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 the CW show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (s04e04, “I’m Making Up for Lost Time”) shows a mother and her teen sons getting to know each other in new ways while they solve a medieval-themed escape room game.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a show with a lot of heart, and while its characters make mistakes (a lot of mistakes), they also learn and grow over time…all while singing hilarious, sharply-observed songs about what they’re going through.
Unfortunately there are no witty songs in the escape room portion of this episode, but the segment does give its characters a nice backdrop as they learn to work together and see each other as fully-rounded, independent people.
Paula Proctor (Donna Lynne Champlin) is the mother of two teenage boys, Brendan (Zayne Emory) and Tommy (Steele Stebbins).
Early in the episode, Paula visits her friend Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) at a pretzel stand. The boys are dismissive of their mother, rolling their eyes when she speaks to them—but that’s partly she speaks to them as if they’re irresponsible little kids.
The boys depart, and Paula apologizes to Rebecca for their behavior. Rebecca reassures her that it’s just a phase they’re going through, saying that they’re ultimately good kids.
“Hmm, basically,” Paula says. “I mean, Tommy’s not the brightest … and Brendan’s an isolated loner, but I—love them?” She’s sort of joking, but sort of not.
Later, Paula is excited to take everyone to a new escape room.
Her two sons, nearly flat on the couch, phones in hand, groan in unison.
Rebecca’s little brother says that he’s a little claustrophobic and can’t go, so Paula says that she’ll take her two “screen zombies” (cue another groan in unison). “Maybe that’ll breathe some life into them,” she says to Rebecca, after calling them “lumps” a couple of times.
She has no idea that her ideas about her sons are about to be totally overturned, to everyone’s benefit.
We see an establishing shot of a mall parking lot. (We know it’s in California because there are palm trees.)
The family is shown into the game, a medieval-themed room that’s part dungeon, part weapons storage. There are illuminated sconces and swords on the wall, plus an assortment of furniture. The room seems well-lit with a mix of practical, environmental, and decorative lighting. I’m happy to see that all of the candles and flames are artificial—safety first!
Paula gasps, excited.
The game attendant, a bearded man in glasses who is wearing a rather elaborate costume for a two-second interaction, recites his script quickly, in a deadpan voice: “You are three noble knights who have been imprisoned in the lair of the evil king Nestor Asgard. Best of luck, the clock starts now.”
“Okay, where do we start?” Paula asks her sons, looking around.
“Maybe with the chest?” Brendan says drily. “With the giant, obvious keyhole?”
“Mom, I don’t wanna do this,” Tommy adds.
“I paid good money, shut up and participate,” Paula says to him in a stern mom voice.
“Whatever,” Tommy replies, sharing a look with his brother before turning away to poke around the room.
Brendan looks under a tablecloth, while Tommy investigates a suit of armor. He opens the helmet and finds a giant metal key inside. He’s excited!
His mom congratulates him (good positive reinforcement!), and the group all go over to the lockbox (the one with “the giant, obvious keyhole”), which Tommy opens with the key.
Inside, there’s a paper scroll with a printed-out wax seal.
Tommy unrolls it, but says that he failed at reading cursive. “I mean, who even reads these scribbles? What am I, Egyptian?” (I think this is supposed to be a joke about hieroglyphics, or maybe Arabic?)
Paula doesn’t have her glasses, so Brendan takes the scroll, saying that he can read calligraphy because he dated a “Renn faire girl”. His mom is surprised—she had no idea that Brendan had dated anyone.
(Also, it’s my duty to note here that games should strive to put in easily-readable text instead of complicated, small-print calligraphy.)
Tommy is a little exasperated at his mother. “You don’t remember Gwendolyn?” he asks her. “They dated for months. Now Brendan and I go to Renn Faires every week. We’re the Brothers Proctor.” The boys grin happily, proud of their new shared hobby.
Now Paula is astonished. She had no idea about this part of her sons’ lives, and is shocked to learn that the two boys are willingly hanging out with each other.
But her train of thought is interrupted—as she gestures, the medieval weapon she’s holding whacks into a light fixture, which turns to the side.
A hidden panel slides open in the wall behind her, revealing a huge assortment of weaponry like axes and a studded mace.
“Secret compartment! Awesome!” Brendan shouts, dropping the scroll (still unsolved) back into the box and rushing over to the newly-opened portal.
The boys pull out weapons and begin to play with them excitedly, but Paula is still reeling. “My sons are strangers to me,” she says to herself.
Some time passes, and the family is gathered around a scroll again—could be the scroll from earlier, could be a different scroll, it’s not clear.
As Brendan tries to read it, Paula starts to show some of her insecurities. “Sooo, who else have you dated?” she asks, trying to be nonchalant. “What other themed festivals have you guys gone to?”
“Mom, can we just play the game?” Tommy replies. “I’m kinda into it now.”
Brendan is super into it too. He finishes reading the scroll and declares, “We need to find the chalice,” pushing the paper into his mother’s hands and striding forward with purpose.
The two boys move over to a table in the center of the room. The chalice is sitting on top of it, next to a long block of wood cut with twelve holes in a line. (By the way, that chalice has been sitting out there in the open the entire time.)
Brendan empties the chalice onto the table, spilling out a cluster of plastic gemstones. “These gems have letters on them,” he tells Tommy. “I think these need to be arranged in some kind of order.”
Tommy looks them over as Paula watches from the end of the table, a mixture of confusion, sadness, and intrigue on her face.
“Hey, well, here’s an N, and an R,” Tommy says. “I mean, there’s 12 holes. ‘Nestor Asgard’ has 12 letters.”
Paula’s emotions spill over as the boys keep working through the puzzle. “Okay,” she says. “Just tell me why I don’t know about a major thing in my son’s life.”
“Maybe because all you ever ask us is whether our homework is done and whether our underwear is clean,” Tommy says, matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, so?” Paula says, before switching back into ‘Mom Mode’. “Is it?”
“No, because I don’t like washing my underwear too much,” he replies coolly. “Because of the environment.”
This is too much for Paula. “You think about the environment? Since when?”
“Since I became a vegetarian,” Tommy says, “Which is of course the best way to reduce your carbon footprint.”
“Oh, my God,” Paula says. “I don’t know anything about my children. Nothing.”
“Because we’re not children anymore, Mom,” Brendan says, gently clueing her in to something that the boys have been waiting for her to realize. “I’m a grown-ass man.”
“And I’m a grown-ass boy,” Tommy adds.
They’ve been messing with the gemstones the whole time, and return to the puzzle, declaring that “Nestor Asgard” isn’t working as a solution.
They look at Paula to see if she has anything to contribute to the solve.
“Don’t look at me,” Paula says. “I know nothing, apparently.” (No, Paula! Don’t give up! You’re so close!)
After a short break, we return to the gemstone puzzle.
Tommy realizes that “Nestor Asgard” is an anagram for “Dragon’s Tears”, apparently the name of the potion that saves the kingdom.
They put the last of the gemstones in place and lights turn on in the holes beneath them along with a magical trill.
“Tommy’s smart! Nothing makes sense anymore,” Paula says, half to herself. She’s happy though—it’s her version of a compliment, as she works to reconcile her old beliefs with the new evidence in front of her eyes.
Lighting flashes, thunder strikes, and there’s a fanfare of horns as a banner drops down from the ceiling: “You Doth Did It!”
Paula jumps up and down, totally stoked. The boys high five each other and stand up.
Delighted, Paula teases them: “Wow, I thought you guys were just dead weights slowing down the minivan, but I was wrong!” She raises her hand for a high five from each of the boys, and they all smile at each other.
The game attendant enters the room, just as bored as ever. He’s holding three plastic crowns and a sign for the family to hold that reads, “We doth escaped.”
“Hear ye, hear ye,” he says in a deadpan. “You have completed your noble quest. You have saved the kingdom. Prepare to be knighted and have your photo taken over there for our website. Please tag us. Please Yelp us. Please kill me.” (Boo.)
The family gathers together, and the attendant tells them several times to get closer. They have no choice but to stand arm in arm. But they’re all smiling and happy, feeling a closeness that they were lacking at the start of their time in the game room.
“You know what?” Paula says. “I think we might be on our way.”
“That’s not what he meant, Mom,” Tommy says, but she plants a big kiss on Brendan’s cheek and all three smile, not just for the camera.
We don’t see many of the puzzles, and the ones we do see aren’t really gated.
For example, the chalice that contains gemstones with letters, the final step of the game, is sitting out on the table from the moment they step into the room. If one of the players had gone to it first instead of exploring the rest of the room, they could have been out in under 5 minutes.
Some of the other puzzles are printed in small, cursive text, a double-whammy for readability.
And the final puzzle is a twelve-letter anagram, which actually would be pretty tough for most people. The game board that the gemstones are placed onto doesn’t contain any spaces, so it would be hard to know how to break up these letters into words:
A S E N G T R O D S R A
Perhaps the instructional scroll contains a clue or two?
But of course, escape rooms in media aren’t usually “real” games as such—they exist to showcase elements of a character’s personality, so that they can react to the puzzles (or react to how someone else is solving a puzzle) to teach us something about that character.
In this case, the escape room is solved by the teenage boys cooperating and figuring out their own path as their mother cheers them on. This is a mirror of how their lives have been unfolding: Paula thought her kids were just shuffling through life, but actually, her encouragement and support has helped them grow into young adults with personalities and interests of their own. Thanks to the puzzles, she can finally see the her sons’ interests and talents. By the end of the game, she’s ready to engage with their relationship in a new way, and the boys welcome it.
In this episode, the characters communicated well, encouraged each other, and engaged with the game in a way that I really enjoyed. Watching people play escape rooms, you often see people who are skeptical at first, who then get totally drawn into the gameplay once it’s started, just like Tommy. Often, they’re the ones that end up having the most fun out of anybody.
- One thing I haven’t really mentioned is that the entire show, and its musical numbers, are absolutely delightful. I haven’t watched it in a while so it was nice to catch up to the story a bit
- The set for this game looks pretty fun, and I love a good hidden compartment. I’d definitely play it
- Yet another example of a game attendant shown as a bored nerd who would rather be anywhere else. He’s got a pretty sweet costume on though
- The banner that falls down at the end of the game (“You doth did it!”) makes me laugh a lot
Enjoy this post? Want to read more about escape rooms in media? Have a suggestion for an episode to watch? Check out the index of shows covered so far, and follow me on Medium and Twitter for news and announcements.
Want to learn more about how to play escape rooms and the history of the immersive entertainment industry? My new book, Planning Your Escape: Strategy Secrets to Make You an Escape Room Superstar, is available now for pre-order!
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 and PLANNING YOUR ESCAPE for Simon & Schuster. 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.