Dungeon, castle... When escape games take place between the walls of historical monuments

Dungeon, castle… When escape games take place between the walls of historical monuments

Escape games, called “escape games”, are now taking place within the walls of cultural and heritage places. But does historical reality resist entertainment? And does this really allow us to appropriate the past?

The sound of boots tumbling down the stairs invades the communications room. Then a soldier with a German accent comes up, in the flesh, to check that no one has stayed behind despite the alert… “It’s a bit scary,” breathes Pauline, a young woman in our group, then that we all rush behind a curtain to hide. The action takes place in August 1944. Our “mission” consists of helping the Resistance to liberate Rouen (Seine-Maritime) by stealing Nazi strategic plans from their bunker. Will we succeed in less than an hour, despite the coded puzzles and obstacles put in our way? There are eight of us, all caught up in the game of “Liberate Rouen!” », an escape game. It is a plot entertainment where several people are locked in a room from which they can escape (escape in English) only after having solved various mysteries allowing you to discover a treasure, in this case the famous plans.

“While historic places were still rare to offer escape games, we organized the first in Rouen in this dungeon in 2017,” says Gaëtan Perreau, project manager at Rouen Normandie Sites and Monuments. The public establishment manages the historic monuments of this metropolis including the massive keep in the city center, the only remaining tower of the medieval castle. After two first games set in the Middle Ages, the current escape game is based on contemporary history, the site having actually been occupied by the Germans during the Second World War.

Like Rouen, around a hundred heritage places offer this type of activity. Which is not without asking questions: can a historical monument lend itself to everything? “The dungeon was known to the people of Rouen, but rarely visited. Successive escape games have made it possible to attract a new audience. It is one mediation tool among others,” says Laure Dufay, director of Rouen Normandie Sites and Monuments. Free or guided tours and workshops for children take up most of the dungeon's opening time, with escape games only taking place at the end of the afternoon, the best time to bring together groups of people. friends. “We have players who come because they have already visited the tower,” remarks Gaëtan Perreau. And others, conversely, ask us questions at the end of the game about the history of the building. We then invite them to come back as visitors to learn more about this local heritage. »

Attention to historical detail

Same statement in Blois (Loir-et-Cher), where “The mad escape of Marie de Medici” took place in the royal castle during the last three seasons: “80 to 85% of the players visited the castle immediately , which was the goal. The free visit to the monument was also included in their ticket,” explains Aurélie Foucault, responsible for tourism development of the place. “Let’s not be naive,” adds Denis Lelaie, founder of Cap Découvertes, the company which designed this escape game and several others for the castles of the Loire Valley. Most people sign up to play and leave with a strong memory. It's up to us to distract them, surprise them, and ultimately teach them something! And for this, an incredible plot but linked to the true history of the place is a formidable lever. » In fact, Marie de Medici, placed under house arrest in Blois by her son Louis XIII who was suspicious of her intrigues, really escaped from the castle on February 22, 1619, through a window! Denis Lelaie adds: “Everywhere we operate, a historian from our team checks that the accessories, costumes and details of the game are believable. » Same concern for authenticity in Rouen where Gaëtan Perreau says: “We required our service provider to use period objects or meticulous reconstructions. Thus, visitors who pass through the escape game settings can get a fair idea of ​​the bunker. »

Often, these activities involve participants stepping into the shoes of a historical figure. If becoming guard of the castle and assisting Marie de Medici in her flight does not really pose a question of loyalty to the State, given our distance in time from the events of the reign of Louis XIII, does it the same when it comes to more contemporary history? Can we, for fun, slip “into the shoes of a resistance fighter”?

Respect for memorial values

In 2021 and 2022, “Forestscape”, in the Münster valley, in Alsace, offered its participants the chance to embody young “Despite Us”, forcibly incorporated into the German army, who had to escape from a Nazi recovery camp to join the Resistance, after solving puzzles in the middle of the forest. The game, although endorsed by regional institutions, had divided memorial associations. Some criticized the design company for the very idea of ​​entertaining with this painful past, while others approved the declared desire of the designer – himself the grandson of “Despite-nous” – to transmit this past.

In Rouen, the “red week” of destructive bombings on the banks of the Seine by the Allies between May 30 and June 5, 1944, to prepare for the liberation of the city, is part of the living memory of the inhabitants. However, according to Gaëtan Perreau, the older visitors did not see in the theme of the escape game a lack of respect towards the Resistance, on the contrary: “They are happy that we are using this attractive means to interest young people during the Second World War. And after all, when summer visitors swim on the D-Day beaches, no one is outraged: the Allies fought so that we could live and have fun freely! » At the end of the game, a slideshow lasting a few minutes with archive photos still reminds participants of the harsh historical reality of the liberation of the city.

“I would never imagine a game where you would have to slip into the shoes of a Nazi, Pétain or Robespierre! This would create inevitable unease,” believes Denis Lelaie. It also highlights the essential role of a real “game master” to contextualize and answer questions. Indeed, the trend is changing: the classic escape games in rooms with artificial decor are turning into role-playing games better integrated into the monument, with an increased presence of actors. In Blois, this season's activity, “The Secret Legacy of Antonietta”, will force participants to walk through the courtyard of the castle, to look up to note details of its architecture… Like a return to more and more stronger to the “reality” at the heart of entertainment.

A hobby born in Japan

The origins of the escape game go back according to some to the fashion for green labyrinths of the 17th and 18th centuries. We then had fun getting lost, then finding the exit.

But its modern version derives from “Crimson Room”, a Japanese video game, created in 2004, around a closed room containing clues to succeed in a mission. Given its success, still in Japan, “real experience” versions were marketed from 2007, with real players meeting in a closed room. Since then, the concept has spread throughout the world and in 2022, according to a study carried out by two game designers*, there were 876 “puzzle rooms” open in France, with escape games inspired by different worlds. : police investigations, haunted places, science fiction and, of course… various historical periods.

The authors of the study note the increase in scenarios linked to heritage, which goes hand in hand with the sharp increase in the presence of these entertainments in tourist places and historical monuments (around 20%). The average price varies from €20 to €35 per person.

* lesfrancslimiers.com

The 6 keys to the escape game

1. It takes a space with a notion of real confinement Or simulated.

2. The game assumes exploration of this space and different manipulations.

3. The scenario must involve the puzzle solving.

4. The players have active roles Who influential on the scenario: we can succeed or fail.

5. It is collaborate as a team – two to fifteen participants depending on the location.

6. Limited time – an hour generally – increases the excitement of the players.

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