Escaping Rooms

Let’s dust this thing off in the year 2016 and talk about please God not 2016 escape rooms! I’ve been up to a lot of things in the past while, and among them is escaping from a decent number of rooms–five so far, actually, which may be nothing to an escape room aficionado but seems to me like a fair amount of escape to have under my belt. For the uninitiated, escape rooms/room escapes are basically like a real-life point-and-click or IF game: a series of interlocking puzzles presented in a physical environment that you (and usually a team of other people, either friends or strangers or a mix) have to solve in order to “escape” the room within an hour.

My inaugural escape room was The Agency, courtesy of Escape the Room NYC: a room that’s since been rotated out, I think, and I’m glad I got the chance to do it (with three friends and a couple of strangers) while it was still in play. Even if we failed, miserably. We did not escape that room. The fact that I’ve been victorious at all the other escape rooms I’ve done has not lessened the sting of the one that got away, the great white whale of room escape. But let’s not dwell on victory or defeat–I’m really interested in what escape rooms mean for teamwork, group dynamics, and puzzle and entertainment design geared towards groups large and small, towards people who know each other and people who don’t. So I’m going to give my general thoughts on the matter and then evaluate each of the rooms I’ve done from the standpoint of the design-for-a-group, the team experience, and how this actually played out socially.

As Emily Short points out in her post Learning About Multiplayer Puzzle Design From Escape Rooms, most IF and indeed most puzzle experiences are entirely single-player: if they become multiplayer, it’s through unintended teamwork and group brainstorming on the player’s end, not purposeful design on the game’s end, and ultimately they require one person to make final decisions and interact with the interface. Escape rooms, on the other hand, are pretty much universally built for teamwork–there’s even a strong element of corporate teambuilding exercise, since a lot of rooms are booked for that purpose, which is also interesting in terms of an unusual crossover of audience. They’re games or gamelike experiences that have a much broader consumer base than point-and-clicks or interactive fiction, partly by fiscal necessity; the majority of escape room customers aren’t dedicated gamers, they’re families or birthday parties or, as mentioned, workplaces. So you have an experience that’s intended for laypeople, not hobbyists, and in groups of (typically) 4-10, not solo, and that differentiates them a great deal from the games they superficially resemble.

My experiences with escape rooms have differed a lot not just based on the rooms themselves, but on the crowd I’ve been with when doing them. I’m really interested in them as a social experience, so I’m going to evaluate that aspect of each of the rooms I’ve done. (I’m excited that I’m going to get to do a sixth room on Sunday: Illuminati at Puzzle Workshop in Irvine, CA! We’ll see how it goes!)

The Agency (Escape the Room NYC): 3 friends and 3 strangers, for a total of 7 people. The strangers had played an escape room before; our group, at this point, had not. A James Bond-esque theme with a nominal plot involving finding a mole and high production values. This was an interesting, high-pressure, chaotic experience; I’m not sure if it was actually the most challenging room I’ve played or if it just seemed like it because it was the first, but I maintain it may have been the most challenging. That being said, I’m not sure it was necessarily designed with an entire group’s contributions in mind–many of the difficult puzzles were difficult in a way that made it tricky for more than one person to work on them, and at times the team aspect seemed to confuse rather than help things, with people not necessarily organizing their clues in an orderly way. (God, it’s hard to talk about these rooms without spoilers.)

The group chemistry was a bit chaotic itself–with the two groups of friends working at entirely different paces and thus not always sharing information in the most efficient of ways, which probably damned us faster than the challenge level of the puzzles. The puzzles themselves operated on both an individually paced this-solution-leads-to-this-problem level and also on a grander, more macroscopic scale that required keeping track of known clues throughout the entire experience; but again, this probably could have been accomplished with two (intelligent, organized) people. Notably we were not given any scratch paper or other ways to collate our information other than our own phones.

Sherlock’s Study (Exodus Escape Room): 2 family members and another family of 4, for a total of 7 people. No one other than me had played an escape room before. This had another theme centered around finding a mysterious killer or criminal, with a vague steampunk Sherlock Holmes theme. Sherlock’s Study had a (what I now understand to be) typical array of lock-and-key puzzles involving scouring the environment for clues and trying them in order, but a fair amount of them that needed doing at approximately the same time, which lent itself to group division of labor. It also had some tricky individual “metaplot” puzzles which required a lot of concentrated effort from one person, meaning that everyone else had to busy themselves with solving the ongoing lock puzzles to make sure everything got done on time.

This group got on pretty smoothly, despite the two halves not knowing one another beforehand: working out a sensible division of labor intuitively early on and sticking to it, figuring out each group member’s strengths and assigning them work that suited their contributions. It’s possible this room wasn’t as easy as it seemed to be–though there were definitely challenging moments, and we didn’t finish with that much time to spare–but it definitely provided moments in the spotlight for everyone in the group, and for that it must have been an effective teambuilding exercise.

The Dig (Escape the Room Philly): 1 friend and another group of 4 strangers, for a total of 6 people. The two of us had played rooms before; the strangers had not. This had a sort of a mishmash Stargate/Indiana Jones theme, no apparent plot, and relatively high production values. This was a definite case of “room designed for many fewer people than were able to book it.” While it had a number of interesting and fun puzzles, and some very creative in their solutions, they more or less amounted to a string of puzzle-solving that could be easily accomplished by 1 or 2 people with a number of spectators going back and forth watching the few people do things. There was one exception to this rule, but altogether it was very much a two-person room with a four- or five-person gloss to it.

Chemistry in the group was, ultimately, pretty irrelevant for this reason; the more proactive people ended up on most of the puzzles, while the more passive people watched, which can happen in pretty much any escape room, of course, but seems especially likely in a linear chain-of-puzzles room like this one. I suspect a mix of more assertive people might have resulted in conflict and some hold-ups, which might add some artificial challenge to everything, but not necessarily in a way that anyone would want.

The American Embassy (Escape Room South Jersey): 1 friend, for a total of 2 people. We’d both danced this dance. A kitschy, dark-humored 1970s Cold War theme with an objective separate from simply escaping the room. The upside of blowing handily through a room with just two people is that it makes you feel very clever! The downside is that it makes you question how much 5 or 6 people would actually have to do in the room. This was an incredibly fun experience for the two of us, with some stakes-raising plot twists and some sound and other media effects that helped everything seem very urgent even as we were doing pretty well on time; the puzzles themselves, however, were staggered such that they had to be accomplished in one-by-one order, pretty much, which meant it necessarily was the work of two people. It’s hard to imagine what more could find to contribute.

The group chemistry of two people who know each other very well–as my friend and I do–is no doubt extremely different from two strangers. That being said, two was definitely the optimal number of people for us for this room. Teamwork was easy and handy.

The Heist (Escape Room Challenge): 1 friend, for a total of 2 people. Yup, us again. An art thievery-themed challenge with a non-escape objective. I have less to say about The Heist because I’d be repeating a lot of what I had to say about The American Embassy, but I think The Heist was slightly better designed for a group–more concurrent puzzles, more things to conceptually work on while other people tinkered with concrete things. This was stated by the owner to be a “second-gen” escape room, less concerned with combination locks and other similar escape room tropes, and without spoilers I can say that’s certainly the case; overall, though, I think it was definitely more geared toward the fun of a small group (2-4) than a larger one, and part of that was simply due to the scale and budget of the room.

The next room I’m playing, I’m playing with just 2 other people, so I’m curious to see how the design holds up to the small group–though I am aware that as I play more and more rooms, my opinion in fact becomes less and less valuable when it comes to assessing how things play for most of their audiences! Still, this is great fun, and a great (and not that expensive) sometimes-hobby for someone who frequents metropolitan areas, and I can’t wait to lose again.

About Gabriel Murray

I am agog, I am aghast!
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