.
At 11 minutes in, Amato looked into the webcam and shouted, “I want a clue!”
“You can't just shout for a clue,” McCloskey said laughing in her office with her class. Students playing the game cannot hear what those in McCloskey's office are saying.
The only communication McCloskey and her students have with players are handwritten notes slipped under the door.
“I don't expect them to make it out,” Shajihan said.
“They still have a lot of time, though,” Singh replied.
“Should we give them a clue?” Shajihan said, again suggesting they offer a clue at 45 minutes.
“No, we're not!” Malus said. “I'll meet you halfway at 42 (minutes).”
Players began tearing apart the (obviously fake) body of a man on the ground, looking around a book shelf and at picture frames on the wall.
A shake to the wall disrupted the audio connection and moved two webcams off balance.
For the remainder of the session, the group watched players without sound, making it difficult to know where in the process they were.
As players investigated, Shajihan described why he and classmates chose an escape room.
“We wanted to design something and we didn't want to do programming after our first trimester,” he said. “We wanted to do something more hands on.”
So, an escape room it was.
“Our source of inspiration was ‘Scooby Doo' — a specific episode,” Shajihan said.
“It ended up not being anything like that, but it was our base.”
Other ideas included a “Star Wars”-themed room before settling on a murder mystery.
“Most thriller and suspense movies are based in murder mystery or escaping something like a killer, so we based it around a serial killer,” Shajihan said.
After several test groups, students found a storyline that worked.
“The first couple groups couldn't make it to the second room, so we made it a little easier,” Juliano said.
“It turned out to be too easy, so we made it a little harder.”
Along with having fun, student organizers said they've learned plenty of other lessons.
“It was a lot of trial and error and a lot of patience when things weren't going our way,” Malus said. “We've learned to be able to take a step back and be like, ‘OK, we can let that go.'”
McCloskey said she also learned.
“It really morphed into something I never expected,” she said. “I was like, ‘Escape room? OK. Not quite the lesson plan I intended but let's go.' It was really fun to watch it come together.”
Like many groups before them, the group Monday didn't make it out, though with the help of two clues, they did make it to the third room.
“It was really fun when you discovered a new clue and you got a rush of adrenaline,” Carlson said before having to get her photo taken with her fellow investigators indicating they didn't succeed. “It kept us pushing forward.”
After learning where they might've gone wrong, Sauter said, “After all of this I thought it was going to be something very stupid, but I was nowhere on track.”
Another group was set to head to the Saucekly site, but not before McCloskey and students reset the crime scene.
“It's nothing I ever thought I'd end up doing, but it ended up being quite fun,” McCloskey said.
Bobby Cherry is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.