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Live Escape Room

 I Failed to Prevent World War Three in Madrid’s Hardest ‘Live Escape Room’

“This is a serious matter. This is not a kid’s game.”

The man addressing us is middle-aged – wizened, but possessing the passion and excitement of a much younger man. He bids his guests a warm welcome, but speaks with an intensity befitting of his job. He is the owner and mastermind behind EXIT, ‘the most challenging Live Escape room in Madrid’.

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He explains the rules of the game – our group will be shut inside a room, and we’ll have 66 minutes to escape. Through teamwork, coordination, lateral thinking, and careful consideration of our surroundings, we must solve a series of puzzles in order to earn our freedom. When we get stuck, we can look to the monitor in the corner of the room, where somebody will feed us hints and clues. He warns us: “This is our hardest room. Very few people escape the Cold War room.” We decide we are up for the challenge.

“Very well. No more questions.” He immediately begins speaking in Russian, asking us: “а ты говоришь по русски”. He’s dropped his affable, approachable nature, in favour of steely, matter-of-factness. We all look around, bewildered. It’s like being punked by Werner Herzog.

“The CIA told me they were sending their best agents, but not one of you speaks Russian?” Our initial reaction is to chuckle a little, as though one of our close friends is making his theatrical debut. The longer he talks, though, the more convincing he becomes. “Well, if they say you are the best, you must be the best.” He tasks us with tracking down a Spanish double-agent, and preventing him from setting off a false nuclear alarm. This man could be the catalyst for World War Three, and we are the only people standing in his way.

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The premise is set, and we are led into the room, a beat-for-beat recreation of authentic 1970s décor. To describe it in any greater detail would ruin its mystique for potential players, but be assured, it really feels like stepping back in time. From the murky furniture to the date-accurate magazines, The Cold War room feels ripped straight out of The Americans, which brings an extra sense of weight to our earlier briefing.

Escape rooms are cropping up all over the world – just under three thousand exist as of 2015. They originated in Asia, before spreading to the States and Europe, and are now slowly taking over as must-see tourist spots. You’ve probably played something similar on your smart phone. Games like The Room are virtual explorations of a 3-D space, and they require the same logical thought processes as live room escapes. But they lack the teamwork elements, emotional depth, or tangible sense of physicality that makes games like EXIT so unique and intriguing.

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Photo Credit – Carsten Reisinger / Shutterstock.com

We should have paid our warning more heed. We failed to complete the Cold War Room, and stood dejected as alarms confirmed our impending (pretendsies) doom. It was not through our collective stupidity that we failed, but through a lack of collaboration and communication. When our sixty six minutes begun counting down, everyone’s first instinct was to pick a corner of the room and start rifling through objects. Since this was a small room, and there were four of us playing, the strategy made sense. Unfortunately, after the initial ten minute clue-finding blitz, we each neglected to inform our team mates where we’d searched, and what we’d found there. This left vital nooks and crannies (I’m talking really obscure areas) untouched, which inevitably led to our downfall.

I’ve been to a few Live Escape rooms in the UK, and while they too pride themselves on creating complex and panic-inducing puzzles, they lack the impressive adherence and commitment to their chosen context. For example, one room I’ve played in the UK feels very much like a constructed ‘game’, because it doesn’t do much to make you believe in its established context. In fact, I struggle to even remember what that context was, since my focus was on completing a series of intricate, albeit completely disconnected puzzles.

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As the best RPGs, board games and video games regularly prove: absorbing players within a narrative or scenario is arguably just as important as getting your systems and mechanics right. EXIT’s owner understands this, as he explains post-game: “Here we focus on the emotional aspects of the rooms. You might get out or you might not, but our job is to make you feel something about the situation around you.”

He’s not wrong either. ‘Losing’ the Cold War Room feels like failing a game of Pandemic. We all worked as hard as we could, but in the end, our bickering and pride resulted in the destruction of our planet. Bummer.

After the initial disappointment comes the “Eureka!” moment, wherein the secrets of the room are divulged. A member of staff has been watching our entire ‘mission’ through a monitor, and can tell us exactly where we went wrong, what subtle contextual clues we missed, and how we could have changed our unfortunate outcome. Spurred on by her sympathetic interpretation of what was admittedly an embarrassing failure (we blew up the world because we couldn’t stop arguing), we decided to tackle The Art Merchant room, an allegedly easier game set in the 1930s.

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Again, this room paints a completely authentic picture of 1930s Madrid, complete with audio cues and era-specific puzzles. It’s a more linear, sequential experience than The Cold War room, one that requires fewer logical leaps. In this room, X generally leads to Y, which leads to Z, so there are fewer instances of solo puzzle-grinding, and more moments of tight-knit teamwork.

Out of the two games we played, the men in our group (myself included) preferred the Cold War room, whilst the women preferred the Art Merchant room. The owner chalked this up to their respective themes, but also because of the way their puzzles are designed: “Women usually prefer the Art Merchant room, because it’s more emotional and cultural, whereas the Cold War room is based around hard facts, dates and computers.”

Since he oversees the games of hundreds of groups each year, these aren’t the only observations he has made. He is kind enough to show us The Lab room, a third game we did not take part in. It’s a completely sterile, scarily accurate lab, complete with test tubes and unintelligible equations scribbled on the walls. It wouldn’t look out of place in an epidemic genre movie.

“Spanish people struggle with The Lab. It’s not as difficult as Cold War, but it’s all about mathematics and cold logic. British and German teams excel at this room – a German team holds the record time, with British teams taking second. In fact, one team couldn’t complete either of our other two rooms, but they breezed through this one.” Being half-German, half-Italian himself, as well as fluent in English, Spanish and Russian, he’s almost as fascinating as the rooms themselves, and his insights into their designs are particularly eye-opening.

“A lot of rooms are all about spectacle. They go for the ‘Oh, this thing opens this, and SURPRISE!’ Something falls out of the ceiling or a secret door opens. We do a little bit of that but… we are not a theme park. We’re more interested in having people solve our rooms so that they can unlock the emotional experience within.”

As a relatively new gaming medium – which is odd, considering they utilize technologies that have existed for decades – escape rooms are experiencing teething problems, just like board games and videogames did, and arguably still are. Trying to balance realism, authenticity and logic puzzles that make sense against a sense of spectacle seems to be the aim of the game, but ensuring each room feels different is also integral to their success. They can only grow from here though. If you’ve a mind for strategy, puzzle solving, and/or board games, it’s worth forgoing the usual tourist traps next time you find yourself exploring some faraway city. Why not try arguing with your loved ones over Morse code and padlocks in a cramped puzzle box instead?