In Which I Go To An Escape Room With My Family Over Christmas Break

Within my family of late adopters and laggards, I generally find myself trying to urge my family to break from established ways of thinking and time-honored but perhaps tired activities.

They beat me to the punch this holiday season, booking a room for our family on Christmas Eve.

Having never experienced one, I was enthused at the idea of being able to put my logic and problem-solving skills to good use.

What I thought was going to be nothing more than a real-life puzzle game became a full social experiment.

The unfamiliar surroundings of an escape room — ours took place in an 1890’s Western saloon as well as a room in the future — stripped away the complexity engendered in the web of family relationships, usurped by a new order in which roles were assumed based on heightened versions of instinct. Those who wanted everyone to have a good time and that the team had a healthy dynamic became supporters. Those who felt most comfortable giving orders took on leadership roles.

Professions played into the natural roles people fell into. Those in management-type roles began spearheading their own efforts, spurred on by their severely Type A personalities. My mom, a preschool teacher, kept her cool and encouraged the team while bringing another set of eyes to people who’d hit sticking points. The high school and college students in our family expressed a desire for cohesion and did best at working in teams.

I, having previously been an Account Coordinator, just wanted people to communicate in an orderly fashion so we could move through the clues effectively.

Just as in other aspects of life, in escape rooms, effective communication is absolutely crucial. The difference between success and failure can rest on establishing clear communication systems, enabling problems to be approached and solved with an organized plan of action.

Part of what breaks down communication in an escape room is the known time pressure: there’s a sense that if we don’t go right from one clue into the next in constant motion, then surely the mission is doomed. There’s also the excitement of having puzzled out something that up until then has stymied a group full of capable minds.

The danger lies in the sense of urgency combining with the rush of overcoming struggle. Left unchecked, the energy in the room escalates from the initial bright-eyed excitement into a manic frenzy that becomes next to impossible to corral. Systems are only as effective as the adherence of those it governs allows it to be, and once people are scattered throughout the room disparately, the energy level has already spiraled out of control.

Also factoring into this is self-regulation: celebrating a win calmly without shouting “I FOUND A CLUE!” keeps the energy in check.

We did not do this. In our case, unearthing the next hint led to the discoverer being mobbed by curious eyes and grabbing hands, each person anxious to contribute — it was a miracle if the clue finder was able to read the text out loud to the group before members began splintering off.

In this case, life outside the room affected how this was undertaken. Those who fared best were those used to facing crazy deadlines: the preschool teacher and the students.

Meanwhile, the personalities of those accustomed to being in positions of power and delegating had their leadership impulses magnified until no fewer than 3 completely independent squadrons had formed (one primarily comprised of the students). I noted the spreading chaos as the manager-led teams continued on their own ventures without providing much outbound communication, and in response began floating between groups in my best attempt to facilitate order and some sense of overall team progress.

A disclaimer: I do not purport to be some otherworldly being of grand perspicacity, but to my knowledge I am the only regular practitioner of mindfulness meditation. I credit this for providing my ability to take a step back and take note of the big picture without removing myself entirely from the situation.

In the end, our team ended up falling just short of escaping the room, being forever lost in a space-time vortex (where I’m writing this from now; if you’ve received this transmission, please kindly share any hints for getting out, as I forgot to pack snacks).

It might surprise some that despite a subpar experience of this escape room, I’m enthusiastic about undertaking my next one — I love a good mental puzzle — but especially about the storytelling possibilities these rooms provide.

As I see it, the escape of an escape room should refer not to just the overall goal, but the scenario: an escape from our own familiar realities.

This begins with facilitating immersion and suspension of disbelief from the outset by priming the audience to embrace living in an alternate universe for the next hour. In our instance, we were taken down a hallway past two other puzzle rooms and given a rushed explanation by the employee (to be fair, this was on Christmas Eve, so I’m almost certain that factored into both her haste and our group’s predisposition toward franticness).

Instead, a briefing room specifically designed for a particular room creates a liminal space: in addition to providing information about the rules and how the game works, it shepherds participants from our world into one free of usual vestiges. The richer the universe constructed by the escape room, the more engrossing the story and overall experience becomes: assigning characters, attributes and unique capabilities becomes another foothold into this foreign world.

Pulling from my experience, two sterling examples of creating immersion come from the world of entertainment, the first being theatre. In college, one of the university’s theatre companies brought Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the nightclub to create the world of Midnight’s Dream.

Attention to detail made this show truly immersive: from the booming music and club lights to treating the queue as one that would amass outside a club and characters inhabiting the venue’s every nook and cranny, a shack behind the math department building became a dominatrix Titania’s world that all of us were just living in. I ended up seeing the show three times, so enamored was I with the portal into a different world it provided.

A second instance of alternate world came from a recent trip to a different planet, namely, Avatar’s Pandora. At Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, my family embarked on a Na’vi-led journey through jungles and caverns aided by Disney’s next-level simulation technology. An extensive briefing sequence allowed the ride (itself making use of vibrational pulses, blasts of air and an occasional dousing of water to bring the screen to life) to transcend simply being a technical marvel. We were decontaminated of potential viruses, motion-tracked and eventually matched to our own avatars. However, the experience fell short in its failure to live up to the expectations of customization that it set: without any discernible impact of the avatar-matching sequences, the attraction ended up feeling like much ado about nothing.

As in solving an escape room, building a great escape room experience that has participants silently wishing that their time in its world didn’t come to an end so soon is equal parts mind and matter, building upon great substance with excellent style.

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