The Great Escape

A week ago, some friends and I finally tried out one of those “escape rooms” that have gotten popular over the past couple of years. The concept of an escape room is a sort of game that a group of people play in a single room.  The players are presented with a series of puzzles that they need to solve in a limited amount of time in order to effect their escape.

There’s usually some sort of dire theme involved: you have to defuse a nuclear bomb, or escape the clutches of torturers, or something like that.  Furthermore, no electronic devices are allowed (you’re provided with a locker to stash your smartphones in before the game); it’s just you and your brains.

Companies set up and maintain these rooms, designing the puzzles, renting the rooms out for an hour or so, and resetting the puzzles between uses.  There’s very little to it, and I think that’s part of the reason why there are so many places that offer various “escape” experiences. There are over half a dozen such companies in my city alone, and each one appears to offer multiple rooms (and even portable rooms).

The particular theme of the room we “played” was a situation where we were trapped in a room in an insane asylum by some psycho — somewhat akin to the Saw series of movies.  We had one hour to solve a series of puzzles, each of which led to a clue to solving the final puzzle that would free us from the room. It was the most challenging room this particular company offered, and it had an 18% success rate.

When we first started, it took a while for us to get accustomed to how the whole thing worked.  None of us had done an escape room before, and although we knew they consisted of puzzle-solving, we had no idea what form these puzzles would take.  We all went in pretty confidant, but during the first twenty minutes I seriously started to doubt whether we’d even get close to escaping the room.

After some time of confusion and cluelessness, we suddenly had a rapid series of breakthroughs that led to us solving a couple of the puzzles.  Our confidence restored, we spent the rest of our time in the room working on the rest of the puzzles with vigor.

Near the end of the hour we entered another progress-drought, and I started thinking we would just not have enough time to figure out the few puzzles we had yet to solve.  With about ten minutes to go, we split into groups and attacked multiple puzzles simultaneously instead of combining all our brainpower on one puzzle at a time.

With five minutes left on the clock we managed to solve all but one of the puzzles in the room.  Despite missing one of the puzzles, the clues we got for the puzzles we did solve were enough for us to figure out the solution to the final puzzle which led to our ultimate escape.  We successfully beat the sadistic kidnapper at his own mind games and won our freedom.

Escape Room SuccessWe’re definitely going to try more escape rooms in the future.  Most of them seem to be geared toward groups of four to six people, but there are a couple that are apparently pretty large and which require a dozen people or more to play.

Because of the low startup and maintenance overhead, I can see the concept of escape rooms and similar sorts of amusements staying around for a while.

With the dawning of AR and VR technologies, escape rooms and similar “false reality” games could become quite an incredible experience. Case-in-point: check out the Ghostbusters Experience at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in New York.  In it, players are given VR goggles, a “proton gun”, and a proton pack (which contains a portable computer) and immersed in a virtual world of spooks and spirits.

I firmly believe we’re at the dawn of a new type of entertainment experience where people will essentially be playing the parts of characters in true 3-D movies themselves instead of watching moving pictures on a screen.


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