Letter of Recommendation: Escape Rooms

This is an article written by Molly Young and was published in the New York Times Magazine on April 25, 2018. I think it sums up the exact feelings most people experience when they experience an escape room!

When my coffin lid was slammed shut and padlocked, I didn’t panic. It was dark, and my wrists were chafing from the handcuffs. Nearby, I could hear my husband, Teddy, scrabbling about in his own coffin, testing to see if his lid was sealed securely (from the sound of it: yes). The air smelled like a warm shoe. Teddy shouted my name, and I shouted back. Entombment did nothing to dull our communication skills. Which, I suppose, would be comforting if I believed in the afterlife.

The coffins were part of an escape game called “Boxed Up,” hosted by a venue in Brooklyn that offers a variety of such amusements. Escape games work like this: You enter a room (or coffin) and are given a limited amount of time to find your way out by solving puzzles and clues planted within. It’s basically the ’90s computer game Myst, but in real life. Escape games come in all sorts of themes, most with a cinematic flair: crypt, haunted hotel, underground bunker, spaceship, sanitarium, zombie apocalypse, archaeological dig. In Detroit, there’s one designed to resemble a 1980s rec room; if you don’t get out, the promotional materials warn, you’ll be stuck playing Atari forever. Another, in Kansas City, is set inside the Truman presidential campaign.

Like dreams and traffic disputes, escape rooms are scandalously dull to summarize. But try it once, and everything else will suddenly pale in comparison. You’ll see. A perfectly nice friend will text to see if you want to grab a drink, and you’ll be thinking: You want to sip a beverage and chat when we could be jimmying open an armoire that contains a bloody doll with an anagram carved into her left foot that we have to chant three times holding hands before an amulet falls from the ceiling? Please!

Generally, the games begin with an employee gathering you and your friends at a door to give you a spiel. (“Please do not use physical force to escape.”) Then a clock starts, and you start looking for puzzles: hidden compartments, trick mirrors, two-way radios, carpets woven with concealed messages. (The hard part isn’t solving the puzzles; it’s figuring out what is a puzzle. One time I wasted eight minutes examining a bowl of plastic vegetables that turned out to be décor.) Each puzzle leads to the next, which eventually leads to a key to unlock the door.

Think of all the ways you already insert pleasurable, circumscribed bursts of risk into your life. Maybe you watch horror movies, consume hot sauce, jaywalk. Maybe you pursue casual sex or steal Splenda packets from Starbucks or treat the speed limit as a cute suggestion. An escape game is like stacking these things atop one another and rounding out the itinerary with a medium-scary roller coaster. The panic is real even if the pressure is an illusion. You won’t die or get stuck in the 1980s if you fail to escape; an employee will simply unlatch the door and let you out with a “Better luck next time.”

Because escape games have proliferated since their invention (apparently in Japan, where else?) around 2007. There’s probably one near you. And while they have a reputation as dorky corporate team-building exercises, I would urge you to approach them as a regular form of dorky recreation. For our bout of endangerment in the coffins, my husband and I paid little more than the price of a fussy restaurant dinner. We weren’t totally unsupervised; an employee of the venue listened through hidden microphones to offer hints and intervene if something disastrous happened. But still. What if there had been a fire? What kind of twist ending would it be if we died after paying someone to entomb us for fun — the legendary kind of twist ending, or the horrifying kind?

Aside from moonshot calamities, the risks are psychological. Escape games are a natural emetic for all your bad qualities. Are you bossy? An escape game will turn you into a sickening tyrant. Are you meek? You’ll cower. Anxious? You’ll freak. If you have a grain of self-awareness, the emotional purge will occur within the first minute of the game, and you’ll spend the rest of the time actively compensating for your worst instincts, surfing them like a wave and relishing the conquest. What I’m suggesting is that escape games are a thrilling substitute for therapy. They’re also a fine alternative to alcohol. Being trapped in a box with other adults replicates drinking’s shortcut to intimacy, while working under a clock eliminates awkwardness (there’s no time for it!). I would not be surprised if escape games turned out to be a mild aphrodisiac. Does it matter why your pulse is quickening as long as it’s quickening?

In the coffin game, Teddy broke free of his tomb first. Like a good and faithful husband, he helped loose me from my own before moving on to the next puzzle. After the game ended, we went home and did what we always do: drink tequila and go over every hint, maze, codex and red herring in lingering detail. What were our triumphs? What could we do better next time? What was up with that latex clown?

Most hobbies are enjoyable only if you’re good at them, but I’m mediocre at escape games, and I’d still rather do them than eat or sleep. They reward sheer effort like nothing else. And if you require that your activities be fortified with vitamins and minerals, there’s this: Escape rooms make a simple and beguiling metaphor for life. In the space of an hour, you dart through all the stages of human maturation, from bewilderment (infancy) to discovery (puberty) to reasoning (adulthood) to deliverance (death). It’s like starring in your own dumb biopic.

Tony's Bistro


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