It’s billed as a night of intellectual challenge, where groups of up to twelve strangers are locked in a room and given sixty minutes to solve their way out. Escape Room LA. The Detective. For those not in the know, here’s an overview:
The building is in downtown LA, somewhere on 8th street where drab brick and climbing metal stairs give the place an exoskeletal look. When you arrive, there’s an intercom which requires a three digit number to access. The intercom number sits just above the intercom but if you’re not looking for it, it’s about as visible as Bill Clinton’s morality. After three minutes of trying to figure out how to get into the building, my group and I saw the code and then realized how bad an omen it was that we couldn’t even solve the puzzle for opening the damn door.
Inside, a metal elevator takes you up three floors, and if you can avoid the idiotic jokes about whether the elevator is the room you need to get out of, you are a better person than I am. Upon exiting the elevator, a room awaits, where a single lady sits behind a plastic desk hosting $2 water bottles and a Mac laptop with your reservations. Drinking a bottle of water before being locked in a room for up to an hour has devastating consequences. I’ll not elaborate.
You sit on plastic chairs as other strangers enter and then there’s a nervous energy as you size each other up for things like IQ, body odor, and the sort of dick-swinging competitiveness that all puzzle-solving humans inevitably get when confronted with intellectual challenge, I guess. People shake hands, make jokes, and then you are led into a second room where the host rifles off the rules of the game and presents a few hints on how to succeed. The feeling is a bit like entering the Haunted House at Disneyland, just before the floor drops out and your inner child screams with terror.
You are told, “out of 1471 escape attempts, only 141 groups have gotten out.” This is meant to be informative but you and the others share an imaginary wink as you make nonverbal promises to be group number 142 and your collective ego swells as you walk through the door.
Once inside, things happen. The sixty-minute clock begins to tick. There are numbers and letters and photos and airplanes and locks and books and folders and darts and clocks and enough codes to make the NSA anxious. Your group spreads out across the small room and begins trying to piece together which things are clues and which aren’t and whether the idiots around them are bright enough to help them out of this place or just idiots who will prove sixty minutes of worthlessness. You find yourself sharing brilliant and logical deductions with perfect strangers whose intellectual equivalent are the blocks you are solving. With so many puzzles, however, the escape room requires teamwork. At some point, you give it over to the Gods of Decryption and pray like hell these strangers don’t make a mistake.
All the while, there’s a gum-chewing secretary in the room, one who begins with an attitude and grows increasingly friendly as your group fails to solve anything other than the light switch and how to pick up dropped pieces of paper. As you reach levels of frustration only seen in places like the DMV or on hold with your cable company, she drops hints – think a quick jerk of her head or a subtle finger point toward a clue. Once or twice, she speaks with a New York accent and wears slightly less than enough perfume. The ticking wall clock only adds to your frustration as pressure mounts on both your brain and your bladder.
As some point, there comes a moment when you realize you have no prayer of exiting this place before time runs out. There’s a certain sadness, an acknowledgement of your failure, followed by a harsh hour of blaming all of the rest of the people in the room for being too stupid to help you. The puzzles mock you for the final minutes, daring you to try to solve them quickly, but with the sort of arrogance that cryptography always wields when time is of the essence.
When time expires, and assuming you are still in the room (and let’s be honest, with only 10% of the people finding their way out, you probably will be), the secretary walks you through all of the puzzles and explains how each one of the clues could have been resolved. While many of the puzzles prove very solvable, some require the mind of a Dalí or a Picasso.
And then it is over. The host takes a group photo of you before you leave – evidence of your failure that they’ll likely use for promotional purposes.
As you walk down the hallway home – feeling the adrenalin rush of a mind well-worked, of a night spent in pursuit of an unobtainable grail, of an hour with stupid strangers who really should have pulled the intellectual oar a little harder – you smile, because the damn night was just so much fun.
And then, with the door to the street closing behind you, you reach back inside and grab a brochure for The Cavern, another Escape Room that will pit you with eleven more strangers in complete darkness. Because that way, if any of those morons actually get an idea, at least you’ll be able to see the light bulb above their head.