in Life Optimization

‘Escape the Room’ NYC – Review and Critique

Last week I successfully Escaped the Room in NYC, a puzzle game/event where you are locked into a room with 9 other people in order to find clues amongst the commonplace items inside that can lead to a way out. The experience was great fun and appears to be a nascent fad – the New York Times had a piece on how it originated in Hungary and has spread across the world in the last few years. New York has two services that I know of, and the original guys (who I did it with) have two locations with a variety of locations to be locked into, including a theatre, office, or apartment.

We arrived to the location and followed a few hastily made signs upstairs where two bearded and tattooed hipsters crouched over an improvised closet control station which offered live feeds to the rooms in question, letting them monitor progress. They sat us down to wait and provided us with wooden hand puzzles to practice on ‘in order to warm up our brains’. As we did that we noticed pounding on a nearby door and a frustrated scream, as a nearby group almost escaped but ran into a final obstacle. Great way to set the mood!

Then we entered the room, were paired with 5 vaguely French strangers, and were given exactly one hour to escape! Said goal was contingent on unlocking seven colored masterlocks on a key box next to the door, but as time went on it became obvious that some of the keys were hidden behind other locks of their own – many with numbers or tumblers to decode. Ideally one would proceed through the locks sequentially, but our haphazard approach meant that we jumped around a little bit, which made it harder to pick up the trail of the next clue. Finally we finished with 4 minutes to spare and posed jubilantly with a ‘we made it!’ sign.

I’m not going to give away the particular secrets of the room (the guy says that he searches Google every day to make sure that nobody spoils the fun), but I do want to talk about the three axises along which I think the process could be improved: through Clues, the Sequence, and the Obstacles themselves.

Clues:

We were given 3 clue opportunities to use throughout the hour, engaged by holding up a “HELP” sign to one of the security cameras in the room’s corners. Then the bearded owner would physically enter the room, size up where we were in the solution, and offer a tip as to what we should be looking at in order to move forward.

The clues were helpful without being totally obvious, especially at moments when we were at a loss for which of the  puzzles in the room we should tackle next. I remember at one point giving up hope and sitting down exasperatedly on the couch to fiddle with a toy car we had already inspected, only to be galvanized by a fresh clue. But the fact that the owner physically entered the room, looked around, and then gave us a pointed observation slightly ruined the atmosphere. Obviously they can’t actually lock you inside the room for legal reasons, but to have the door open 3 times during your hour and have this guy waltz in there like he owns the place (which he does) destroys the sense of true escapism.

It’d be better to have him on a microphone giving directions from the outside, or perhaps give oblique suggestions constantly, like “Have you thought about [this object] yet?”. Heck, he could even throw in riddles. But coming in and pointing out what to work on can’t be the best solution. There has to be a more authentic way to set users on the right trail than physically pointing them to it. Set the whole thing in a jail cell and have an Russian accented comrade on the outside whispering directions to you. Theatrify it.

Sequence:

As mentioned above, the 7 colored locks were meant to be completed in order, and after we finished our room the main guy traced the correct sequence of steps we should have done in order to complete them as such. Turns out the whole system of locks is lined up like dominos, so that in retrospect solving puzzle A leads to puzzle B neat as can be.

But that wasn’t obvious to us as the users – the exasperation gaps where we didn’t know what to do were exactly in precisely the parts where we had deviated from the established completion order, or failed to grasp a specific jump. If the escape process is going to be sequential, it should be obviously so, whereas for us we just tore the room apart and found at least 3 different leads which eventually lead to different keys, though only one was the correct ‘first lock’. Make the hurdles difficult, but the path obvious.

Better yet, there could be multiple ways to escape the room, like one method that relies on code cracking while another relies on using found objects in a novel manner, or maybe one that finds a hidden escape door, or so on. This might overcomplicate the process, but if it was obvious which completion strategy you were pursuing it could be a fun way to split up the task and let people work together without getting in each others’ way. Sort of like in videogames where you can choose to defeat enemies using strength, wit, or subterfuge.

Obstacles:

The things standing in between us and freedom were all number codes, with a few safe tumblers, key driven masterlocks, and one colored button sequence pad. While it is exciting to figure out exactly which 4 digit code applies to which lock, it gets rather old after doing it five times in a row.

I feel like there is so much more opportunity in this field. The room is being used explicitly for Escaping – modify it to have hidden walls, false panels, bookcases where you have to tap the uppermost left tome, etcetera etcetera! Instead of trying to hide digits, have us be feeling around the room and using our hands. You could incorporate tactile senses into the solution, or even smells and hearing. Instead of searching for a key, have us search for the correct sequences of moves required manipulate a taxidermic deer head in order to open a hidden compartment. There are all sorts of obstacle options beyond digits and keys.

One special moment was when we were required to look out the window and distinguish a specific piece of information from signs across the street and then input that into a lock. Taking that a step further, you could have actors in the street who complete a certain action at a certain moment in order to help break the code. If combined with the theme (say, prison escape), this could make the entire thing far more memorable.

But it’s still really fun

I enjoyed the experience greatly –  I’m just noted the things I think could make it better. It could also be combined with other existing entertainment like NYC’s famous dinner theatres, or the murder mystery dinner parties. Have dinner and then escape the room. Or have something bad happen when the hour is up, like mist starting filling the room, an approaching monster hitting the window, or just something more than just a ‘times up!’. Then you’d be even more frenzied in your attempts to escape.

The options are endless!