Escape Rooms in Media: Portlandia

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?

A standalone skit in an episode of IFC’s Portlandia (S08e03, “No Thank You”) depicts a couple on a date and a pair of escape room enthusiasts demolishing, both literally and figuratively, a world traveler/murder mystery-themed room.

Portlandia is a show about Portland, Oregon, featuring skits that showcase parts of the city and caricatures of its residents. It’s also the town where your fearless author resides (and runs an escape room), so this one hits close to home.

Creator and star Carrie Brownstein described Portlandia thus: “A lot of times I just think, it’s not even trying to be funny. It’s just, you know, it’s like an obsession, an obsession over a moment or a dynamic.” Its skits and characters are exaggerated, but only ever-so-slightly. They’re so familiar it’s almost not funny…which totally makes it funny.

This skit about escape rooms is squarely in the realm of parody, so the bad behaviors are part of the fun. Happily, they also serve to contrast with the good, cooperative behaviors of the other players in the room.

The Game

On NE Sandy Blvd, the camera shows a nondescript building with a parking lot (nice), before cutting to the inside of the building, the lobby of an escape room company called “Escapes of Wrath”.

From the posters in their lobby, it looks like they offer rooms themed after “Ghostly Encounters,” “Insane Asylum,” “Monsters Escape: Room of Terror,” and one themed for a detective, Doctor Mandego. The designs seem very like some of SCRAP’s posters, which is a nice easter egg if they drew inspiration from them.

A couple at the counter introduces themselves as Steve and Ann, telling the clerk that they have a reservation, but that their friends have cancelled on them. They wonder if they could just go in by themselves.

The clerk tells them that it unfortunately is a 4 person minimum, but that there’s a couple waiting for additional players themselves. Kudos for being flexible and making it work for the customer, unnamed clerk.

The camera pans over to unnamed characters (Wikipedia informs me that they’re named Kathleen and Dave) played by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, both wearing fishing vests with waaay too many pockets.

“Escape room!!” Kathleen screams.

“We’re gonna set a record!” Dave adds, with unnecessary aggression, which will surely become a running theme very shortly.

Standing at the counter, Dave tells Ann and Steve that they’re gonna beat them.

“I thought we were all on the same team,” Ann says, nervous. The clerk agrees, telling them that it’s just the one team. “Right,” Dave says. “One team, and we’re gonna win.”

The clerk leads them to the room, and Kathleen and Dave push ahead of the other couple, who exchange an apprehensive glance. Ann puts her hands up, like, Okay, whatever.

“Escape, escape, escape!” Dave chants. I have to confess that I do love a good silly team chant, but c’mon Dave, you can’t lead with it. Save it for later in the game when everyone’s too into the zone to be weirded out by it.

The clerk gives the team of four the safety briefing, combined with the narrative intro to the room. A long sign on the wall tell them that there’s no photography, cell phones, weapons, climbing on furniture, food or drink, destruction, something about dividing, something about leaders. It also tells them, do not breathe, jam car keys in holes, yell…oh, to be able to see the whole sign clearly.

Another sign gives a warning: If something is affixed to something it is supposed to be like that. The lights are part of the room but not the game. There is a panic button, which ends the game. They should only exit through a door. (Clearly this will become relevant later.) The props person has obviously played a fair few of these.

The clerk tells them that he’s going to lead them them into the study of Dr. Mandego, “murdered by mysterious causes”. The detectives couldn’t find visible wounds, but they did find a note in his typewriter, addressed to his wife and two sons. Kathleen and Dave seem into the story, giving appropriate oohs and ahhs.

The clerk tells them that they have a panic button for a quick exit, and Kathleen snorts skeptically. Don’t be so sure, Kathleen! Hubris serves no one well in the high-stakes, high-pressure world of escape room entertainment. He says that the game will be over and they won’t receive a refund, and Dave adds that they’d be a bunch of little babies.

The clerk opens the door, wishing them good luck, and Kathleen and Dave bolt past the other couple, who look at each other and shrug before making their way inside.

Kathleen and Dave enter the room, scanning it for clues. The room looks like the study of a world traveler, with maps, books, and other furniture. There’s a lit window holding artifacts, and a desk. Some art on the wall seems to feature George Washington.

“Clues, escape, clues,” Dave mutters. Steve and Ann are really intrigued by the room, talking about how cool it is. (Look at those smiles!) Dave cuts them off, telling them to shut up.

“We’re the leaders, you’re the followers,” he says, pointing. Hey, didn’t the sign outside explicitly say no leaders?

Kathleen brandishes an axe that she has apparently brought (where was it hidden?!). “We do not need these cameras,” she says, chopping one off the ceiling. The clerk doesn’t rush in and immediately end the game, so he seems to not have been watching. “And we do NOT need this panic button!” The button also receives the chop.

Dave demands that everyone look around, hard. “Get your pupils focused!” he cries.

Not bad advice, though next time, let’s try it with like, 50% less intensity, yeah?

They find a chain wrapped around the desk, which Kathleen tugs on. Dave asks if anyone knows how to use an abacus, and they somehow unlock a briefcase on the desk, flinging it open to reveal some cutout letters and personal papers.

“Why would there be laminate on a postcard,” Dave asks, shaking one like a Polaroid picture. “Who does that?” Ah yes, the lament of many an escape room enthusiast who’s into immersion and world-building.

Steve and Ann find a clue inside the briefcase, a handwritten note that says, “Ideas are lightbulbs. Turn it on.” They ask Kathleen and Dave if it seems like a clue but are quickly rebuffed. Kathleen and Dave scream at them about how they’re wasting time.

The couple continues working on the room, checking out the lightbulbs, even though the outside sign specifically gave them an instruction about leaving lights alone. (This is also something we warn people about…you don’t want people messing with glass or electricity, for obvious reasons.)

On the other side of the space, Kathleen and Dave are frantically re-arranging the letters found inside the briefcase (CAACDKGUV), vocalizing the resulting nonsense words.

Ever the team players, Steve and Ann ask if Dave and Kathleen want to help them with their newly-discovered clues, but they’re are distracted by…tapping some figures together, it looks like. Maybe dancing them around, I’m not sure. “They are…in their own world,” Ann says.

Dave and Kathleen have found some exposed wiring (whyyy), and they shout at each other to put a key in the hole. Nooo… Dave pulls a key out of one of his vest’s many pockets. “Think you can outsmart me?” he says, speaking, apparently, to the room.

He then puts the key into the hole, electrocuting himself. Nooo!!

The lights fade in and out and Steve and Ann look understandably concerned, asking if he’s okay. “There’s blood in my mouth,” Dave chokes.

“Let’s…let’s just keep looking,” Steve says, returning to the puzzles. Uh, you should probably should call an ambulance, Steve!

Somehow recovered, Dave holds up a cryptex with a scroll inside, spinning the dials randomly. Meanwhile, Steve and Ann are at what looks like the final door, marked “EXIT?” I can feel that question mark, it is taunting me. Don’t be fooled, Steve and Ann.

They examine the padlock holding the door shut, then remember something that referenced a computer, and conclude that it’s binary code. They’re using great teamwork, communicating expectations about who’s holding the keys, and making sure everyone knows where items are when they get handed off.

Behind the desk, Kathleen and Dave are yelling, “Read every book!” and attempting to speed-read through them, occasionally ripping out pages. Here I’ll pause to share a tip for other escape room creators, learned the hard way: if you purchase used books to put in an escape room, do not include any that have any handwriting, at all. No notes, no dedications, no sales marks. People become not just distracted, but completely obsessed. Just save everyone the headache and skip it.

At the door, Steve and Ann pop the padlock, opening it to reveal…a second surface behind it. Knew it; never trust a question mark. It says, “Stay safe!” with an arrow pointing to the side.

The camera switches to a POV fisheye as Kathleen and Dave begin panicking, screaming that they want to get out. “You have no right to do this to us,” Dave wails. “We’re not lab rats!”

Steve and Ann are perplexed but push on as Kathleen and Dave literally run in circles around the room. Our heroes crouch in front of a safe, working to open it, and pull a key out after the door swings open. High five, 2/4 of the team!

Lost in her panic, Kathleen wields her axe, shouting that she’s gonna go through, and starts hacking at the wall. It’s funny so I’m setting aside my internal horror at the cost and effort of replacing the drywall.

Several pushes and screams later, they emerge on the other side of the wall into the lobby, leaving a massive hole. “Yes, we did it! We’re alive!” they cry.

Watching them sprawl on the floor is the clerk, and our intrepid duo, who have apparently exited the room through the appropriate door. They’re holding a chalkboard sign that shows their time, 41:13. Steve is holding a scroll, and Ann has a key around her neck.

Kathleen and Dave notice the time on the slate and cheer, congratulating themselves.

“Alright,” they ask, looking up expectantly. “When do you guys wanna do this again?”

Game Flow

We don’t see a lot of the game , which is understandable given the distraction caused by the flailing of Carrie and Fred’s characters, Kathleen and Dave. They certainly didn’t see much, or really any, of the game themselves.

It’s hard to know if the random elements we see (a collection of letters, a cryptex) are used in the room, or red herrings. Those letters don’t actually spell out anything, but they could be a part of a larger puzzle, so who knows. They’re all definitely trope-y elements of escape rooms, so it works for the humorous scene-setting, at least.

Speaking of the cryptex, it looks like it’s known as a “puzzle pod”. I’ve never had a chance to play with one in person; I wonder how they hold up under the wear and tear of regular use.

Final Thoughts

  • As nice and accommodating as that clerk was, there are a few issues that their boss might wanna bring up in the next review. They obviously weren’t watching the cameras when they were cut off the ceiling with an axe; someone in the room electrocuted themselves; patrons tore up books; and someone punched a hole in the wall that they then climbed through. Hopefully they kept their credit card on file, at the very least.
  • The tagline for Escapes of Wrath is “Solve the Mystery, Find the Clue, Save the World.” The tagline for our Portland-based escape room company was “Discover the Clues, Solve the Mysteries, Escape the Room.” Maybe they had a quick google to see what area rooms were using?
  • Let’s take a moment to appreciate the set designers, who put a lot of thought into the small details that flesh out the backgrounds of these shows. As an example, check out this selection of posters from Escapes of Wrath games:
  • As always, if anyone wants to clean out their props warehouse, or even send a high-res pic of the posters or the safety signs, my mailbox is always open!

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.

Immersive, escape rooms, narrative, video games, ARGs, VR, puzzles, mysteries. PLANNING YOUR ESCAPE, Simon & Schuster. KATAMARI DAMACY, Boss Fight Books.