Sunday, December 3, 2017

stories I've experienced: Escape from the Jail - by Real Escape Games

This past Saturday, on a day-of-whim, I decided to try out another escape room in San Francisco. This one is called Escape from the Jail by Real Escape Games, located off of Polk St. on the outskirts of Chinatown.

It's one of the longest running escape rooms in the Bay Area, and one of the most challenging with a 10% success rate. I went with three friends and we were joined up by six other really smart, fun strangers. It proved to be as challenging as advertised, but we were still able to escape by a fraction of a second with an escape time of 59:59.

What made the room challenging was that it added a twist in how you communicated. I'm not going to go into too much detail so those who read can enjoy for themselves, but be warned that I am going to talk a little bit about this unique mechanic which may spoil some of the fun of figuring out the premise.

The types of problems you solve in an escape room usually involve some permutation of 5 stages of tasking -- searching, inspecting, hypothesis generation, experimentation, and lots and lots of communicating. The most memorable moments are when the team feels like they're working together to make progress. My fondest memories are of those moments when it feels like we're all stuck and it's through spitball brainstorming that we generate more things to try out. I especially love the kind of puzzles where several escapees need to physically work together to solve a clue.

In Escape from the Jail, the novelty and challenge of the room was that they added an obstacle in how you communicated. The party was broken into 2 jail cells where parts of each puzzle were split between the cells. There was a particular way you could collaborate with the other side, but you had to do so under the watch of a guard who would penalize you if she saw communication. So you had to wait for her to be turned away or distracted. It was the guard that added the real challenge because you couldn't easily test a hypothesis with the other side and get immediate feedback. As a result, the most challenging aspect of the entire experience was figuring out how and *when* to best communicate with the other side. It requires a really methodical approach and the ability to develop a shared language with your neighbor cell mates if you hope to escape. We didn't necessarily find great synchronicity and I in particular had a hard time matching the staggered flow that the communication required. We were often forgetful, confused, and frustrated. It's only because we had some really great puzzle solvers in both cells that we were able to salvage an escape in the last second.

After having a day to digest, I can appreciate that this communication constraint made it extremely challenging, but in the end, I didn't like it. It's really difficult to find clue solving flow, that feeling when you keep coming up with new ideas to throw at the puzzles and in those snowballing moments, gain a momentum that energizes and excites. But in this escape room, having to communicate at particular times and wait for response on a timeline you don't have control over meant I never felt like we were building up that really fun snowball.

The part I liked the least was that when the team as a group solved a clue, we couldn't all share in the cooperative glow with something as simple as "way to go" or a high five. I realized that I prefer less challenge over more social interaction.

What I learned from "Escape from the Jail" is that communicating and shared moments is a key part of social fun. Although they introduced a novel concept for me (this being my 6th escape room now), it mostly provided a great counter example of how social barriers can make for a kind of challenge that isn't as delightful as cooperative solving. That counter example inspired me to think on how VR could bring a team of puzzle solvers together who may be physically separated but still enjoy an amazing form of "unguarded" collaborative entertainment.