“Mrs. Peacock did it in the Conservatory with the Candlestick?” Well, not quite…
I first heard of “escape rooms” while doing research on Bilbao, Spain, for an upcoming trip. The premise sounded intriguing: You are locked in a movie set-like room and must solve a mystery using puzzles and clues hidden in the room in order to get out. I realized, of course, that this would be in Spanish, which I don’t speak. I also thought it would be a great activity for our game-loving family and began doing some checking a little closer to home.
Escape rooms are a relatively recent entertainment creation and appear to be a bit of a craze in cities around the world. Part reality show challenge, part board game, part puzzle, the themed storylines offer the chance to be an active player rather than a passive viewer. Some rooms have group size limits as high as 12 and will combine smaller groups for a game. Others set the limit at five – our personal choice for our family to play together. I also discovered that some escape rooms bill themselves as scary and tout their special effects. Others are strictly mystery-solving puzzle challenges, which appealed to us.
I decided on House of Hints in San Diego and booked the “medium difficulty” room, recommended for first-timers. Because we picked a day when everyone would be home for the holidays, I booked a month in advance. Escape rooms fill up quickly, especially on weekends and around holiday times.
The House of Hints exterior is almost as mysterious as the escape room itself. Located in an industrial office park, it is literally off the beaten path and not a place you would happen upon and think, “That looks interesting!” We arrived fifteen minutes before our scheduled time, as instructed, and waited in a small lobby with another family.
Our group was taken to a briefing room, where a friendly staffer named Matt introduced the game and explained our challenge. We would be locked in the office of Detective JD Becket, who has disappeared while working on a murder case. Using “secret files” and “hidden stashes,” we would have exactly 60 minutes to solve the case and unlock the door. Matt would be watching us on a hidden camera and would periodically provide “hints” on the room’s TV monitor. He advised us to work together, stay organized and above all, have fun. About 40 percent of the teams make it out in time, he said, and the fastest record is 53 minutes.
With that, Matt ushered us into the detective’s office, wished us luck and locked us in. The game had begun.
That is about all I can say without giving away any of the game’s secrets. Like playing pieces being dropped at the “start” space on a game board, the five of us raced around the room – exploring, puzzle solving, prop examining – without having to wait our turns or roll the dice. We worked independently; we worked together; we laughed and cheered every time we uncovered a clue. It was a wonderfully clever, totally-in-the-moment immersion experience and an incredible amount of fun.
I was so engrossed in the game that I didn’t check the wall clock until ten minutes before the hour. It was a sudden jolt into the reality that our time was almost up and we hadn’t figured out which suspect was guilty – not to mention how to get out of the room. And then, in a final frenzy of one clue leading to another and another and another, we unlocked the door…with one minute and thirty seconds to spare.