The real purpose of escape rooms

All your life has led to this moment.

Being locked in a room never sounds terribly fun. Let alone paying for the privilege. Despite this, there's currently a huge spate of experiences designed to test your ability to find keys hidden in some skeleton's chest cavity: escape rooms.

The only times I can remember being locked in a room occurred when I was young, and my dad put a bolt on the top of the door of my room when I flat-out refused to stay in there when I was being punished. It feels odd to think of locking a kid in a room now; it seems like a different time, or a horror movie plot device. We've moved on from smacking, and parents don't even bother to cook Brussels sprouts any more, perhaps because the only way you can get adults to contemplate putting them in their mouths is if there is almost as much thick cut bacon as there is, er, Brussels. Or if they're those chocolate ones they sometimes have at M&S cash registers over Xmas.

I digress.

I'm not sure how all this escaping came about. I do remember there being an upsurge in escape room adventures on the app store, I guess because making a 'refreshed' version of a point-and-click adventure game is kinda cheap and easy to do. And yet, oddly, people were still fascinated. Is it our James Bond delusion? You know, the one where you weirdly think that, with zero training or real life experience, in a Bond-type situation you would just karate-chop smooth-talk your way to mixing a martini whilst hanging out of a helicopter as things explode beneath you? Or is that just me?

I'm not sure if mine came just from watching too many Bond movies on afternoon ITV with my dad, drunk on Yorkshire puddings, or if my delusion has been backed up over the years by playing video games. Like all of you, I've totally hung out of a helicopter saying smart-arse things in-game, and adding mixing a martini on top of that is prob just a bit like Overcooked, and I'm totally good at that, so therefore me = top grade spy.

Then again, as a gamer, applying over-confidence to escape rooms is perhaps not too wild a jump. I mean, they design them just like video games. I remember playing the Crystal Maze (the original escape room) and there was a dead guy at the poker table. Everyone I was with just stood there in total shock, looking at the room as if it was the lyrics of Rihanna's Work handwritten on the back of a table mat. On a roller coaster. By a drunk person.

I saw a baffled, wide-eyed silence the likes of which I've never seen.

I waited to see if anyone would speak up. Nope, the eyes got wider and the silence got silencier. The answer was so obvious... Of course, to figure out who killed him, you just needed to look at the hands of cards to see whom he beat to gain the motive. I mean, obviously.

But then, is it? As game players, we're taught to read every room and look for the clues the makers have left us. It's a special language we have learned to read: like the coloured ropes casually draped off a ledge, or the drippy white paint that tells us we can climb here. We are so good at reading these things, we forget that people who don't play games are still at the "OU SONT LEH BIBLIO-TECH" stage of game conversation.

I was recently asked to host the World Escape Room Championship for Red Bull, and it was next-level escape roomery. Whilst the Crystal Maze was clearly designed for noobs - frankly, none of the puzzles were ever that easy on the TV show - this was the Mensa version.

As the host, I was asked if I wanted to go through the rooms with some celeb guests. They made sure that we were the last ever to go through the rooms, smartly as it turned out, since on our brief journey round we managed to break not only an actual wall but also a rather large cog-based puzzle.

I realised that my capacity for solid concentration is still capped at about 20 minutes, as it was at school - until I remembered there was a fridge in the first room with Red Bull in it and went back to get some. By the last puzzle, which was a sliding tile type thing, I was whizzing through it, way ahead of my peers - but again, it was a language I was used to conversing in. It felt easy.

In the Crystal Maze, there was the threat of 'forever' being locked in the room and missing the whole TV show, or having to trade one of the precious crystals for your body to be returned. (Not that they made much difference, as it's impossible to catch any flying sparkly paper in a giant dome over a fan, let alone figure out which ones are silver or gold as you're doing it.) In modern escape rooms, we don't get locked in and left behind, but we still drive on. Maybe it's the lure of literally 'being the smartest person in the room'. You get to be the hero of the group, to show them how smart you are (even though it's learned behaviour nine times out of ten) and finally have something to wield over the people who constantly beat you at bowling, mini-golf and darts. (Sorry, not sure what normal people do in their free time - do people still play darts?)

We are constantly being told that the games we play grow part of our brains more than others to make us better at problem solving, or hand-eye coordination, or whatever. Yet it never seems to translate into anything cool or tangible in the real world; it just feels like a marginal stat boost. Until now. Until escape rooms.

These are our Krypton Factor. (If you have never seen that show, I recommend YouTubing it - it's worth it for the bizarre seriousness of it all and the lame tracksuits.) Whilst your friend might be able to recall every sportball fact or be able to actually do a sports ball, you too can have your moment in the spotlight. You can be the champion! Finally, you can show what all those years of gaming were for, aside from the Tetris-transferable skill of being able to pack a car boot with the flair of a Russian chess grandmaster.

So, whilst they still seem like an odd way to spend your free time, get some friends who don't play games, book a session, and then lord it over them as much as possible so they know that, should they ever be locked in a room by a crazed Machiavellian puzzle wizard, your number will be on speed dial.

I mean, the likelihood of that happening is quite small, but Elon Musk has gone a bit weird lately. So who knows.

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Julia Hardy

Julia Hardy

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