Escape Rooms in XKCD

I’ve been a longtime reader of XKCD. (I think it’s been 11 years.)

So… I was pretty tickled last week when the seminal programming/ math/ science/ philosophy/ nerdery comic had some fun with escape rooms.

XKCD #2145

xkcd 2145's nested escape room made of various classic movies and The Devine Comedy

Hover Text: “The interactive experience is built on a single theological framework that unites Dante, George R. R. Martin, every major heist movie, and Erin Gloria Ryan’s “Kevin is dead” Home Alone theory.”

Also… the XKCD community sure is thorough in their analysis of these comics. They even made mention of emergency exits when describing escape rooms.

Red Herring Escape Rooms – The Deadly Inheritance [Review]

Cousins Unite!

Location:  St. Louis, MO

Date Played: March 22, 2019

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $27.50 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [B] Emergency Code

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The Deadly Inheritance was our favorite escape room from our 2019 trip to St Louis.

This was a heavily puzzle-centric escape game with a quirky setup. It was a bit old school, but it was well-executed for what it was.

In-game: statues of a lighthouse and a hard-helmet for diving.

The set was worn, however. If you’re the type of player who values set design, narrative, and adventure… it was a little light on those elements. Instead it delivered strong gameplay, great puzzle flow, and some interesting interactions.

If you’re looking for a traditional escape room with a funny setup and solid execution, then this is a fantastic option and we absolutely recommend it if you’re in St Louis.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Strong puzzle-centric gameplay
  • A quirky, funny setup

Story

We’d received a letter from an attorney representing the estate of our recently deceased Uncle Martin. Our mysterious uncle, whom we had never met, nor heard of, was a pirate and had left his fortune to his nieces and nephews… if we could find it.

In-game: Uncle Martin's house includes an old TV, a fireplace, and an overt nautical theme.

Setting

The Deadly Inheritance was a puzzle room in a quirky nautical set. The room was showing its age. Its focus was on the puzzles rather than the set design. That said, there were some interesting elements to take in.

In-game: a boat and ship light.

Gameplay

Red Herring Escape Rooms’ The Deadly Inheritance was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching and puzzling.

In-game: Porthole windows and mirrors.

Analysis

➕ The Deadly Inheritance started with a hilarious intro video. It set the tone for a fun escape room experience that didn’t take itself or its ridiculous scenario too seriously.

➕ The Deadly Inheritance had a weird aesthetic that we enjoyed. It was clearly built on a budget, but built with care. It all came together to create our strange uncle’s abode. When your main character is an eccentric millionaire, you have a creative license to cobble together something interesting… and that’s exactly what Red Herring Escape Rooms did.

➖ The room was worn. Some of the locks needed to be replaced. One of the input mechanisms was finicky.

➕ The puzzles were delightful. They were varied and made use of interesting and unexpected props. Our Uncle had quite the collection of oddities! We solved some layered puzzles and other more straight forward ones.

➖ Most of the puzzles were built into props, but not into the set itself. There was opportunity to use the gamespace to create exciting, memorable moments.

Red Herring's quirky and elegant lobby.
Red Herring Escape Room had a great lobby

➕ There was a lot of gameplay packed into this escape room. The game flowed well, encouraging us to start certain puzzles early, for example, and funneling us away from potential bottlenecks.

The Deadly Inheritance offered a particular style of puzzle-focused gameplay. While the puzzles flowed well, the gameplay felt like solving many unconnected puzzles in an eclectic space rather than solving through a cohesive adventure. Your appreciation and enjoyment of this escape room will depend heavily on your style preferences.

Tips For Visiting

  • It looks like there is street parking.
  • Red Herring Escape Rooms has a gorgeous lobby. It’s a comfortable place to hang out.

Book your hour with Red Herring Escape Rooms’ The Deadly Inheritance, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Building a Horror Escape Room Team

Having played my fair share of horror escape rooms, and having recently lurked as a team played one of my personal favorites, Dark Park’s Honeymoon Hotel, I’ve come to a few conclusions about how to build the right team for a horror escape room.

A team photo from THE BASEMENT. One player looks like a disembodied head due to green screen funniness.
Green Screen + Green Shirt = Fun

It’s All About the Mix

You need the right mix of bravery and fear among the teammates to maximize the fun for the entire group. 

If Everyone is Terrified

When everyone is paralyzed by fear, the team will seriously struggle to play because no one will be able or willing to search and solve puzzles. 

If Everyone is Brave

When everyone is unflappable (or pretending to be), then the horror escape room quietly transforms into a regular escape room… just with low lighting, jump scares, and probably lots of gore. 

This can still be a cool game, but something is missing.

In-game: The Girl's Room with a bed, a baby carriage, a dollhouse, a magnificent chandelier, and a cage.

Balanced Teams

Strive for a team with a good mix of players who are varying degrees of terrified and brave.

Terrified players need brave players to advance the game (and possibly to cling to). 

Brave players need terrified players to protect, and through whom they can experience the fear vicariously… because empathetic fear is a great substitute for the real thing. 

The right player mix keeps the game moving and maximizes the emotional experience for everyone.

If you’re on the fence about playing a horror game, find a brave player or 2 with whom you can create a symbiotic relationship for an hour or so. 

In-game: The ornate ceiling light fixture on the Honeymoon suite casing a a beautiful shadow.

The REA Duo

We’ve had some of our best escape room experiences in horror escape rooms.

While I’d attribute much of this to the games themselves – we’ve played some horrific masterpieces – some of that definitely had to due with our team composition. Lisa was terrified. I was … not so terrified. Our responses to horror complement each other. We strive to build out teams that are equally balanced.

Horror in Baton Rouge this July

As part of this summer’s Escape, Immerse, Explore tour to New Orleans and Baton Rouge, we will get to play The Asylum, the newest game by 13th Gate, and their first horror escape room.

We don’t get to play together on our tours… so this will be the first horror escape room where Lisa won’t be able to cling to me and I won’t be able to feel through her. Some of you will get to play those roles for us instead. Curious about this game? There are only a few tickets left… and the last day to buy them in Tuesday, May 28th.

Codex – The Night of the Wolf and the Serpent [Review]

Hammer of the Gods

Location:  Laval, Quebec, Canada

Date Played: April 6, 2019

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 3-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28.99 CAD per player

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

We finally played an escape room set against Norse mythology… and it only took 700+ games until we stumbled upon it. I’m happy to report that we adored it.

Codex struck a balance between homemade and polished that was really quite charming. The Night of the Wolf and the Serpent had great puzzle design and flow. It felt like an adventure and it conveyed a story.

The story led to an end-game decision. There was meaning in it… but we made our choice by accident. The escape room needed to provide just a bit more context.

This was a delightful game from a new and exciting company. Whether you’re a newbie or an experienced player, if you’re near Montreal, The Night of the Wolf and the Serpent really ought to be on your itinerary.

In-game: A campfire burning under the stars in the middle of the autumn woods.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • A unique theme and setting
  • Strong puzzles
  • Fantastic interactions

Story

We had jumped to a parallel universe where the Vikings had conquered the world. Belief in the Norse gods had grown so strong that they had become real… and Ragnarok, the end times, were upon these people.

We were tasked with investigating this place in space and time, understanding their rituals, and deciding which of the gods deserved our help.

In-game: The inside of a cabin with two wood and fur thrones surrounded by round shields.

Setting

The Night of the Wolf and the Serpent was set in a Viking world which included “outdoors” in a forest and inside a cabin-like throne room.

The set was as unusual as the story. The night sky was covered in glowing stars. The cabin was lit by warm fire-like light.

Overall, this was a good-looking set. It wasn’t perfect and the seams were easy to spot, but it was a really cool environment to explore.

In-game: a cabin covered in ivy in the middle of the woods.

Gameplay

Codex’s The Night of the Wolf and the Serpent was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, making connections, and puzzling.

Analysis

➕ The Viking/ Norse mythology staging was a smart choice… and remarkably, we had never encountered it before.

➕ Codex built a lovely set for The Night of the Wolf and the Serpent. The gorgeous starscape brought the space to life. The set felt homemade, but polished, and crafted with love and attention to detail.

➖ Much of The Night of the Wolf and the Serpent was played in low light. Codex could build more well-lit work spaces so that we wouldn’t be constantly relying on our flashlights.

➕ Codex used environmental details as clue structure. This enabled phenomenally tight puzzle design and especially satisfying solves… for observant players.

➕ The puzzles required a variety of skill sets. Our wits shielded us from complex, layered puzzles and we dexterously hit our targets.

➖ One late-game sequence lacked a bit of cluing. It was solvable, but it didn’t flow smoothly enough to make the actions feel as epic as they should have been. In this case, the puzzling thwarted momentum instead of building it.

The Night of the Wolf and the Serpent delivered exciting reveals. In one instance, we forged ahead to enjoy a telegraphed outcome. In other, we branched in an unexpected direction. These were both phenomenal moments.

➖ In The Night of the Wolf and the Serpent, we made a narrative choice. At the time, however, we didn’t realize we were making a choice. Even if we had known, our 60 minutes in this parallel universe hadn’t given us the context to make an informed decision. For the ending to feel consequential, we needed to understand that there were options and what each choice meant.

➕ Codex’s escape rooms fit into an overarching narrative of parallel universes. They justified their stories with universe-hopping by teleporter. This explained otherwise messy details… like bringing flashlights to a place that felt too historical to have electricity. Our gamemaster’s charming introduction and the physical teleporter provided a fun journey to The Night of the Wolf and the Serpent .

Tips For Visiting

  • There is parking in the back of the building near the entrance to the escape rooms.
  • They sell ketchup chips… it’s a Canadian thing.

Book your hour with Codex’s The Night of the Wolf and the Serpent, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Codex provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Sauve Qui Peut – Wrath Of Poseidon [Review]

9 out of 10 gods recommend Trident.

Location:  Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada

Date Played: April 8, 2019

Team size: 3-8; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 CAD per player

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Sauve Qui Peut had a style unto themselves. Their games were unusual and quirky. Wrath Of Poseidon was our favorite of the 3 games that we played with them. (They had 9 games at the location we visited.)

The second half of this game was vibrant. Wrath Of Poseidon was uneven in many ways. This unevenness paid off in the end, however, even adding to our experience.

If you’re in Montreal, Sauve Qui Peut is a bit outside the city. If you have a car, I highly recommend visiting them. Wrath Of Poseidon made us feel happy.

In-game: A periscope in a submarine.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • The second act
  • The details

Story

Poseidon, the vengeful god of the seas, was furious with humanity for polluting his kingdom. In retaliation, he intended to flood the lands. The only way to save humanity would be to steal his legendary trident spear.

In-game: A sealed door in a submarine.

Setting

Wrath of Poseidon was a game in 2 acts. It began in a submarine. Then we experienced a transition of mythic proportions.

The submarine setting was great. It had a bronze sort of steampunk aesthetic that made it feel different from your more traditional naval vessel escape game.

The second act… well, if I spoiled it for you, I’d be a jerk. Rest assured, it was awesome and I would love to talk about it.

In-game: piping and pressure gauges in a submarine.

Gameplay

Sauve Qui Peut’s Wrath Of Poseidon was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, making connections, and puzzling.

Analysis

➕ The premise of Wrath Of Poseidon was fantastical, but meaningful. The story was light but certainly present.

➕ We especially liked the puzzle that asked us to remember the why of this escape room and act according to that premise.

➖ While some later puzzles integrated seamlessly, many of the early puzzles lacked inspiration. They didn’t make a ton of sense in the world. We had to dive deep in this dark submarine to find the threads of gameplay.

➖ Although Sauve Qui Peut built a polished world for Wrath Of Poseidon, at times the clue structure felt slapped on. For example, handwritten numbers on objects felt unrefined given the level of detail in other parts of the experience.

➕ Sauve Qui Peut designed mechanisms brilliantly so that one solve enabled a later one to work properly. The gating worked well and the second solve blew us away.

➖ We tripped up on ghost puzzles. This added some unnecessary confusion… but I also think that it would be difficult to fully remove this.

Wrath Of Poseidon was a beautiful escape room. Every set was carefully crafted and artistically detailed.

➕ Wrath Of Poseidon delivered a spectacular reveal. We stopped playing to take it in.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is metered street parking.
  • You can play this game in English or French. However, if you don’t read French, there is one important instruction that you may miss.

Book your hour with Sauve Qui Peut’s Wrath Of Poseidon, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Sauve Qui Peut comped our tickets for this game.

St. Louis Escape – Haunted Hotel [Review]

Animatronic Hotel

Location:  St. Louis, MO

Date Played: March 21, 2019

Team size: up to 10; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

St. Louis Escape’s Haunted Hotel felt like an ode to Disney. Some of it was overt; some of it was in the subtle choices of props and effects.

This felt much more like Disney’s Haunted Mansion than what you’d expect from a game named Haunted Hotel built by a haunted house company. That is to say, it wasn’t scary.

In-game: a suit of armor in front of worn plaster walls, the insignia for Disney's "Haunted Mansion" hands proudly.

In St. Louis Escape’s collection of strong sets, this was my favorite, partially because it had some unusual elements… and because I’ve seen plenty of Egyptian tombs, pirate ships, and murder basements. A haunted hotel was a welcome change.

There was a ton to look at in this game… and looking at all of the stuff was usually more entertaining than solving the puzzles.

The puzzle and game design fell short with weak cluing, some damaged components, and a puzzle that was remarkably out of place… not just in this particular game, but in the St. Louis Escape facility.

If you’re going to play one game at St. Louis Escape, it should either be Haunted Hotel or Cellar Escape. For my money, Cellar Escape offered considerably better gameplay… but Haunted Hotel was a lot less scary and had much more charm and novelty.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Best for players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • Beautiful and unusual set design

Story

Checking into this ghoulish hotel was easy. The question was, could we check out?

In-game: The hotel's decrepit front desk.

Setting

Haunted Hotel had a busy, heavily detailed set filled with quirky animatronics. It was pretty clear that the creators of this game were Disney fans.

St Louis Escape had deliberately designed everything in the space from the floor to the ceiling. Everything was beautifully weathered. There was so much to look at.

In-game: The ornate yet dusty tile floor.

Gameplay

St. Louis Escape’s Haunted Hotel was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, making connections, and puzzling.

In-game: a creepy portrait with its eyes cut out.

Analysis

➕ The detailed set of Haunted Hotel was a joy to explore. It was busy, but not distracting. We enjoyed the aesthetic.

➖ Intentional weathering aside, the set was heavily worn. One key prop was almost impossible to find due to wear.

➕ Our favorite puzzles resolved to tangible interactions with the set. These were the best parts of the playthrough.

➖After the opening scene, Haunted Hotel was almost entirely linear. We spent a lot of time waiting idly because we had too many teammates and too few open puzzles.

➖ Haunted Hotel included a laminated runbook. While it didn’t rely on this as heavily as in some of St. Louis Escape’s other games, it was frustrating to be concentrating on paper cluing instead of immersing ourselves in the set.

➕/➖ Haunted Hotel included a few strong layered puzzles. Unfortunately, each one had its own ambiguity issue. The clue structure wasn’t quite all in place.

➕ We enjoyed the presence of ghostly characters.

In-game: The ceiling adorned with art.

➖The audio was a persistent problem. The intro video lacked audio. We couldn’t hear the ghostly characters very well. At points we were confused whether audio was part of a puzzle, an indication of puzzle progress, background ambiance, or the screams of players in other games.

➖It was easy to accidentally re-trigger the animatronics. This proved confusing.

➕/➖ Bits of story were scattered about Haunted Hotel. The ghosts contributed to our understanding of the story. Ultimately, however, the experience fell short of succeeding as a story-driven adventure.

➖ As we played Haunted Hotel we continually felt that St. Louis Escape took shortcuts in design and maintenance. We encountered one entirely broken puzzle; we didn’t have to solve it to achieve the goal. We could shortcut another puzzle by finding one key piece. Additionally, one puzzle felt completely out of place – aesthetically and thematically – in the experience. We were baffled by its presence.

Tips For Visiting

  • You can park for free on the street directly in front of the building or on the side of the building.
  • There are stairs up to the escape room lobby and the escape rooms.
  • Beware that St. Louis Escape has a habit of putting 4-digit solutions into 5-digit locks.
  • This escape room was haunted, but not scary.

Book your hour with St. Louis Escape’s Haunted Hotel, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: St. Louis Escape provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Escape The Bathroom – Musings on Escape Room Facilities

Let’s talk toilets.

No, I’m not referring to my least favorite prison escape game trope, nor am I talking about when escape room games have bathrooms within the games (which we’ve seen a few times). I’m not talking about the outhouse in Escape Wood’s trailer park game, The Shiners either… although “THERE AIN’T NOTHING IN THE SHITTER!” is still the absolute greatest thing that a gamemaster has ever said to a teammate of mine.

We’re talking about the lavatories available to customers at escape room businesses.

Dan Egnor standing in an outhouse labeled "The Shitter" looking into the toilet.
Guinness World Record Holder Dan Egnor peering into the abyss at Escape Woods.

Review the Loo?

A few times a year someone suggests that we include commentary on the restrooms at the escape room companies that we review.

We just don’t care to devote a segment of each review to washrooms.

Yes, we believe that the state of a company’s privy reflects on the state of the business, how it conducts itself, and how a the company values their customers and their property… but commenting on this doesn’t serve our goals as escape room reviewers.

We care that each escape room company has a water closet available for customers. We care that it works and isn’t vile.

That said, we ain’t fancy when it comes to johns. (I’m starting to scrape the bottom of the synonym bowl here.)

So if we visit an escape room business, use the potty, and see things that cannot be unseen… then yeah… that’s the kind of thing that might turn up in a review.

One Before – Shpola Ziede Room [Review]

Puzzler on the Roof.

Location:  Brooklyn, NY

Date Played: March 31, 2019

Team size: up to 12; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A] Push To Exit

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The Shpola Ziede Room told a complex story of the immigrant experience. The story was Jewish, but the themes would resonate with Americans of many backgrounds. We believe that escape rooms are a storytelling medium and that by interacting and solving, players can connect more deeply with themes and stories. One Before was striving for a lofty goal.

In-game: A wooden menorah on a table in a cabin.

Unfortunately, in telling their story, One Before overlooked some critical aspects of game design: The puzzles lacked clue structure. The puzzles didn’t necessarily work as intended. Much of the tech was finicky.

Puzzle design and gameplay are fixable. Shpola Ziede Room offered something more than that. We hope One Before can continue to iterate on the gameplay and smooth out their immigrant experience escape room so that it enables players to take in the story through play and not be bogged down with frustrating solves.

One other thing that I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention was how the handling of female characters felt uncomfortable, like something was lost in cultural translation.

If you’re looking for a Jewish escape room, or an immigrant experience escape room, or simply something unorthodox, and you can overlook the stumbles in gameplay, we encourage you to journey deep into Brooklyn to visit One Before.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • A cultural experience
  • An unusual escape room theme and story

Story

We began our story at Ellis Island, piecing together the lineage of the Polonsky family and their journey from Europe to America. Then we were visited by the spirit of the legendary rabbi and mystic, the Shpola Ziede.

In-game: suitcases in Ellis Island.

Setting

The Shpola Ziede Room opened in a bureaucratic office on Ellis Island. There wasn’t a ton going on in this space, but it did have that Ellis Island feel.

The late-game took us to Ukraine in the 1700s. Once again, it wasn’t the most ambitious set, but it had a unique look and what felt like the correct vibe for the time and place.

In-game: A partially completed family tree that looks like a tree.

Gameplay

One Before’s Shpola Ziede Room was a standard escape room with a Jewish theme and a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, making connections, and puzzling.

Analysis

➕ One Before told a cultural story with the Shpola Ziede Room. Escape rooms are a medium with immense storytelling potential. We liked the unusual story and how players could experience it through gameplay.

➖ The storytelling was bogged down in text. While there were some more interactive moments (and these were the best moments!), much of the story and the puzzles required a lot of reading.

➕ One Before had added set details that made an office-y space feel more engaging than a run-of-the-mill office. The walls and choice of colors gave it an Ellis Island-y feel.

➖ The second act of Shpola Ziede Room was dimly lit. This made it extra challenging to solve puzzles, especially given the amount of text to read. Because we didn’t feel that the darkness enhanced the storytelling, it only added frustration.

➖ The early gameplay bottlenecked severely.

➖ One layered puzzle lacked clue structure. This puzzle involved significant written text, and when combined with incomplete cluing, it was especially frustrating to work through.

➖ There was a long audio clue sequence that included both story and cluing. Once over, the clues within could not be re-triggered later.

➕ We especially enjoyed one action, a cultural touchpoint, and a concept that worked well for an escape room puzzle. This moment was unique and culturally relevant.

➖ One tech-driven puzzle didn’t work well; it seemed broken and felt unintuitive. It was also supposed to be solved by trial and error. The combination of an entirely unclued solve with a finicky and poorly responsive interface forced a lot of wait time. It wasn’t fun to solve.

Shpola Ziede Room addressed immigration. This theme, central to the Jewish experience, can have broad appeal to escape room players of many backgrounds. We respect One Before for building a story that will be both intimately familiar to Jewish players and thematically accessible to those of other backgrounds.

➖ One Before aimed to target a general audience, but Shpola Ziede Room assumed knowledge that would be considered outside knowledge for a general American audience. One such example of this is the knowledge that Hebrew is read right to left. (Players do not need to read any Hebrew.)

Shpola Ziede Room’s handling of female characters was… uncomfortable. When exploring the Polonsky family tree, women were essentially ignored. The puzzle that involved evaluating women to make a marital match came across as demeaning. I don’t think that this was intentional. Nevertheless our entire team (2 men and 2 women) felt the same way. If One Before is serious about reaching an audience beyond the religious Jewish community, reshaping this section would be an important step.

➕One Before has a gallery space in their facility. They have partnered with a local Jewish artist and they display her work in their party/ conference room. We love this idea and how the business is engaged with the community’s culture beyond the escape room.

A painting of a Cossack and a bear in a dance off.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is street parking in the neighborhood.
  • Take the Q to Avenue M.
  • You do not need to be Jewish to play this escape room.

Book your hour with One Before’s Shpola Ziede Room, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: One Before comped our tickets for this game.