In 1867, Joseph Du Frank stabbed a man from Stevensville and became the first convicted murderer in the Missoula Valley. Du Frank was subsequently sentenced to 10 years of prison and jailed inside a log cabin. Fort Missoula historians report that Du Frank quickly learned how to pick the lock, but opted to stay imprisoned since he was getting free food and shelter for the winter. When a fire broke out, he freed himself and called for the sheriff, who put out the fire. He was put back into the same jail cell, but this time with a better lock.
Du Frank's story is the inspiration for one of the games in Big Sky Breakout, Missoula's first "escape room" puzzle game, based in a Victorian home on the Northside. In the game room, a team of five to nine players are assigned to break out of the "jail cell" by solving a series of puzzles and clues.
"You're going to come out at the end and be like, 'whoa,'" says cofounder Ralph Walters.
"It's like hiking the M with your brain," adds Jaime Rauch, Ralph's wife and the game's other cofounder.
Walters and Rauch met in Los Angeles, where they both worked in the TV and entertainment industries. When they moved to Missoula and married in 2014, Rauch says they were inspired to start a business and try something different. Escape rooms, which are an increasingly popular kind of live, interactive gaming, seemed obvious. Escape rooms take a wild array of forms, each depending on the game creator's imagination. Walters says he's heard about Japanese escape rooms where hundreds of players will swarm into entire office buildings and try to deter a Saw-inspired killer. In Spokane's Claustropanic, the door swings shut on a "fallout shelter," and players are told there's only enough air to survive for one hour—unless they figure out how to unlock the door.
Walters and Rauch say they would rather avoid the intense or scary setups and opt for more family friendly themes. And there's plenty of inspiration for that approach. The Billings Grand Escape Room, for instance, features a "Diner Disaster," where it's up to you to figure out why a '50s-style diner is in such disarray. In Colorado, the Denver Escape Room includes a pirate ship game where the crew must find hidden treasure.
"Like, in the one game we played, my 10-year-old niece was the hero of the game—she saw things we didn't see," Walters says. "Everybody observes and thinks differently."
- photo by Alex Sakariassen
- Jonathan Funk, left, and Jaime Rauch demonstrate some of the clues in the “Du Frank’s Break” game, which is part of a new entertainment business, Big Sky Breakout.
Last fall, Rauch, Walters and an employee, Jonathan Funk, bought the home on North Second Street and spent the winter transforming it into an elaborately decorated set of escape rooms. Stepping inside the Du Frank game takes the players into a complete recreation of an old-timey Western jailhouse, down to the horsehair-covered cinch hanging on the wall and replicas of historic documents. Rauch says she scoured the Bitterroot Valley and Craigslist for antiques and bought tack from a friend who raises mules to really lend an authentic feel.
"We are used to being on set," Rauch says, "so hopefully that reflects in our games, because they're supposed to be putting you in a different place."
In real life, Du Frank escaped by waiting until spring weather to dig his way out of the Missoula jail. He was never heard from again, according to historic information from Fort Missoula. No actual digging is required in the Breakout's Du Frank game, but some mental gymnastics are. As teams play, the Breakout staff observe through a camera and offer advice and hints via a computer screen mounted on the wall. The game doesn't require complicated math or historical knowledge, but it does help to have an affinity for numbers, codes and patterns—and to keep an eye on the clock, because one puzzle leads to several more. Participants have to put their cellphones away and use hands-on problem solving and interaction to connect the dots. (There are also instructions on the door for an emergency exit, in case someone needs to leave the game early without solving the puzzle.)
Walters says it's not a guarantee you'll win the game—and they hope that might lure people back to try again. He and Rauch are still working out the final details, but they plan to make the escape rooms available for bookings Thursday through Sunday, to appeal to families and friends, and to eventually add Monday through Friday weekday hours for corporate team-building events. Breakout's other room is embassy themed, and a third game—called Through the Looking Glass—will open on the second floor in June. Rauch says the goal is to keep a rotating set of escape scenarios to appeal to repeat customers.
Rauch adds that, so far, starting a small business and creatively working with her husband has been surprisingly smooth for them personally.
"These games, they're based on communication, and all of us communicating and collaborating," she says. "And it's the same for us."
When asked if solving puzzles together is the key to good relationship communication, she laughs.
"That could very well be true."
Big Sky Breakout, 307 N. Second St. W., celebrates its grand opening April 29. Advanced bookings required. Visit bigskybreakout.com. Games are recommended for ages 9 and up.