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 down-on-their-luck Rose family visits an escape room for a bachelor party in a late episode of Schitt’s Creek (s06e11, “Escape Room”), but outside pressures come to a head during their game session in a Darwin-themed laboratory.
The episode allows the characters’ personality quirks to shine in the pressure-cooker environment. We don’t get to see many of the puzzles, but the ones we do see are realistic representations of an actual game, and the characters give us an extremely realistic (and funny!) representation of typical players.
Schitt’s Creek is a wonderful show, and one of my favorites. It’s about the Roses, a once-wealthy, semi-estranged family. When their fortune disappears overnight, they’re forced to move to their only remaining asset, a remote town they bought as a joke because of its name.
When the show begins, the characters were insecure and reactive, floating through life without any real sense of purpose. When they first move to Schitt’s Creek, they’re miserable and desperate to get out. As the show goes on and they‘re forced to actually spend time with each other, they get to know one another, and themselves.
This episode, “Escape Room”, takes place near the end of the series. David Rose, an anxiety-ridden NYC art gallery curator, has just gotten engaged to his boyfriend Patrick, and they, the Rose family, and their friend Stevie have gathered at an escape room for their bachelor party.
The family is begrudgingly participating. I’m sure that many escape room players have found themselves in the situation of having a group that isn’t 100% sold on being there—but a positive attitude goes a long way. The Roses have shown up, so that’s a good start.
“The annual escape room challenge has been a Brewer family tradition for a long time, and I thought it would be fun to share it with my new family since mine couldn’t be here,” Patrick tells everyone.
Johnny Rose is especially anxious about being in the room. In the 80s, he became wealthy from founding a successful chain of video rental stores. During the course of the show, he’s helped take over and run the motel the family lives in, and is now trying to find his feet with a new entrepreneurial project. As they enter the escape room, he’s awaiting a call from a potential investor.
“I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say, I hope we escape very quickly,” Johnny mutters.
A voice comes over the loudspeaker: “Players, are you ready to enter the laboratory? Place all electronic devices inside the scientist’s lockbox and enter at your own risk.”
An attendant hangs out in the background, using the computer, but never interacts with the group, or gives them any kind of safety instruction.
The group laugh nervously and file in. Johnny reluctantly puts his phone into the lockbox on the counter, and the attendant’s disembodied hand shuts it decisively.
Inside the room, there’s a mural of a white beach with blue water, covered in turtles and iguanas. There are potted palm trees and other furniture with a tropical theme. It’s definitely more of an office than a laboratory, but we’ll see.
The narrator returns: “Charles Darwin is being held captive by his arch-nemesis, rival scientist Dr. Alfred R. Wallace, somewhere in the Galapagos islands.”
“What?!” exclaims Alexis, who has just split up with her boyfriend because he moved to the Galapagos Islands for a job.
The door slams shut, causing everyone to jump. “You have one hour to escape. It’s your job to find—” We don’t hear what they’re supposed to find, because they’re talking over it. (A good design example: don’t put in a long audio narration.)
“It was just called ‘The Laboratory’,” Stevie explains. “I picked it because it was the easiest.”
“There are rumors that Wallace’s assistant sides with Darwin and may be willing to help if you get stuck.”
The characters look up to find a game host wearing a hood and sitting silently in a chair. (Creepy!)
Moira is excited.
“Assistant!” she cries in her distinctive accent, approaching the silent figure. “Show us the exit!”
“That’s not exactly how it works, Mrs. Rose,” Patrick explains. “We do actually have to try first.”
He turns to the rest of the group.
“The numbers for the combination on Darwin’s journal are gonna be on finches with red beaks,” he says, referring to the laminated instruction card. “Traveling east to west, the numbers on the beaks will get you to the nest.”
Johnny wants his phone back. He offers that there’s a compass on his that they could use, and Patrick explains that it’s part of a puzzle to solve, so they won’t need an actual compass to figure it out.
“We’ll cover more ground if we pair off into teams,” Patrick says. Good strategy. He puts everyone into pairs, and his helper, Moira, takes a seat in a nearby chair. (Good to have a chair for exactly this reason—people need a breather sometimes!)
He tells her that they have a time limit, and she responds sinisterly that they’re never getting out of there.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” he says, reaching over to reveal a finch with a red beak that’s part of the wallpaper design. Next to it, a number 6.
“The first number is six, people!” he calls out. (They were given the instruction “east to west” for ordering, but it’s not clear if the walls are somehow marked with cardinal directions, since they confirmed they don’t use a compass.)
David and his sister Alexis stand next to a fireplace with a poster showing outlines of multiple types of birds. He is holding up a laminated picture of a finch with a red beak next to the chart, getting frustrated.
“See, this is why I don’t like mind games,” he says. “It puts you in a situation where you’re made to feel dumb, even though you’re not. Like, some people’s minds just don’t work like this.”
Alexis is worried that she’s made a mistake—she and her boyfriend split up when he was offered a job in the Galapagos Islands. Even though they were still in love, she couldn’t uproot her life to join him.
She’s wondering if the theme of the room is some sort of cosmic sign. “We’re in a strip mall on the side of the highway,” David points out. “I wouldn’t read into this.”
“Also?” he adds, “As stupid as this is, I’m now invested.” That’s the spirit, mate!
Alexis is slowly realizing that she’s growing up and ready to set out on her own, but can’t quite verbalize it yet. “Where do you want to be?” David asks. “There,” Alexis says, pointing at a bird on the chart. It’s another finch, which she recognizes because of a different ex-boyfriend’s parents’ aviary.
David is into it, calling out the second number (8) with gusto.
Patrick moves over to a bookcase to help Stevie search, and we finally get a glimpse of the laboratory part of the office, a setup with old beakers and a microscope.
Johnny begs the silent, hooded assistant for his phone. They say nothing, just slowly shake their finger at him.
Patrick triumphantly holds up a book, announcing that he’s found the third finch (4). They have enough numbers to tackle Darwin’s diary, which is chained shut with a padlock.
Patrick excitedly shouts the combo at David, who is entering it in carefully, and the lock springs open. Fist pumps all around.
David pulls out a laminated sheet, reading it aloud: “It says ‘Natural Selection’.”
A desk drawer next to Moira pops opens automatically, and she stands, ready to leave. David shuffles Alexis out of the way as he leaps into action.
In the drawer there’s another laminated sheet, but no key.
“There’s no key in here,” David says. “There is no key in here.”
“That’s just the first puzzle,” Patrick says. “It’s a series of puzzles.” Everyone turns to him, shocked.
Johnny is still asking to be let out to use his phone, but the attendant refuses. A voice on the intercom announces that they have 52 minutes left.
We cut to nearly the end of the hour.
Patrick and Alexis are encouraging David as he tackles a puzzle, which looks like three discs on spinning poles, mounted high up beyond arm’s reach. He is blowing on them, apparently attempting to spin them, and they’re getting frantic as nothing happens.
The group is encouraging him, but in that way where the encouragement is more stressful than the actual event. Patrick is chanting: “Blow on it, David! Blow on it! Blow!” (These four are fully invested at this point!)
Stevie runs up with a bellows, and David uses it to puff air onto the discs, grunting, flipping each one from red to blue as everyone cheers.
“It didn’t do anything,” Stevie says, just as a drawer in the desk next to her pops open. (This is a sign that there’s no real design connection between what they’re doing and the result.)
Inside is some sort of cylinder—it looks like a blacklight with a wrapper.
“Oh my god,” she says. “This game is actually fun.”
“See, I told you!” Patrick says happily.
“You’re only saying that because you got one right,” David says. (Wait, didn’t he just complete the puzzle that triggered the action?…ah well.)
“Oh, your time will come, David,” Alexis tells him.
On the other side of the room, Johnny and Moira beg the attendant for the key. The group chats about why Johnny is so hype for his phone—he’s waiting for a call about a potential investor in his business. Patrick points out that they’re almost done with the game, and Moira pulls her phone out of her bag.
Johnny is shocked. “You still have your phone?” he asks.
“We all have our phones,” David says.
Meanwhile, Alexis has been quietly solving the next puzzle while everyone else talks.
“I’ve used the clues to turn the dials on the flashlight and it spells out, ‘England’,” she says, moving over to a map on the wall. “So, thank you my weekend with Tom Hardy, England is here.” (A funny character moment, since she’s constantly referencing bizarre events in her past with no further explanation.)
She illuminates the map, showing hidden text:
“I’m tall when I’m young, and short when I’m old”
She looks around: “Candle.”
“How are you doing this?” Stevie asks, impressed and excited.
Alexis picks up a candle nearby, releasing fog into the air that illuminates a laser. Patrick starts to join in, but Alexis waves him away, saying that she’s got it.
The laser is pointing at a symbol on a vase. “This is an ancient Egyptian symbol for stability,” Alexis explains. “My friend Prairie got one tattooed on her lower back in 7th grade.” (See?)
“Okay, what does this mean?” David demands. Alexis tells him that they need to find something from Egypt (“Mummies, Rami Malek”).
She spots a pyramid on the nearby desk and picks it up, revealing a key underneath.
Now everyone is impressed and excited. Moira tells Alexis to try the key in the door, and it opens up.
“You have outwitted Darwin’s nemesis, Dr. Wallace. You may now exit.”
The family can’t quite believe that she’s solved everything—the last lingering fragment of belief in her ditziness is fading away, though she shrugs it off, saying she just wanted to get to the post-game drinks.
The attendant follows them out of the room, removing her hood, and finally speaks. “Congratulations, Professor Darwin would be very proud.”
She goes behind the counter and immediately picks up her phone; the other desk attendant is still working silently on the computer.
Johnny gets his phone and they listen to his voicemails (including a couple of the group trying to wiggle out of the escape room commitment). He hears the one he was hoping for—hooray!
At the bar after, the family celebrates. David and Alexis chat together.
“So, for someone who is all about signs, what do you think it meant that you were the one that got us out of the Galapagos?” he asks her.
“Honestly, like, being in a high-pressure situation with time running out and a lot of people yelling at me? It just, like, made me feel like myself again,” she says, a final reference to the many high-stakes, ridiculous but dangerous international adventures she casually referenced throughout the rest of the series.
This is a fairly straightforward, linear room. The way the characters behave in the room is painfully accurate, and extremely funny. It’s written in a way that lets their personalities shine. The players that do participate model good communication and a (reasonably) positive attitude, encouraging each other, and discussing instructions when it’s clear someone doesn’t know what to do next.
Digging into the game, there’s not a lot of thematic cohesion, which makes sense for a show that’s presenting itself visually, but wouldn’t function in a real space.
As an example, when the characters flip discs from blue to red (why?), a random desk drawer pops open. A character expresses surprise, which means there was nothing in the design connecting the drawer to that puzzle or driving players toward it. There was also no audio feedback indicating they’d done it correctly. However, it happens right next to the players completing the puzzle, so it would be very difficult to miss.
There are a couple of puzzles that fail at gating information. There’s a blacklight with some sort of scrambled cipher wheel wrapped around it. It spells out “England”, pointing the characters to a map on the wall. But that’s something that would have been revealed just by shining the light on it as soon as they retrieved it from the drawer, making the cipher unnecessary.
One puzzle seems to require outside knowledge. When the laser turns on, it points at an Egyptian symbol on a vase. Nothing about the blacklight, map of England, candle, laser, or general room theme (“Galapagos”) suggest any connection to an Egyptian theme. But it’s possible there was some information in the room that would have told them the meaning of the symbol. Otherwise, they’d be totally stuck, unable to move forward.
Or would they? The key to open the exit door is sitting underneath an object, accessible from the very start of the game. Lucky for them, nobody checked underneath the pyramid.
- There were some nice design touches in the design of the room. Every wall had different textures and wallpapers, and no surface was left unpainted. The integration of a puzzle element into the bird wallpaper was wonderful
- From the front window, we can see that “Elmdale Escapes” offers three themes: Haunted Attic, Nuclear Bunker, The Laboratory
- I don’t love that the attendants are portrayed as inessential or even neglectful, but it’s true that any extra characters in these already-chaotic scenes would have made it way too busy
- That laser beam is like, literally at eye level
- So many of the episode’s greatest moments are down to the reactions and physical comedy of the actors. They seemed to really have fun with this one
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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.