The family that escapes together laughs a lot

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I participated in an Escape Room game last week.

When my family first proposed it, I thought it was something brand new, avant-garde; I thought I’d be in on something so hip and with-it that for once I’d be on the leading edge of life in the 21st century.

Escape rooms as a form of entertainment have been in existence around the world since the aughts – here in the U.S., in Asia, Europe, Hungary, Australia, Russia, South America. Taken from online puzzle-solving dilemmas and incorporated into real-life rooms from which to escape, they are all the rage and have been increasing in popularity for pushing 20 years.

So much for my hipness.

The point of an Escape Room is to solve puzzles, open locks, figure out mysteriously opaque clues and decipher ciphers so you can escape the room you’re locked into within the allotted time – usually one hour. It is a group game usually – family, friends, corporate testing middle management on their ability to work themselves out of a hole. But if you are adept at figuring out your own life (or not), management has no problem with renting out the puzzle room to singles.

Escape rooms come in many enigmatic disguises – bank vaults, WWII dilemmas, Old West bars, laboratories, a simple office, future scenes, zombie frights, breaking out of jail; one is described as everyone’s worst nightmare: you’re stuck at work and can’t leave. The themes of Escape Rooms depend on where you are in the world and the ingenuity of the owners of the Escape Room. Each town or city that now has an Escape Room or two will change scenes to keep the public on its toes.

Our Escape Room was called the “Log Cabin,” and it was decorated thus – log walls and rustic furniture. We were given an initial clue: “Look at the wall to the left of the door you’re trying to escape from.” This made us laugh because there was more than one door. At a point of all of us being totally stymied, we could punch a button and ask for a clue. This made us laugh.

We used all our clues and were therefore able to find the keys to several boxes telling us what to do next. We found keys under tables and Velcroed to objects. We put together paper puzzles that spelled out words that were no help at all – red herrings they’re called in the world of mystery writing; and they are purposeful in leading you astray. These made us groan.

Besides the hidden and unobvious, we were puzzled by the obvious. We were a little slow at the idea of turning off the light so we could read clues only visible under blue light; we were confronted with obscure patterns and the need to use objects in unusual ways in order to find a key; we were confronted with riddles, dates, numbers, words, maps and colors that meant something. Team communication was supposed to be important, but I think that the four in the fam who were confidant in what they were doing were soloists. They had two of us cheering them on as we leaned against walls no doubt obscuring important clues but saying things to make the important people laugh. They were showing off, and so were we.

Amid a lot of hilarity, it all came together, whatever our technique, because we had with us an-almost-16-year-old (the importance of his age was that he’d been playing around with computer games of all kinds starting with his baby toys). Because of him and a little help from three adults, we escaped within our time limit. Two of the adults had been in several Escape Rooms before this adventure and at least knew to look under things. One adult had not ever entered an Escape Room, but he was simply canny and logical, the type that can figure things out. And of the two left, I was not the only clueless one – both of us fit the bill. This was comforting, at least to me.

So, besides the fact that I’m late to the party of hipness once again, coupled with the fact that I’m congenitally dim at solving puzzles, I was not a key family player in the Escape Room we paid money to puzzle us. My family, however, did not care that I was unhelpful; after the fact, I came to understand they were paying for me to observe how brilliant they could be.

I already knew this; I am the mother/grandmother, after all.

I might do it again. Or not. Really, except for the laughter, which happens so seldom when reading a book, I’d rather read a mystery and be incapable of solving it in private than be publicly exposed as lame. But being the mom carries a lot of weight – they love me no matter how poorly I do at puzzles. I do not have to be brilliant at anything except loving them.

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