[At the time of this review, Escape Hour Austin was called 15 Locks.]
“Gee Brain, what do you want to do tonight?”
Location: Austin, TX
Date played: January 8, 2017
Team size: 8-18; we recommend 7-11
Duration: 60 minutes
Price: $25 per ticket
Story & setting
We were the subjects of a psychological study; solving puzzles would lead to our escape. While the final challenge alluded to rats trapped in a maze, there wasn’t any pretense of story. The excitement was in solving unusual challenges to earn our freedom.
Composed of three rooms, each in a different primary color, Lab Rats used big color blocks and toy-like interactions to create a children’s tube and ball pit aesthetic (without the tubes or the ball pit). These rooms were laid out such that players in any given room could interact with players in any other room. Most of the puzzles were constructed around the perimeter of a room, or at a station in the center, leaving plenty of space for maneuvering.
Lab Rats unfolded in three rounds of puzzling. While we remained divided throughout the hour, we weren’t necessarily trapped with the same few individuals or puzzles. 15 Locks included a mechanism for the transfer of players between rooms upon the completion of each stage (should they choose to transfer).
The puzzles in Lab Rats were largely themeless. They were simply fun challenges to conquer. This was a puzzler’s escape room.
Much of the puzzling was hands-on, constructed into the rooms. In this way, many of the challenges involved spatial reasoning. However, that was by no means the only type of puzzling available.
Lab Rats forced collaboration and teamwork both within and between the rooms. In fact, some of the puzzles were rendered difficult mostly by the need to properly communicate.
Many of the puzzles, as well as the game mechanics, were tech-driven. There was no shortage of ways to interact with this room escape.
We loved the concept for Lab Rats: a puzzle-focused, collaborative experience for a large group in an abstract environment.
15 Locks steered into their color-block aesthetic. While Lab Rats didn’t look like something specific, or transport us to a fictional world, it did immerse us in a world unlike our own.
The combination of the almost child-like set design, continual puzzling, and collaboration across environmental barriers created this frenetic energy that lasted throughout the experience. We were excited and amped up.
Lab Rats relied on technology-driven puzzles and game mechanics. We were “locked” in our rooms by an invisible barrier that sounded an alarm should anything pass through it incorrectly. Players could check in and out of the various rooms at specific times using an RFID bracelet. The game knew how many players were in each gamespace.
With players separated and so much action taking place all at once, our gamemaster had plenty to do. 15 Locks designed both audio and visual feeds, such that we could communicate with her from any of the three rooms and understand when she was preoccupied with our teammates. Gamemastering Lab Rats was a tall order, but the communication and hint system worked well.
Given the three-room structure, if a player chose to spend their entire game in only one room, they could pretty much replay Lab Rats 3 times and only have to hold back on a few puzzles.
We didn’t fully understand the game mechanics at the onset of the game. This was particularly true of the room transfer check in/out mechanic.
The game was structured in 3 phases, but we didn’t realize this at first. Each room had to complete phase 1 before the game would move to phase 2. However, we couldn’t always understand when we had completed everything available to us at a given time, and kept checking back in with the gamemaster for clarification. There was a light system meant to alleviate this confusion, but since colored lights could mean multiple things, we weren’t all able to follow these indicators.
The three-phase structure provided order to what might otherwise have been chaotic puzzling and player transfer. However, when one room struggled and fell behind during a phase, the rest of us could only look on from behind a barrier as our teammates flailed. This occasionally became frustrating.
Similarly, the final challenge was exciting for those involved, but wasn’t inclusive enough for a game of this size that had generally succeeded at keeping everyone thoroughly involved throughout.
The technology seemed occasionally buggy. In one instance a broken light made a puzzle vastly more difficult than it ever should have been.
Regular alarm buzzing became irritating.
Additional thoughts about perception of color
In designing these large, color-blocked rooms, 15 Locks used shades of color – light blue, medium blue, and dark blue, for example – to keep it from feeling flat. While this worked well aesthetically, in a few instances, this actually confused our team.
A few of our teammates couldn’t understand what pink meant. We owe our confusion about pink to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ perception of the world. Because we say “pink” rather than “light red” we perceive pink and red to have a different relationship than that of light blue and dark blue, even though both pink and light blue are composed of a primary color plus white. Our knowledge of the word “pink” caused us to continually ask “what does pink mean?!” 15 Locks isn’t to blame for the English language, but they might want to head off this confusion in their introduction to the use of color.
Additionally, the choice of lighting made orange particularly hard to differentiate from certain shades or red, yellow, and pink.
While the primary colors signaled the rooms, the use of purple, orange, and green signaled interaction between the rooms. This was clever, but sometimes confusing. It wasn’t necessarily clear whether a secondary color meant that we would be receiving or giving information. This became part of the puzzling.
In some tech-driven puzzles, a green light could indicate “correct” but players wondered whether that indicated a forthcoming inter-room interaction instead.
Lab Rats relied on our perceptions of colors for everything from aesthetic, to puzzle design, to game mechanics. In some ways, perception of color was an additional layer to puzzle through. It certainly made us think, long after we’d escaped the room.
Should I play 15 Locks’ Lab Rats?
You need at least 7 puzzle-lovers to play Lab Rats. Because of the game’s reliance on communication and collaboration across barriers, ideally, in order to succeed, you should collect a team of puzzle-lovers that are collaborative and cooperative.
That said, we haven’t seen many games that can entertain and excite a large team as well as Lab Rats did. Whether or not you escape, you will enjoy the fun set, tech-driven game design, and intense puzzling.
This would be an incredibly challenging game for newer players. We recommend that at least the majority of the team be versed in escape room puzzling so that they can help with the communication that is vital to a team’s success.
Note that given Lab Rats’ reliance on color for communication and collaboration, this game would be particularly challenging for colorblind individuals.
I’ve expounded upon many concepts in the shortcomings above, much of that is because Lab Rats explored so much exciting and new territory. While it wasn’t perfect and at times felt a little like a highly functional prototype, it managed to deliver an incredibly fun experience for all 10 of our teammates, new and more experienced alike. It was truly a joy to escape this room.
Book your hour with 15 Locks’ Lab Rats, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.
Full disclosure: 15 Locks provided media discounted tickets for this game.