Escape the Room (5 stars) (not Room Escape)

This review is about Escape the Room, a completely different organization than Room Escape.

I love theatre, but watching a play is a passive experience. Going to a murder mystery dinner theatre gives you something to do, but the actors still take center stage. What if you’re looking for something active, to bond with friends or co-workers, like a party with a theatrical bent? This week I discovered the biggest interactive game since Twister.

It’s more than an ice breaker. It’s a party that’s all ice breaker all the time. Even if you are shy, you will find it impossible to have social anxiety, because you are constantly presented with things to do and topics on which to interact. It takes your mind off of yourself and puts you in a challenging team sports with strangers.

The experience, which is sort of a miniature amusement park, is called Escape the Room, which started in Boston but now has locations everywhere. The website is ugly and fails to give a sense for the experience, but the venue itself is artistic and attractive.

In Boston, their premier attraction is “The Dig”. Like Indiana Jones, you find yourself in chamber filled with historical significance, and must discover hidden passageways and uncover the secrets of the past. You end up “escaping the room” when you figure out the clues, discovering a key, or the digits to a combination lock, or a skeleton whose bony finger points to a button to press.

The game has no stairs or ramps, and there are no stumbling hazards. My guess is that it is not quite handicapped accessible, however. It is suitable for children, but the puzzles are adult level. Staff was friendly and did not offer any hints even when offered cash. They also offer an “office environment” room escape, which sounds a bit too much like real life to me, but hopefully there is a twist like adding zombies or a burglary. I was lucky enough to be invited to The Dig.

When you arrive, you get to mingle and meet the other participants in a room that is filled with brain games from your childhood. Then you’re lead into a room, the door is locked behind you, and you go go go.

Like the Fast and Furious movies, the plot is the important component to The Dig. As humans we love stories about engaging people, but we did not meet any characters, and there was no real story except “solve some puzzles”. We did not even have a human guide to narrate the adventure. Instead, we interacted with the manager through a monitor on the wall, through typing. That must be a way to keep staff costs down, but it also distanced us from the human element again.

That being said, we are used to an environment that’s all business in haunted attractions such as Spooky World, which rarely have a story either. Certainly the mood was thematic. The lighting, set design, and the nature of the puzzles put us in the mood of an archaeological exploration and kept us thinking along those lines. It’s unfortunate that nothing in the attraction was educational, or related to a specific time period or ancient culture, surely a lost opportunity.

The puzzles were interesting and often involved movement. You could not complete the game by just sitting. Instead it makes you stand up, walk around, explore, try things, play around with objects, and interact with others. This is the great strength of Escape the Room. Moving around and interacting with strangers on collaborative challenges brings you close, and in our group of nine, many of us strangers to each other, I was surprised how easily we were getting into each other’s personal space and taking cues from each other.

The game takes 60 minutes and our group managed to exit the room, just barely, by completing all the challenges. The game is composed of about 20 separate puzzles, often put in sequence (unlock the box to find the key to the next box, which has the code to the treasure chest…). The puzzles were all novel, but we needed many hints from our manager through the monitor, though. Getting hints is a fantastic way to make teams feel less like losers, but having had the experience, it’s clear to me that some of the puzzles were just too abstract, and could just be corrected.

Here’s an example, not a real one from the actual game. Let’s say there’s a tea kettle that blows steam. That’s supposed to make you think of clouds, and that in turn is supposed to get every team member to put their finger on the ten clouds drawn on the walls, simultaneously. To me, that is less of a clue than just seeing what happens when ten people just try a bunch of stuff frantically. I can’t fault any team that didn’t happen to figure it out.

I had really expected that there would be a “congratulations room” such as a room full of treasure with a gift shop (another lost opportunity) that we would exit into, but instead we just left through the same door that we entered from.

As an expert on gaming, of course I am full of ideas for improvements, but I must give Escape the Dig my highest recommendation. The facility was professional, clean, engaging, and the activities were the ultimate ice breaker in creating fast friends among strangers. The game did have a few bottlenecks where all nine of us tried to look at the same clue map at the same time, leaving a few of us left out.

But overall, the puzzles were designed to require the entire team to work together, and to me it seemed that everyone got a chance to solve some piece of it, or find something behind a painting, or make some other discovery. I wonder if they will hold a Singles Night. The event seems ideal for it, as long as there is a chance to mingle less frantically afterwards.

I am glad to give Escape the Room a 5-star recommendation, and while it is not a “must see” event, I hear that they have a new game coming in two months which surely will build on their strengths. Two hints to the wise: bring a flashlight and don’t arrive late. They run sequential games all day, so they need to start on time. Also, don’t get drawn to competitors. Escape the Room is a cut above Room Escape, a completely different business.

Escape the Room, Boston, is in downtown Boston and at