Escaping Reality: My Experience with Escape Rooms

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As members of a developed, post-industrial society, we Americans have a remarkable amount of free time. There is also remarkable diversity in the way that we spend it. Whole industries—no, whole sectors of the economy—are continually being created to take advantage of our desire for recreation. Our diversions appeal to us in different ways—but it is true that, increasingly, more and more people find mindless, wasteful ways to spend their time. Television, most notably, is infamous for being both addicting to huge masses of people and remarkably unedifying. Nevertheless, intellectual pursuits do become popular too; for instance, a recent creation called the escape room, has caught the nation by storm. As someone who has played one escape room and who now who is contributing to the creation of another, I can safely say that escape rooms are both very fun and very mentally stimulating.

The idea behind the escape room is simple. Participants are locked in a room for a length of time (usually one hour) and have to find a way to get out before their time is up. If they fail to escape in time, panic, require medical attention, or have any other sort of emergency, they are let out of the room, but to get out legitimately they must solve a series of puzzles and challenges and be resourceful finding and utilizing items in the room. Typically, to exit the room participants must find a key to unlock the door, though in some cases a keypad code must be known, or a knife must be obtained to break the door open. The “key” (whatever it is) is typically locked or otherwise unusable, however, and the object that will unlock the key is usually itself locked or unusable, and so forth in a long sequence; making the escape room, at its core, a long, elaborate linear thinking puzzle.

When my brother and I were invited to try the Studio 1 Escape Room in Burlington, which a friend of ours had created, I was excited for a few reasons. I had been addicted to a video game (Portal 2) for some time that had some similarities to what I was about to try in real life—as in an escape room, the fundamental level mechanic of Portal 2 involves solving “test chambers” by completing linear thinking puzzles to unlock or to reach an exit. Furthermore, I had been reading about escape rooms and thought that one would be enjoyable to attempt.

So, on a pleasant summer afternoon we drove up to the Studio 1 building where the escape room (which was named “Escape from Boddy Mansion” and inspired by the board game “Clue”) had been created. We were given a handout providing background information about the story. In addition to escaping from the room, we were also supposed to figure out, in a very “Clue”-like vein, which suspect murdered the man who owned the mansion to which we were “invited” for a dinner party. We also were supposed to discover in the escape room what weapon he or she used.

A few minutes later, we were ushered inside the escape room itself, a replica of a dining room. Our group was unusual for two reasons: it was abnormally large and abnormally young. Including my brother and me, a dozen people (three-fourths of whom were all small girls) were in our group. We sat down at the table to listen to a short intro, and soon a computer in the corner of the room started counting down one hour. We quickly got up from the table and began searching for clues. Surprisingly, the numerous small children became very helpful very quickly; they looked everywhere in the room and we rapidly began compiling clues. Objects attached to combination locks, word locks, and padlocks were soon encountered, which began to slow our progress as we began figuring out how the clues corresponded to the locks. In our room, the clues included a number of riddles in various places (such as “What travels all the way around the world but always stays in the corner? A postage stamp”), a magic square hidden under some cushions on a seat, and an unusually large number of utensils (the numbers of knives, forks, and spoons in the room were the numbers of a combination lock). These clues and other factors did hinder our progress, but we had so many people (including the escape room designer’s brother, who had heard the riddles in the room before) that someone typically knew how to solve an obscure clue, and the small children supplied us with a constant deluge of information.

By the time that we had five or six minutes remaining, we had obtained the key to leave the escape room, but we still were not sure who murdered the man who owned the mansion or what weapon that murderer used. Sirens, supposedly the police arriving to frame us for the murder, began blaring and all the little girls began panicking. One nearly unlocked the door and left the room, but the older members of our group were able to calm them down and we eventually managed to leave the room.

It turns out that we did figure out who was the murderer and what weapon was used, and we took a group photo holding up signs indicating that we “solved” the escape room.

That escape room has since been closed. However, in August, I attended a play called Strauss at Studio 1. The creator of the first escape room, Sam Cryan, was there and asked if I would assist in creating certain elements using Arduinos (microcontrollers) to be incorporated into a new escape room. Excited, I accepted his request; and the second “Assassin’s Escape Room” is now under development. I enjoyed attempting an escape room, and I am enjoying developing another.

Sam explains exactly why escape rooms, specifically Studio 1’s escape room, are so fascinating:

Escape Rooms offer people a chance to be in a game, to solve puzzles, to explore a new world, and just escape the real world. Studio 1 Escape is a subset of Studio 1, a local community theater in Burlington, meaning that Escape Rooms there work to be immersive, and utilize the actors and people running the game. The moment you step into the lobby, you should feel in the situation.

Escape rooms, I have found, are unlike any other form of entertainment in that they are literally video games implemented in real life (the first escape rooms were Flash games to be played in a web browser). They exercise your brain and they immerse you in a story. As Sam said, escape rooms literally help you escape reality.

This article was written by Joshua Fitzgerald.

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