Last weekend I did something new and different. I tried a new adventure called an Escape Room. For the uninitiated, escape rooms are the latest fad activity in which they lock 8 to 14 people in a room. The group is given clues and puzzles to solve in order to make their escape. I’m a puzzle person. Sounded like a fun outing.
I invited thirteen of my closest, soon-to-be-ex-friends to join me. The theme of our escape room was Jules Verne’s classic novel, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Our mission: Find the key to escape before our submarine, the Nautilus, ran out of air.
Being a natural-born leader, I assumed the part of legendary Captain Nemo and immediately took charge of this mission. I’m not sure precisely when the mutiny began. It might have been when I ordered my crew to report every five minutes with any new clues they had unearthed. Or maybe it was when I ordered them to swab the decks. Group morale is such a touchy thing.
Turns out escaping from an escape room is an extremely difficult challenge. We had to solve a myriad of puzzles to unlock boxes, only to find inside even more enigmatic puzzles. As the Captain, I quickly came to two important realizations: 1) getting out of this escape room was going to require enormous brain power and concentration, and 2) I did not bring nearly enough money to bribe the staff to tell me what the clues meant.
You must have an escape room employee in the room, because it turns out you cannot legally lock people in a room and leave them there – unless you’re a member of ANY fraternity on ANY college campus, and you’re hazing a bunch of freshmen pledges. The staffer shared that the record for a group to escape was 37 minutes. My only conclusion is that they must have struggled futilely for 36 minutes before, in a fit of desperation, they tortured the escape room employee unmercifully and relentlessly until she let them out in the 37th minute. There’s no other conceivable explanation.
I hand-picked my crew of highly educated professionals – plus my friend Howard. I was confident we could ultimately solve this challenge – assuming they let us stay in here a week, provided us with comfortable sleeping quarters and were willing to feed us three square meals a day. But to my dismay, I was informed we only had an hour. We would have to work strategically and as a team. At ten-minute intervals they announced how much time we had left.
After a bumpy start, I saw glimmers of progress – by which I mean I had succeeded in collecting payment from almost everyone for their share of the cost of this adventure. It would be a full 20 minutes before my first crew member demanded his money back.
By the end of ten minutes, our group had scoured every cabinet, desk, painting and a few body cavities, looking for clues. We quickly collected papers with seemingly hieroglyphic symbols, fish-shaped pieces with longitudinal-latitudinal markings, several locked boxes, and what appeared to be a note from a previous escape room participant begging to be set free so he could use the bathroom.
40 minutes remaining:
We had to figure out the four-digit combinations to no less than nine locks on one cabinet, on which each door had a different deep-sea symbol, like a conch shell or a starfish. Each symbol was a clue to yet another riddle. It was at this point I came to an unsettling realization: We had about as much of a chance of solving all the puzzles within an hour as my cat had of typing the Gettysburg Address while lying on my keyboard.
30 minutes remaining:
The pressure was mounting. As we looked at the puzzles remaining in front of us, my colleagues all pondered the same question: Whose lame idea was it to do an escape room? But I pulled my team together and gave them an inspiring pep talk. I told them that I believed in each and every one of in them – with the exception of Howard. Then I sat in the corner and checked my Facebook news feed. Turns out someone I’ve never heard of named Doris Rutherford had twins on Thursday. So I posted a congratulatory note to her.
20 minutes remaining:
Amazingly, we had unlocked most of the boxes and were well on our way towards solving about 23% of the puzzles. But it was not looking hopeful. On the bright side, I had figured out that the conch shell symbol represented the number 7 and the sea horse represented the letter R. I had no idea what the hell I was supposed to do with that information, however.
With time dwindling, I decided to try something bold. I figured that in the deep ocean, there is this phenomenon called bio-luminescence – you know, where deep sea creatures give off their own light. So I came up with the brilliant idea to turn off all the lights to see if a clue might emerge in the darkness. To my astonishment, suddenly a loud crashing sound pierced the darkness, followed by a blood-curdling scream, followed by a stream of obscenities – something about who the f*ck turned off the lights. Then I turned the lights back on and gallantly helped my wife off the floor.
5 minutes remaining:
We were almost out of time. We had wracked our collective brains and still were nowhere near figuring out how to put the clues together. I had us review what we knew so far: A conch shell equals 7. The coordinates on the map of the world, when connected, make the outline of what looks vaguely to be a whale, or perhaps a ’75 AMC Pacer. We knew the locked box with the nautilus engraving was central to solving this puzzle. We also knew that there was no way in hell we were going to figure out how to open the locked box with the nautilus engraving – unless our hosts suddenly reversed their policy against using explosives.
1 minute remaining:
With just seconds remaining, it was time for a Hail Mary. It had become painfully obvious there was no way on earth we were going to solve the puzzle and locate the key that unlocked the escape room door. So we used our collective brain trust to come up with an ingenious workaround – one which relied on the use of precise mapping to determine the optimal location on the wall to apply the sledgehammer we found in a closet we were not supposed to go near. With seconds to spare, we bludgeoned an opening just wide enough to crawl through to daylight.
When the last person finally wriggled through, we congratulated each other on an outstanding job of collaboration and teamwork. And the group was unanimous about one thing: this was the last time any of them would ever agree to any suggestion I came up with for a new adventure.
That’s the view from the bleachers. Perhaps I’m off base.
© Tim Jones, View from the Bleachers 2015