Thinking outside the box (of chocolates)
Written by: Emiene Wright

You’ve decided to take your significant other out for Valentine’s Day. But due to the thousands of other drivers on the road with the same idea, you’re late for your reservation to the hot new chi-chi restaurant. No matter, they’ve truncated their menu and crammed twice the number of two-seater tables in the dining room. You’re elbow-to-elbow with tense couples on either side, ordering the same prix fixe special that overworked servers are slinging like hash. How romantic!

This year, we have a better idea: Lock yourselves in a box. Grab some ammo. And make it through the night alive. Nothing warms the heart or gets your lover’s pulse racing the way it did when you first met like a surge of adrenaline.

So, we’ve hunted down a few local options that go beyond the restaurant hassle — or flowers and candy again — for a more intense Valentine’s Day. Trust us, you’ll thank us in the morning.

Mylene Labrie and her husband, Jay, are into puzzles. Like, really into puzzles. But not the 1,000-piece, grandma kind. The owners of Exit Strategy create themed escape-the-room games, where people are locked into a room and have 60 minutes to figure their way out, using clues that are hidden in strategic locations around the room.

The two discovered the trend, which is very popular in Asia and Europe, while traveling. “He knew I loved puzzles, so he went on Trip Advisor and found a company that did it,” she says.

They loved it so much, the former teacher opened their own location in August, just past the edge of South End. Exit Strategy currently has two themed rooms: That ’70s Room and Cabin in the Woods. They’re adding two more rooms, Murder Mystery Motel and Lost in Space, come mid-February.

Each set is an immersive experience. The ’70s Room is like stepping into a time capsule from a perfectly preserved, kitschy party den circa 1973. It’s bright and cheerful, and reminiscent of vintage Brady Bunch or Doctor Who. You can almost hear the music.

Clues can be just about anywhere and like the era it’s based on, clues in the ’70s Room are free-form. They aren’t sequential, and can be audio or visual. You and your partner(s) find them and figure out how they fit together in order to crack the lock and break free.

The Cabin in the Woods Room goes in another direction. “Some people think it’ll be scary, but we’re going for more of a creepy feel,” Mylene says. Mission accomplished. The room, which is suitable for patrons as young as 7 and old as 85, is hella creepy. Still, “we have to make sure no one will freak out or have a heart attack in there.”

Without giving it all away, the experience begins with total black-out goggles. The sensory deprivation is disorienting, but it heightens your sensitivity to temperature, sounds — clues. When you’re finally granted some limited vision, what you see is enough to make fans of Supernatural, Sleepy Hollow or the occult mystery genre in general pee their pants a little, in the good way.

It’s fun, especially for couples with a darker sense of humor. But is it romantic? “Escaping requires teamwork. Me and my husband love this type of thing because it allows you to see your partner in a different way. Maybe they analyze a clue in a totally unexpected way and it springs you free,” Mylene says.

The activity is also ripe for role-play. Maybe you’re the genius sociopath detective, or the innocent babe with a streak of iron in her blood. Dress the part and get into the scene, unraveling the clues as you tease each other. But don’t go further than that. You are being watched — and laughed at — on camera.

They’ve had couples bond on a first date, and many celebrate anniversaries and birthdays with them. One man staged his proposal and had them hide the ring in the room. While 10:30 p.m. is the last possible booking time on weekends, Mylene says it’s good to schedule a meal after the activity if it’s a dinner date.

“It’s not a static event, like a movie where you can give your opinion on the ride home. When it’s over, people want to talk about what they did. Sometimes they hang out in the parking lot, talking about the room and how they figured it out,” she says. Or you could, you know, get to the more amorous part of the evening.