Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review: Escape the Room Philly: The Office

The timer started as soon as the door closed. We were locked in the room which was set up to look like an office. We had an hour to find a way to unlock the door before the boss returned and we would be trapped in the room forever.

I also have been suffering from a nasty stomach virus and I ate dinner about an hour before we started. We were playing in hardcore mode.

I will not spoil any of the puzzles in the game, despite wanting to excitedly gush about them. But I will spoil two things: We got out and despite the intestinal rumbling and discomfort, I made it through the time alright.

Escape the Room: The Office is an live action gaming event where your group of up to ten people are literally locked in a room designed to look like an office and you have one hour to find and piece together the clues to eventually get the key to make your way out.

We had a little bit of an advantage. We had players who had gone through a different Escape the Room event before in New York. That didn't help us with the puzzles at all, since they were completely different. But what it did help us with was understanding how the space is used in the game. As soon as the door clicked closed behind us we started to tear apart the room, ripping down wall art and upturning everything not bolted down--and only after testing the bolts for a bit first. I think a group of virgin potential escapees might handle the setting more delicately.

And that is something that makes this game remarkable. The setting is such an element to the game. Everything in the room is potentially a piece of a puzzle, but it is also set dressing. In a typical setting, I would be hesitant to peek inside of drawers. But here, I quickly learned to tear off everything from the walls searching for any clue.

Because of the combination of physically finding things such as clues, riddles, and even keys mixed with having to piece together numerical strings and patterns to unlock physical locks and patterns, the game actually successfully recreates the experiences of classic puzzle video games such as Myst. However, while I found the process of running the cursor over the entire screen to find the pixel I needed to click on in games like Myst tedious and dull, the physical equivalent of tearing through every object in the room in the Escape game is so very much more visceral and satisfying.

If there is a comparison to puzzle video games, it is to games like Myst. I feel bad in some ways making that comparison because personally, I hate Myst. But other, more modern puzzle games such as Portal use movement and momentum in their solutions in ways that do not work safely in real life.

But what does the game evoke?

There is a screen in the room that has a countdown on it. You can always look to see exactly how much time you have left. For some, this could add a lot of pressure and worry and stress throughout the game. Surprisingly, I barely looked at the screen to check the time. I specifically looked at our time left twice in the game. For the rest of it, I was too busy running around and trying to figure things out.

But the other thing that the game evokes quickly is a sense of who are the alphas in a group. Now, our group contained friends and friends of friends, so there was already existing relationships. But I found that we quickly broke into groups and scattered throughout the room. As locks and puzzles were found certain people claimed them as their own. Everyone was very willing to accept advice and help from the other players, but people definitely staked out their claims.

If our group were less extroverted and consisted of fewer alphas, I could easily see the group sticking together and trying to work through each puzzle as group. Here, I think, you could run into problems with people butting heads. But for us, even in the small enclosure that we were locked inside, there was enough puzzle landscape for each of our alphas to roam freely with their own territory.

As our territories were eaten away by the clues and puzzles being solved, our individual herds grew larger as we consolidated. But the consolidation came with successfully solving puzzles, so none of us were put in the position of joining others in frustration, but rather with the adrenaline rush of success.

It made our dynamics work really well. On the one hand, certain puzzles were solved without my knowledge of exactly how they were figured and I had a few combination of numbers floating in my head that were already used. However, our groups grew with success rather than failure, so each time a herd grew, it was on the back of triumph.

An unsolved puzzle, however, can be very frustrating. And this is the genius of the design. Each game has someone watching over it. They monitor our activities by video and through microphones. If we spend too much time on a clue or seem hopelessly lost misinterpreting something, the game master would play a chime in the room and we would know to go to the countdown screen. We would get an additional clue set up like it was an office memo. The game master wouldn't be obvious with the clue, but it was enough to get us on the right track and to either focus on something we ruled out or to check back at something we missed.

This helped save us from the frustration of lingering on an unsolved puzzle for too long. We didn't get a lot of clues over the screen, but the ones we got were timed rightly to help redirect us when we began to wander down paths that would have caused frustration.

There is also a debriefing at the end of the game, which walks you through the clues and how to piece them together if you succeeded or failed. This helps to focus your thoughts and to show you the process that was intended--even though we didn't always follow the same path.

If I have anything negative to say about the game, it is only that despite the setting, there isn't that narrative arc that I enjoy in games. When I play Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, the puzzles and deductions come naturally in the course of a story. But despite the stage and set of the Office, the second the door is closed, the set dressing is moot and everything simply becomes an piece of a puzzle. I don't feel like I am an office worker and the puzzles use the office setting for clues, but ultimately the solutions don't necessarily make any narrative sense. In a board game or a video game, this would annoy me. However, it is forgivable in this context because the adrenaline of running around in real life is engaging enough that the theme being only the set dressing doesn't matter.

One particular puzzle is a rather bold choice since it solely relies on at least one player having a specific item rather than using something that is present in the room already. But, ultimately this puzzle only offers a piece of another puzzle that could be figured out without it.

The other problem I see with the game is losing. We made it out of the room in about 46 minutes. I think I would have become much more aware of the timer if we reached under 10 minutes. We left with elation and triumph and that mixed with the adrenaline flowing through us enhanced the victory. I would have enjoyed the experience even if we lost. I had an amazing time throughout, but I could see frustration bleeding in and mingling with that adrenaline and not always being a pleasant experience for some people. The fact that the escape rate is only at about 18% means that you should be prepared for very real possibility of failure.

But these are little things that really are just a stretching to bring contrast to what was an overwhelmingly and surprisingly amazing forty-six minutes. I figured I would have a good time, but I didn't realize how great of a time I would have.

So if I really have any complaint, it is that I cannot do this puzzle room again. There are other puzzle rooms that are set up differently, but they are in different cities and I would eagerly want to bring a group of different friends through the Escape to experience it with them.

However, the Escape the Room in Philadelphia is in the process of finishing off a new room. It will be a bank heist and they have an actual bank vault door. You will have one hour to make it out before the police arrive. I'm sure that once the door shuts behind us, the theme will melt into set dressing once again. But I don't care. My wife made the suggestion that when we go to that one, we go dressed up.

We will be there shortly after it opens, dressed in black with ski masks. And it will kill me that I would only be able to do it once.

Escape the Room Philly is located in Center City Philadelphia at 1528 Walnut Street. Their website is:

Escape the Room New York has the Office, as well as other rooms and their website is: