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 Hasbro’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (s07e02, “All Bottled Up”) features a team-building trip to a rainbow-colored, jewel-encrusted, lightly jungle-themed escape room.
Each of the ponies has a distinct personality, and while they often come into conflict, they always talk through their problems and resolve them. It’s a great setup for an escape the room scenario, and even though the show pokes gentle fun at escape room creators and game hosts, the characters model strong collaborative behavior that’s a positive lesson for kids and families alike.
A huge group of colorful ponies, unicorns, and pegasuses (pegasi?) walk down a wooden platform next to a candy-frosted train.
Twilight Sparkle, the main character amongst the “mane 6”, tells the other ponies that she’s super excited about the friendship retreat, because she can’t remember the last time they got to hang out without having to save Equestria.
Rainbow Dash replies that yes, they are awesome, but they weren’t technically the last ponies to save the land. (We’re shown Starlight Glimmer and Trixie, along with a small dragon Spike, so I’m guessing this is a reference to a previous episode.)
“I was speaking in a broader sense,” Twilight Sparkle replies, before asking the pair if they want to come with them. Starlight and Trixie decline, saying they’re going to read comics and practice magic. Sounds like a good day to me.
They promise they’ll take good care of the castle while they’re away. Once the primary ponies are on the train, Trixie asks what a friendship retreat actually is, anyway. Starlight says they’ll bond, share laughs, and if she knows them, they’ll sing a song. Foreshadowing...
After their train journey, the group is led down a hallway by a teenage pony wearing glasses and braces. The corridor has a variety of styled doors, and he welcomes them to “Manehattan Escapes” in a bored-sounding voice.
Rarity, the fancy one, says she’s going to start with a facial and then get her hooves done, obviously thinking they’re in some sort of deluxe spa where they can “escape” all their troubles. Twilight Sparkle corrects her, excitedly informing her that they’ll be locked in a room to solve puzzles.
Mercifully, the door swings open before we can see Rarity’s reaction. The room seems to be jungle-themed, with a step pyramid, plants and vines, ropes, trapdoors, and treasure chests.
The game host pony reads from a clipboard on the wall, telling the gang that the clues will lead them to a key that will help them escape.
“Team building!” Twilight Sparkle says, and the other ponies give exaggerated sighs. All of them frown except for Applejack, the down-to-earth one.
“This could be fun!” Applejack says. “Could be?!” Twilight Sparkle interjects. “Some of the brightest minds in Equestria put together these puzzles!” Thanks for the props, Twilight Sparkle! Most people don’t realize how much work goes into designing escape rooms and making them a good experience for players. We’ll just ignore that the room attendant was picking his earwax while she said it.
“I’m just happy to be here with all of you,” says Fluttershy, the gentle one. “Me too!” chimes in Pinkie Pie, the perky one. Pinkie Pie adds that she’s not great at solving riddles, but she’s very good at cheering on others. She zips out of the frame, reappearing in a cheerleading costume, complete with pom-poms.
Honestly, it’s nice that they let the ponies express varying levels of interest in the room, and different approaches to how they might interact with it. It’s the same dynamic you see in teams in real life — some people are waaay more into it, and some just want to be there for support. It takes all types to make it through successfully.
Rarity wants to get on with things. She asks the attendant how long they’ll be in the room. It looks like there’s a clock in the room above the door, but they don’t have a countdown timer going. He squints at the clipboard, telling them that a group of Griffons set the record for the fastest escape, which took them an hour. Interesting that the room seems to just be based on setting the best time, rather than beating a clock and counting the score on time remaining.
Rainbow Dash, the competitive one, scoffs, saying that Griffons barely like each other, and that she and her group are the “poster ponies” for amazing friendships. She flies over to the attendant, poking her nose into his, and tells him to get his quill ready, as he’s going to have to write down a new record once they’re done.
Some time later, Pinkie Pie is cheering on the group as they work at solving. They’re all clearly concentrating hard.
Twilight Sparkle and Applejack stand around a tangrams-style puzzle, assembling the shape of a blue faceted jewel.
Using magic, they float the last piece into place. It slides open, revealing a purple gemstone under the floor.
Applejack congratulates them, saying that they solved that “triangle-y thing” mighty fast. She turns to the rest of the group, asking if anyone needs a purple jewel, which Twilight Sparkle floats into the air with the telepathic magic of her unicorn horn. It looks like there’s a path outlined on the floor, leading from puzzle to puzzle, perhaps suggesting a solve order.
Rarity and Fluttershy are studying a large fake waterfall, a piece of blue material studded with gemstones. Rarity, who is a fashion designer, asks if the stone is plum or boysenberry, and farmgirl Applejack wonders if both those names don’t simply mean “purple”. Rarity waxes poetic about the different shades, but impatient Rainbow Dash demands they hurry up so that they can beat the record.
Fluttershy grasps the gem in her mouth. This is the first time I thought about it in detail, but yeah, they can’t really pick up anything in their hooves, can they? She flies over to a demarcated spot on the cloth, putting it in place.
There’s a sound of gears turning as the cloth retracts up into a space behind the stones, revealing a scroll.
Ahh, it would be great to be able to do effects like this in a real room. Obviously in real life you can’t stop people from messing with stuff or looking under curtains in the wrong order, but it totally works when the players have hooves.
Applejack zips out and back in again, donning the cheerleader outfit once more. She does a little rhyming cheer about friendship.
A short time jump later, and Applejack asks for Twilight Sparkle’s help to levitate some bricks away from the wall. She does, which reveals a combination of symbols and colors: a green triangle, a yellow square, and a red circle.
Rainbow Dash flies over. “I’ve seen those symbols…over here!” she cries, zooming to a large wheel in the center of the room, on top of the step pyramid. The wheel is divided into color slices, with different gemstone shapes on each slice.
“You can do it!” Applejack cheers, as Rainbow Dash, Twilight Sparkle, and Pinkie Pie each press the gemstones from the symbol list at the same time.
“Almost there,” Rarity declares, as a trapdoor drops into the floor and a golden key rises up on a little plinth.
Fluttershy picks the key up in her mouth, flying it over to the door to insert it into the keyhole. Twilight Sparkle declares how impressed she is, while Rainbow Dash says she’s not surprised at all, because she knew they were the best.
Twilight Sparkle says she wishes their friend Starlight could be there to see the power of friendship and working together. Then she bursts into song. Well, they did warn us.
The show transitions into a music video about the ponies being best friends and letting their true selves shine. It’s an inspirational song about drawing strength from being in a team.
When the song concludes, the scene fades back into reality, where the ponies are still in the escape room.
On the wall, a window slides open, revealing the game host sitting behind glass in a control room. “That was lovely,” he says drily. “But the game isn’t over until you turn that key.”
Rainbow Dash panics, knocking over the pony pyramid as she rushes over to the door. She turns the key, then turns to the game host. He watches a clock tick.
“So close,” he says. “You missed the Griffon record by two seconds.”
“Probably shouldn’t have sung that song,” he adds, adjusting his glasses. Harsh! Rainbow Dash is devastated.
Back at the castle, Fluttershy reports in, telling her friend that they learned about team-building and problem-solving. “And when not to sing songs,” Pinkie Pie adds.
Rarity says she had a great time, but still wants to visit the spa.
I think the game host should have given them the win, since they weren’t told there was a specific condition that stopped the timer. But they all worked hard and had a good time, so I think they’ve earned that day at the spa.
This is one of the more cohesive games I’ve seen portrayed in a show, actually. It has a good balance of different types of child-friendly puzzles, and shows the solving process. Plus it emphasizes how much teamwork and communication is required.
The ponies model great behavior for escape room players. They communicate with each other, they check in with their team, they pay attention to details and work together to make connections from one puzzle to another.
This is the best sort of game to play. The number one quality of teams who successfully complete escape rooms is that they consistently talk with each other and boost each others’ strengths.
It’s only by talking that players can make connections between separate, seemingly unrelated elements, as when Rainbow Dash sees a set of symbols and recognizes that they’re used in a different part of the game. (It’s also the best way to ensure you have the most fun!)
If kids learn about escape rooms through this show, and especially how to behave in them, with plenty of cooperation and positive energy, we’ll end up with happy players and full games. I call that a win for everyone.
- The room attendant’s “cutie mark” (the unique symbol on every My Little Pony’s thigh) is a padlock, which is a nice touch.
- However, the attendant is shown to be a geeky teen with braces, glasses, and a droll delivery like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Games of all types are one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the world, yet this stereotype prevails. I wish this shorthand would fade away.
- There’s an official MLP short film (“Best Gift Ever”) that also features an escape room…it’s, uh, a bit less structured than the one featured in “All Bottled Up”
- The writers of this episode seem to really get the, shall we say, dual nature of escape rooms. They’re complicated challenges and take a lot of detailed work to create, and it takes skill to successfully solve them. But there’s absolutely an element of silliness to the whole endeavor. Players start in the real world and it takes a while to transition into the world of the game. A good depiction of an escape room experience includes exactly that: people joking around or playacting before they all dive in and get absorbed. It’s fun to see it shown in this episode.
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.
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.