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 cold open of an episode of ABC’s The Rookie (s01e08, “Time of Death”) features an escape room. Officers Talia Bishop (Afton Williamson) and John Nolan (Nathan Fillion) chase a suspect into a medieval-themed room and find themselves trapped inside.
I’ve never seen this show, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. My mother is a huge Nathan Fillion fan, though, so when she texted me that there was an escape room in the intro starring her fav, I knew I had to watch. And I’m glad I did.
While the room’s design relies on common tropes, the puzzles are pretty cohesive, and the brevity of the sequence does a great job of showing off the working dynamic of the two police partners and the fun that can be had inside escape rooms.
In a big city at night, two police officers respond to a burglary in progress. Flashlights out, they make their way down an office building corridor.
They approach a corporate office for Wheatstock Insurance (props to the props department, who have to make tons of those logo signs…) and surprise a young man stuffing computer equipment into a rucksack. Lots of bodycam shots for extra high octane action as they give chase down a stairwell.
The officers radio into dispatch, requesting backup, but get no response. “Sometimes these old concrete buildings can block signal,” Officer Talia says. Uh oh, surely that won’t become relevant momentarily…
The officers reach the bottom of the stairwell and head through the only open door. Behind it is a spooky room with rough stone walls, and several skeletons mounted to those walls. Their flashlights play over a giant chess set, a mummy, and a collection of axes.
The door slams shut behind them (whoops!) and they spin around, facing their surly burglar. As Officer John puts handcuffs on him, Talia switches on the room lights (which shouldn’t be that easily accessible to patrons, but okay), and we get a good look at the space for the first time.
It looks like a medieval dungeon. In addition to the aforementioned mummy and chess set, there’s also a glowing red annex behind bars, some trunks, and mysterious books and papers on a desk. There are rings affixed to all of the walls, and what appear to be a pair of handcuffs.
“Where the hell are we?” Talia asks. A fair question.
John tries the door and finds it locked. “No other doors, no windows,” he says. (A good observation, actually. Thorough assessment of the room layout and available materials is a great place to start solving.)
Talia is looking at one of the papers on a nearby table, a crinkled tea-stained document with burnt edges and calligraphy. “What’s that?” John asks. “A code,” Talia replies.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she adds, realization dawning. “This is an escape room.”
“A what?” John asks, telling his burglar to stay in place. (The premise of The Rookie is that John is a 40-year-old rookie cop, while all of his contemporaries are in their 20s, so this may be a nod to him having a disconnect from popular youth culture.)
“Where hipsters pay to be locked in a room filled with puzzles that they solve to get out,” Talia tells him, drily.
“Oh, that sounds like fun!” John says, visibly excited. Excellent.
“Yeah, maybe on a day off,” Talia replies. “Not after a long shift.” A fair point, really. Escape rooms have a heavy cognitive load, so it’s good to be well-rested before trying them out. She checks her phone, finding no signal.
“Guess we’re gonna have to solve the puzzles now,” John says. He doesn’t seem disappointed at all.
Talia flips the paper. “Looks like this one requires three or more people,” she says, pointedly looking at the burglar. Not sure why the sales info or meta instructions for the room are on the back of a clue…but since this is a cold open, we’ll forgive them for needing to utilize a bit of shorthand.
The burglar laughs. He doesn’t want to go to jail, so he’s happy to spend the night. John seems to agree, and leads the burglar over to the barred annex room, where it seems he’s going to lock the guy to the cobwebby bars for the next eight hours.
Talia is having none of this. She’s had a closer look at the calligraphy on the paper, and recognizes it as a Caesar shift cipher, a substitution cipher used by Julius Caesar to encode messages sent to his troops. Impressive that she could not only recognize but name the specific cipher, which she says she learned in an extra credit class at the police academy.
For reference, here’s the text, a +1 shift:
UIF GJSTU TUFQ UPXBSET GSFFEPN MJFT JO UIF MBTU TUFQ GSPN DBQUJWJUZ
It’s also accurate as shown onscreen. Thank you, thank you, props department! (If you ever need to clear out your warehouse, my mailbox is always open.)
“The first step towards freedom lies in the last step from captivity,” Talia reads. John is extremely impressed, as he rightly should be.
She pauses a moment, considering. “Captivity!” she exclaims. Something is triggered in the room, which is how you know this is a fantasy, because sensors that accurately recognize specific words are reaaally tricky to implement. (A decibel sensor is more likely.) Thank goodness for television magic.
There’s a click inside the barred room, drawing the group’s attention, and behind them in the main room, a curtain opens, revealing a map.
Cut to the trio, the burglar now detached from the bars but still in handcuffs, collaborating on the map puzzle. (I laughed.) We can see in close-up that the map is related to the Canterbury Tales, with the pilgrim characters illustrated along the sides.
Talia reads a lists of medieval-era villages (“Greenwich, Harbledown, Canterbury”) from a book as the burglar hands John little plastic pegs to plug into holes on the map, like a Lite Brite.
It must be an order-based puzzle, because when he plugs in Canterbury, the pegs illuminate white. (This is a great example of feedback design in a room, so that players understand that the puzzle both correct and complete, and can move on to the next thing.)
On the far wall, a door slides open, revealing a skeleton holding a sign, “Pallida mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas regumque turres.”
The officers wonder if it’s another clue, but the burglar recognizes it as Latin, translating it on the fly. “Pale death knocks with the same tempo on the huts of the poor and the towers of kings,” he says, a reverent hush in his voice.
(A quick google shows that there’s scholarship about the influence of Horace on Chaucer’s work, so whoever outlined this game obviously knows their stuff. Who among us hasn’t had that bright and shining moment when your obscure English degree is finally put to good use in a random, unrelated job environment, eh?)
Both officers turn to look at the burglar, incredulous. “Catholic school,” he shrugs, grinning.
Talia looks at her partner for a moment, when it clicks: “Towers of Kings!” She shakes one of the giant chess pieces, and it rattles. The bottom unscrews, revealing a rib bone. John points at the skeleton, having noticed that it’s missing one of its ribs.
He plugs the rib into the skeleton. Lights flash and the skeleton begins to shake and rattle, like an effect in an old-timey haunted house.
Finally, its jaw drops and it spits something out, which hits John and falls to the floor in a good physical comedy moment. (This once happened to me with a pinball machine, which expelled a special coin straight at my chest, so I can attest to how startling an effect that is. I probably did the same silly flailing dance that John does.)
It’s the key!
John unlocks the door, then turns to Talia, who’s got a huge grin on her face. “Yes!” they cheer, giving each other high fives. John high fives the burglar, who turns to Talia for a high five too. She’s about to, but catches herself. “You’re still under arrest,” she tells him, her face serious again as she returns to the business at hand. (Which, it must be pointed out, is locking him in a different room.)
Those grins don’t lie, though. That moment of unabashed, pure joy at their successful teamwork is what makes escape rooms fun to play, and to make. Well done, team. And well done, design team of The Rookie.
We’re clearly not shown the full solving process for the room, but the steps we are privy to are pretty linear. For the sake of the action, a few of them don’t quite make sense in terms of how they might be implemented. But all in all, a good mix of physical and knowledge puzzle types, leading to a triumphant final moment when the door is unlocked.
- Nathan Fillion is great. His giddiness when his character realizes they’re in a game is very charming. He’s got a quick wit in delivery and I hope the show gives that quality some room to breathe.
- I know it’s in service of moving the plot forward, but it’s always funny to me when there are easily-accessible puzzle elements (like the map behing a simple curtain, or the rib bone inside the chess piece) that characters didn’t find earlier, for no other reason than they didn’t actually look. It happens all the time in real life, too.
- Without more context, it appears that the room requires you to know Latin to solve the exit puzzle. (Perhaps there’s a reference somewhere, like in the books they used for the map puzzle?) But — since you could access the rib from the bottom of the king chess piece pretty much immediately, and could then make the connection to the skeleton visually as soon as it was revealed, it wouldn’t be a game-breaking mistake.
- The room appears to be fully automated, though that also means the facility leaves all their tech on overnight. Good thing, too, because otherwise the team probably would have just kicked the door down as soon as one of them needed to use the restroom badly enough.
- The escape room shown here feels like someone genuinely thought through the game flow and theming of the set, while still making it easy for an audience to quickly read the situation and scene. It’s short and sweet, and showcases the characters’ personalities and strengths. Plus, it’s legitimately funny. This just might be one of my favorite depictions of an escape room on screen.
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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 and Planning Your Escape for Simon and Schuster’s Tiller Press. 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.