The two of us meander up West Street in Boston, looking around for any hint of building number 33. Behind us is Tremont Street and Boston Common. In front of us is Macy’s, and general signs of civilization. On this street, though, there appears to be nothing.
We’ve almost passed the building before we finally catch a glimpse of the address we’ve been searching for on a brick wall. Backtracking to the door, we see a paper sign taped to the inside. If you’re here to play the game, it says, scroll down on the intercom and type “301” to be buzzed in. We obey the instructions, typing the code and waiting for someone to answer the line on the other end. “Hello?” a man’s voice says. I say that we’re here for the 9 p.m. game. OK, he says. He’ll buzz us in; then, we should take the elevator to the third floor and wait for the game to begin. And with that, we walk into the now-unlocked building.
I muse about the lack of verification of identity as my companion vocalizes my thoughts. “We’re definitely going to get murdered in here,” he says as we head into the elevator and push the button for floor three.
We’ve come to participate in Escape the Room Boston, a live interactive version of the computer game popularized in the early 2000s. The organization began in New York City, and has since opened branches in Philadelphia, Pa., Houston, Texas, and Phoenix, Ariz., in addition to the one here in Boston. Along with up to eight other people (10 total), my friend and I will be given only an hour to solve a series of puzzles and riddles inside a locked room. The goal? To escape, of course.
The elevator doors open, and the first thing I see are walls painted with a black-and-white zebra pattern. Whether the decor is meant to be disorienting or inviting, I’m not sure. Stepping out of the elevator, we find ourselves in a brightly lit waiting area filled with other people. Are they waiting to play, too? As it turns out, they’ve just finished. “Got out with 39 seconds to spare,” one of them says.
They assure us it’s quite a fun experience, and promise that we’re going to have a great time. As a passionate lover of any kind of puzzle, this isn’t really something I ever doubted, but my companion seems to be a little relieved. We wait for around 10 minutes as other people trickle in, also waiting for the 9 p.m. game to start.
A tall blonde woman, seemingly in her late twenties, suddenly walks into the waiting area. She strolls over to the corner of the room and asks for everyone waiting to play to gather around. I count the other people who flock to her, eager to begin. It looks like we’ll have a full game of 10 people, and all of them appear as excited about the game as I am—a good sign.
The woman briefly explains the rules. Anything and everything can be a clue or lead to a key of some sort, so we should feel free to move around and manipulate every object in the room. She’ll be watching and listening the entire time via cameras set up inside the room, so if we’re about to physically break something that we’re not supposed to, a warning bell will sound. Similarly, if we get stuck, she’ll be able to send clues over a monitor in the room. Other than that, we’re completely on our own. The only other rule, because this version of the game is the same for everyone participating, is to refrain from talking about the specific puzzles with anyone once we’ve left the room.
With that, we’re ready to begin. We walk into the room, set our coats and belongings in the corner, and proceed to briefly introduce ourselves. But once the countdown begins, everyone stops trying to remember each other’s names. With 59:59 to go, the thoughts of all 10 people in the room turn towards the task at hand. Search everything, think outside the box, and most importantly, get out of the room.
All in all, we do quite well. The puzzles are certainly challenging, but I am surprised at how well our little band of strangers works together. It’s truly a collaborative effort, as everyone brings their unique skill-set to the table. Some work on solving puzzles and riddles, while others work on searching for hidden clues and keys. We rotate through the tasks; everyone gets the chance to search and solve during each part of the game. The warning bell goes off only twice, both times for my benefit. Whether I should be proud or ashamed of that fact, I haven’t yet decided.
With 11:49 left, the group begins to stress a bit. We’re close, but we’ve hit a roadblock. Desperately trying to think of new ways to approach the problems, we begin to start guessing. Suddenly, one last clue flashes up on the monitor, and within five minutes, we’re on our way again. We obtain the final key, and the teammate in the “Doctor Who” T-shirt unlocks the door to the room.
The monitor shows 3:45 when the blonde woman enters. We’ve done it, and with nearly four minutes to spare. We go through our debriefing, running through each puzzle again so those who were not directly involved with individual challenges can understand exactly what the others were up to throughout the past hour. She then gives us a surprising statistic: Only 15 to 20 percent of people who play the game actually manage to escape the room. We’re only the second group to have done it today (we had met the first earlier).
We reintroduce ourselves, now feeling a bit silly asking for the names of people we have worked so intimately with for the past hour. We take a victory group photo, and prepare to leave. Smiles light up everyone’s faces as we reminisce about the puzzle-solving process and how much fun we had working together and beating the game. I can’t think of a better way to spend an hour, and want nothing more than to turn around and do it all over again, this time with different puzzles.
Unfortunately, because this particular branch has only been around for about three months, the blonde woman says, this is currently Escape the Room Boston’s only version of the game. She assures us a new one should be launching soon, however, and if we want to write our email addresses down to receive updates about it when it comes out, we’re free to do so. Needless to say, I am among the first to provide my information.