– By Dave Cooperstein, senior creative designer
Last week, I was locked in a room with nine of my (mostly) co-workers. We had 60 minutes to escape the room. No instructions. No clues upfront. Just a room full of seemingly indecipherable puzzles that, hopefully, would reveal a key to the door. Oh, and no bathroom.
This wasn’t the first time I tried to escape from a room. I did the same thing with some friends (and some strangers) a few months ago in Boulder, CO. Similar scenario, same result. Both attempts were intense, frustrating, enlightening, hilarious, and a ton of fun. And both, unfortunately for us, ultimately unsuccessful. Except for the “tons of fun” part.
So, here are my Top 10 Tips for Escaping a Room:
10) CHOOSE YOUR ROOM WISELY
There are two types of Room Escape attraction ‘styles’: Japanese and Norwegian.
The Japanese style challenges teams to use observational skills to find hidden clues in a large themed space (like being inside a video game). A clue on the bookshelves tell you how to arrange the books, whose numbered spines tell you the combination to a lock, which opens a trunk where a black light hangs with a set of switches, which you have to figure out in what order to flip, to illuminate a secret note hidden in a drawer, etc.
The Norwegian style puts you in a plain room, and focuses on the puzzles themselves. A box that opens up with pictures inside. A ball inside of a labyrinth. Each puzzle is connected to the other puzzles…put all the clues together, apply them to the final puzzle, and you’ll find the key.
Neither style is better than the other. They are just different. I find the Japanese style a little more fun, but the Norwegian style is a little more challenging. Both are insanely frustrating.
9) CHOOSE YOUR ROOMMATES WISELY
There’s nothing worse than being locked in a room with nine people you don’t like. Trust me on this. It pays (greatly) to know the people with whom you’re trapped. Who is good at math? Who is crazy smart, but kind of quiet? Whose ideas do you need to question? Your group will have a better chance of getting out if you’re (at least) a little familiar with each other.
Some friends and I were locked in one of these rooms with a trio of strangers, one of whom turned out to have a bit of a temper. At one point, towards minute 51, he got so frustrated that he started pulling extra hard on a rope attached to a wall. The wall began to buckle. A mysterious voice from behind the door yelled, “Hey! Stop pulling on that wall! That rope doesn’t do anything!” A little scary, but you could also argue a little effective.
8) DON’T STAND STILL; OBSERVE EVERYTHING
It can be a little paralyzing when that door closes. Where do you look first? Is that actually a lamp, or does it unscrew to reveal a scroll of paper? Why is there a letter missing from that sign? Is this REALLY just a chair?
Chances are you’ll misinterpret some of the clues. Or most of them. And, especially in a Japanese style room, there can be lots of ‘red herrings’. But don’t let that stop you from considering EVERY possibility. You’ll (eventually) start to make connections and see relationships, and the clues will start piecing together.
7) COMMUNICATE. COMMUNICATE A LOT. AND THEN COMMUNICATE MORE.
You show me a group that doesn’t come close to escaping the room, and I’ll show you a group that had a hard time sharing with each other.
All the (real) clues are connected in some way. There are 10 of you, and all of you are (hopefully) finding different clues. If you don’t talk to each other, or share what you’ve found, or put them together, your quest will be hopeless. Talk and show, and let others talk to and show you. Talk out the problem, together. Tell them what you think, and listen to what they think. Ten heads ARE better than one.
6) KEEP TRACK OF STUFF
If you have to write something down to remember the clue, do so. If you picked something up from one part of the room, keep track of that too. You’ll have to put stuff together to solve the puzzles, or unlock other clues, but don’t forget whence it came. That will (probably) be important.
5) GO TO THE BATHROOM
…before getting locked inside, of course. Seriously, this seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at 1) how many times your hosts will suggest you do so, 2) how many people forget to do so, and 3) how little you think about it once that door is locked, until you have to go.
4) DON’T PANIC
Did I mention that there’s a large clock on the wall, counting down the 60 minutes, second by precious second? The worst thing you can do is rush through the clues, miss something, and get stuck because of that. Stay calm, and take your time. Just do so efficiently. (Oh, and if you’re claustrophobic, this experience is not for you.)
3) YOU’RE GOING TO GUESS WRONG
Whether or not the Puzzle Masters have intentionally placed red herrings in the room, or how ‘easy’ you think the puzzles are, you are going to make something up in your head that has NOTHING to do with actually solving a puzzle.
At one point in a room, I unscrewed a switch from a lamp, because it looked like a key. I spent at least four or five minutes trying that ‘key’ in every locked drawer, padlock, concealed hole, hidden socket and closed panel I could find. It wasn’t a key. Just a lamp switch.
2) STICK TO YOUR GUNS
If you decipher a clue with “a picture of a wristwatch + 42,” and then you find a TV hidden behind a painting, and you’ve already found a mysterious electrical cord, chances are you are on to something. Don’t let someone talk you out of it, or convince you that it’s meaningless. Pursue it. There’s something greatly satisfying when ‘watch’ing channel 42 on that TV leads to another clue.
1) FAILING IS NOT THE WORST THING
The only thing more frustrating than failing is hearing that you almost didn’t fail. When the Puzzle Master walks in the room and says, “You guys were SO close” or “You ALMOST had it solved” or “Five more minutes and you guys would have found the key,” you have to count that as a success. Even if you’re still standing inside the room, and you don’t get your free t-shirt.
Perhaps I should have titled this post Top 10 Tips for Successful Attraction Designers. As a designer of world-class experiences, I gleaned a whole host of lessons about user interaction from Room Escape attractions. Observing (and experiencing) how people explore a new space, how they piece clues together, and how they interact with the ‘things’ in the space, and each other, opens our eyes to a world of possibilities. Most of the lessons above about user interaction can be applied to the attractions that we design, and help to make our own designs better, more widely appealing, and far more engaging.
As someone just looking for a great new attraction, something unique from a theme park, zoo or aquarium, Room Escape attractions offer a level engagement that larger attractions often forget. I get the chance to use my brain, and my friends’ brains, to have fun. And that’s something that everyone should experience.
Reading through just the numbered list above itself, perhaps I should have titled this post Top 10 Tips for Success in the Office. Or maybe Top 10 Tips for Life, In General.
TRIPLE MAJOR SUPER OBSERVATION
Want to know how to survive one of these rooms…with a zombie?! Read my follow up post to learn how we did!