A few months ago, I stumbled across Jessica Contrera’s article in the Post about the latest craze in live entertainment: escape rooms. After reading just a little about it, I knew it was something I had to try.
Taking their cue from video games and movies where the player or main character is locked in a room and must investigate the room’s contents to figure out puzzles in order to unlock the door, escape rooms essentially translate that concept into real life. The origins of creating this kind of real space might trace back to Europe, Asia, or possibly Silicon Valley, but no matter where the first one started, it seems this is simply an idea whose time has come. For those of us that grew up playing these types of video games and watching these movies, getting the chance to try it out in real life taps into something deep. Call it a return to childhood, call it a desire to be social, call it a critical thinking challenge – it’s a phenomenon that’s taking off. Escape rooms are worldwide, they’re popular among people my age with disposable income, and most importantly to this story, there are a few that recently opened up in DC.
I convinced a few friends to go recently one Friday evening, after much coordination of schedules. I chose Escape Room Live DC, mainly because it seemed the most popular based on reviews and it was the one featured in the Post article, but there are others out there. The same company is even opening a location in Old Town in a few months, so if we’d only waited we could have had a somewhat easier time getting to the place.
As it was, Glover Park is a really great neighborhood, but it sure isn’t Metro accessible. To get there you just have to get creative, be willing to walk up some hills, and plan some extra time. My part of the crew, Steve and Gerritt, took Metro to DuPont Circle, then caught a bus over to Wisconsin Avenue. Matt hopped on the bus at Foggy Bottom, another decent option. Brian and Stephen drove in and took their chances with street parking, which worked out great for them.
Operating under the theory that you can’t escape a room on an empty stomach, we hit up Surfside for a tasty taco dinner and beers and had plenty of time to stroll down the street and get psyched up for the big event.
The room is in the basement of a building, but it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. There are various spy-themed decorations scattered throughout, plus an old school arcade game console table. Steve and I killed some time playing Galaga while we waited for the groups ahead of us to finish. All in all, the clientele all looked to be about our age, though I did spot at least one group that looked like a family of all ages. We reserved the entire room so we wouldn’t be grouped with strangers, but if you don’t have that many people in your group or you’re just out on a date or with a friend, you can jump into any open room at any reservation time.
Before long, it was our turn. I have to say I think we were feeling a little overconfident going into it. Among the six of us, we probably felt that our backgrounds, overall knowledge of games and puzzles, and general critical thinking skills would make us a lock to break some kind of record. I had deliberately chosen the smallest room available on the website, which also happened to be the most difficult. After receiving a briefing from the Gamemaster, he led us to our room. The general guidelines were: don’t break anything, not everything is a clue, and you have 45 minutes to get out from the time the door is locked. I glanced at the leaderboard posted next to the door as I walked in. For six people, the record time was around 42 minutes. That should have been our warning.
I won’t give out any spoilers about the solution for our particular room. I will only say that it was much, much more difficult than we had anticipated, and it did not contain a framed photo of Bill Murray. And there were a nice mixture of number puzzles, word puzzles, and somewhat-physical challenges in addition to the straight-up riddle solving. To grade us fairly, I think we narrowed in pretty quickly on the various clues and puzzles that were readily available from examining the room – the “opening round.” But figuring out what to do with the information we had – jumbled numbers, cryptic phrases – and how to apply them to the various combination locks we found to keep going – was mind-boggling.
After 15 minutes or so of bouncing around from one puzzle to the next and not making much headway, the Gamemaster’s voice chimed in from the webcam stationed on a wall near the door. “Do you guys want a hint?”
Of course, he’d been watching us flounder the whole time.
That was the moment of truth. Did we swallow our collective pride and give up any chance at reaching the leaderboard, or did we plow stubbornly on and risk not escaping at all?
We went with the clues. In the end we needed five of them, but we did escape with only a couple of minutes to spare. That’s what counts, right?
I think you can tell from the post-escape picture taken by the Gamemaster that it was going to take a while to convince ourselves of that. Even if I did get to dress like some kind of weird Viking.
In the end, we left with a bit of a defeated gloom and more than a few bruised egos. We wound down the night at Breadsoda so the rest of the guys could drown their defeat in beverages while I watched. Our consensus was that we did okay considering we had no prior knowledge of what types of puzzles to expect, and that we probably could tackle a room of similar difficulty now that we’d been through the wringer. Maybe we were just trying to make ourselves feel better. Maybe one of these days we’ll schedule a rematch and see.
As for me, now that I’ve gotten a taste of escaping, I really do want to try it again sometime. I’ve got enough family members that enjoy mysteries that I think we can make a go of it. With new rooms coming to Old Town and an occasional reset of clues and puzzles in their existing rooms, Escape Room Live is set up to capture every other Indiana Jones or Legend of Zelda fan in the DC Metro area for years to come.
(There’s not much here, but check out the Flickr gallery if you want.)