Escape the room puzzle games are on TV and movie screens everywhere. So, from the perspective of an escape room game designer and owner, how well are they portrayed?
The B-plot of an episode of NBC’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine (s03e14, “Karen Peralta”) features a fraught last-minute police station outing to a Cold War-themed escape room game.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is wonderful show about goofy police officers who exist in a hilarious, exaggerated fantasy world that nonetheless hinges on kindness and integrity. It’s one of my favorite shows on television, and I was ecstatic that it’s getting a new season. Unfortunately, the episode featuring an escape room is actually one of the usually strong show’s weaker entries.
Characters and comedy are used as blunt instruments, and the game portrayed is a little perplexing, but when the characters finally get their act together and start cooperating, they end up having an okay time.
The B-plot of this episode brings together some unlikely characters, people who never spend time together in the show, kinda like Chandler and Phoebe.
Captain Ray Holt (Andre Braugher) is a stoic guy. He’s not humorless, exactly, but he is very literal, and honest to a fault. His assistant Gina (Chelsea Peretti) is sharply witty, extremely over-confident (she calls herself “The human form of the 100 emoji”), and is half-genius, half-Cloudcuckoolander. Also kinda like Chandler and Phoebe, now that I think about it, except these two make a great pair.
The show kicks off with Gina in Captain Holt’s office, where he asks her if she’s excited for their escape the room team-building exercise.
She tells him that her original suggestion, sending the squad to Vegas with $5,000 each, would be more effective. (She clarifies that she would spend her portion on backstage tickets to a Britney Spears concert, where she would confront Britney to ask if she really thought she was a better dancer than Gina.)
Holt, however, is keen on the idea of “nine co-workers forced to riddle their way free from a locked room.” “We are not going to Las Vegas,” Holt tells Gina. “We’re going to Long Island City, and we will bond meaningfully, and that is a direct order.”
“See you tonight,” he adds. Gina seems very surprised by this, but plays it cool. (Chelsea Peretti’s an amazing physical actor. Her facial expression in this scene is solid gold.)
She runs out of the office, approaching Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) to see if he’s available that evening, since she forgot to organize the outing. He’s not, since he and his girlfriend are celebrating his birthday at his mother’s house.
She asks about Charles (Joe Lo Truglio), who’s out on a C-plot stakeout with other station stalwarts (and fan favorites) Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) and Terry (Terry Crews). “Police work?” Gina groans. “What a waste of time.”
Desperate, she counts through the list of people who are out, calculating who’s left. It’s — oh no — Hitchcock (Dirk Blocker) and Scully (Joel McKinnon Miller), old-school detectives who have been partners for 30 years and are now coasting to retirement. In demeanor, they’re basically like adult-sized toddlers, with equal parts silliness and grossness. The show often sets them up to be the butt of the joke, but they’re like Teflon; nothing ever hits home.
Gina looks over at Hitchcock and Scully, who are trying to throw popcorn into each others’ mouths, but are mostly just succeeding in covering themselves and the floor with kernels.
“Oh, dear God,” she says, realizing that they’re the only ones available to attend the outing. And we’re sort of feeling the same way.
I like these two characters, because they’re great when they’re being utilized as part of plots that feature the whole ensemble. They’re a spicy seasoning that enriches the whole dish, because all the flavors can play off of each other. Same with Holt and Gina, really. So I’m not really sure what’s going to happen when these two odd couples are put together in a small, locked room.
Cut to that evening. Having arrived at the room, Holt and Gina take it all in. It’s a one-room Cold War-era bunker, with a world map, survival food supplies like corn flakes, bunks on the wall, and a small kitchen setup. In the background, through an open door, we can see the lobby of the escape room facility, as well as its name: Skeleton Key Escapes.
Holt asks Gina where everyone is, and she suggests that that’s the first puzzle of the evening, before confessing that she forgot to send the invites.
“But I was able to rally the best and brightest…of those available,” she says. “Oh, dear God,” Holt says, echoing her earlier words, as Hitchcock and Scully enter the room. They were late because the front door “was a push, not a pull.”
Holt suggests that they reschedule, but suddenly, a klaxon blares, and the large roll-up door slams down, trapping them inside. It has “Nuclear Apocalypse” painted over a giant radiation symbol. Guess they’re stuck.
A voice comes over the intercom, informing them that they have three (!) hours to find four keys that will prevent the apocalypse and escape. (For the record, while shorter and longer escape rooms do exist, the average time is one hour. Three hours is…long. Really long.)
“Well, this is a sobering reality,” Holt says.
So, let’s take a minute to remember who everyone is, here. Captain Holt is the leader of the precinct, an established, accomplished detective. Gina, while not a detective herself, has a job which is detail-oriented and highly deductive (her flub with the invites notwithstanding). Hitchcock and Scully have their heads in the clouds 99.9% of the time, but they are, in fact, detectives. They might not use those skills, like, ever. But they do have them.
So this should be a good time, right?
Captain Holt leads the team in assessing the room, noting the maps, pantry, beds, and desk. He points at Scully, asking if he has any experience with puzzles. “Yes,” Scully says. “I’ve never solved one.” Hm.
Hitchcock reads a sign on a nearby table which says, “You may use this walkie talkie to ask three questions over the course of the game.” He grabs the walkie-talkie, and everyone groans, knowing what’s coming.
“How do we get outta here?” he asks through the walkie. “Can’t tell you,” replies the game host on the other end. “Really?” “Yes,” is the reply.
Holt wrestles the walkie-talkie away from him as Gina gives Hitchcock a “what the heck?” look.
Holt apologizes and asks if they can have their questions back, but the game host counts that as their third question and tells them they’re done. Harsh.
“Oh captain, how could you?” Hitchcock cries.
There’s a time jump. Everyone is sitting down now. Holt’s at a table next to a chess set. Hitchcock is messing with the dial on an old-fashioned TV. Scully is seated on one of the bunks, eating from a rations cereal box. Gina is perched on a stool, above it all.
Holt announces that if his calculations are correct, the first key should be inside a chess piece, which he turns and opens, revealing the key dramatically.
Gina sarcastically cheers and asks him to use it to open the door. He replies that they need four keys, and it took them half of their time just to find the first one, because nobody helped. (In fact, he calls them “useless.” Kinda mean.)
Hold up, I’m sorry, but what? It took them one and one half hours to find the key inside the chess piece? Oh, dear God is right. I’m surprised they haven’t rioted.
Anyway, they now have one hour and 27 minutes left. Gina angrily says she’s trying to solve the puzzle of how one man, Scully, can chew so loudly with just one mouth. He apologizes, but he doesn’t stop eating.
Behind him, Hitchcock is attacking the TV. Holt tells him to stop, but Hitchcock says the TV is being “a dick,” and that it takes four turns of the knob just to change the channel. Holt recognizes this as a puzzle, rising dramatically.
Standing in front of the world map, he tells Hitchcock to change it to “22, 18, 81, 17”, coordinates for the Bay of Pigs. It’s not clear where he got either the coordinates on the map, or the knowledge that he needs to use the Bay of Pigs as the clue. But the way he delivers the line is hilarious and perfect.
Hitchcock changes the channel, and a hatch pops open on the front of the television. Hitchcock slams Holt for breaking the TV set, but Holt challenges him back, pointing out that he’s found the second key, and calls him a dolt. (Why is he being so mean?! He’s their superior officer. I get that they’re off-duty, but dang. This is the clashing spice mix I was afraid of.)
Holt assesses the information they’ve used thus far, which is a good solving strategy, at least.
“One was in a knight,” he says, holding up the chess piece. Presumably referring to an image shown on the television screen, he adds, “The basketball teams were the Mustangs and Stallions.” He says that they only need two more keys, and that the game might work out after all.
This lights a fire under Gina. She stands up, excited that they’re a “ragtag, scrappity, fart-dumb, moron parade, smart-ass team!” (Is that something Gina would normally say? Frankly everyone’s character seems a little bit off in this episode. Maybe it’s the pressure cooker environment of racing against the clock, bringing out the worst in everyone. I’ve seen it happen.)
Another time jump. Now, the team is gathered around the table and Holt is removing the third key from a can of peaches. Scully is next to him, holding a fork. “I was gonna eat those peaches anyway,” he says, as Holt dries the key off. Shudder.
Right, okay. I need to hit pause here. I have a lot of questions about the use of canned foods as a puzzle element in a room.
They have to seal the key into the can for each new game, right? Are they reusing the same peaches each time? How long before those get moldy? Did the company invest in canning equipment for this? Did they not explicitly tell people not to eat the food in there? Why is there a fork in there?
(Deep breath) Are all the cans identical? Are you supposed to find the key by shaking the can and hearing it scrape the metal, or by opening every single one? Do they replace every open can after every game?
Y’all. I’m cat doing Home Alone face.
Anyway, back to business. Holt is keen to find the final key, so he asks the team what in the room is speaking to them. Gina says that she’s intrigued by the phone, which she would like to use to call a friend and gossip about a third friend.
Holt trusts her instincts, and picks up the phone, apparently for the first time in the 2 hours they’ve been in there, somehow. He recognizes that the dial tone is Morse code. Scully jumps up. He knows Morse code, as it was the only way he could speak to his father, who had been a prisoner of war in Korea. Gina cuts off his tragic personal story though, impatient for him to decode the message.
Scully identifies it as a phone number, which he dials on the rotary phone. The phone flips open, revealing a key, and also the exposed wiring of the phone. As a nice detail, the letters “ETR” are in place instead of a phone number.
Holt picks up the newly-revealed key, triumphant. “Booyakasha,” he says, firmly. I love Holt’s character, and Braugher’s delivery of lines like this is a big part of why.
Each key is color-coded to a box on a different wall, and they must all be turned simultaneously to successfully prevent the apocalypse. The screen divides into four quadrants, Thomas Crowne Affair-style, as Gina counts down and everyone turns their key. Finally, they’re working together.
The bunker door rolls up, the doors swing open, and triumphant military-style music plays. They’re free!
“Congratulations, we did it,” Holt says. “And we did it together because we’re a team.”
“Should we do it again next week, sir?” Hitchcock asks.
“No,” Holt says. “I would hate that.”
It pains me to say it because this is one of my favorite shows of all time, but so would anyone. When it’s at its best, Brooklyn Nine-Nine nails a delicate balance of gentle teasing and funny awkwardness. Unfortunately, this escape room team had all of the teasing but little of the fun.
For a three-hour-long room, there isn’t much to it. Most of the puzzles seem to be shown in full, although we’re not privy to the solving process for each of them.
We don’t see why Holt makes the connection from the television dial to the Bay of Pigs coordinates, for example. He mentions the names of two basketball teams while looking at the key from the television, which seems like it might have been from a segment that was cut out. And there’s a rocking horse symbol on the can of peaches, so we can assume that was related to the previous two horse-related clues, and that it somehow led them to the can.
As a result, it makes it seem like each puzzle is pretty much a single step to solve. As a viewer, that’s frustrating to watch. We want our heroes to be clever and succeed, even if they bumble their way into it. Why did it take them the full three hours to solve that stuff?
Also, three hints is plenty for the room as portrayed, but for something that’s supposed to be difficult enough to last three hours, not even close. Shed a tear for the patrons who get stuck early on and have to run out the timer.
- The posters in the room are all original illustrations, inspired by real Cold War-era posters. One AV Club review of the episode pointed out that one of the posters features the word “SCRAP” prominently — a reference to beloved SF escape room institution SCRAP? There’s one for Fallout, too. And the can wraps are totally a reference to Lost’s Dharma Initiative packaging.
- Tenuous connection trivia fact: in the movie Game Night, Chelsea Peretti’s character works for a live-action murder mystery company.
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L. E. Hall is an artist, writer, puzzle-maker, immersive environment and narrative designer living in Portland, Oregon. Her work focuses on the intersections between arts, culture, and technology, especially in gaming.
She is the founder of puzzle, game, and experience design company Timberview Productions, founder of Portland’s first escape the room game company, the award-winning Meridian Adventure Co., and the author of Katamari Damacy for Boss Fight Books. She proudly serves on the board of the Portland Indie Game Squad (PIGSquad), a non-profit organization supporting indie game development and community in Portland. Find her work online and on Twitter.