escape rooms

thinking outside the box by locking yourself into one

385 South Main Street. That was the address on the Escape Rhode Island website and the address that we put into our Uber app, but when we pulled up beside a dimly lit, rickety-looking building, I had some doubts. There was nobody in the area, and after our driver left, the street settled into a discomforting stillness.


My boyfriend had come to visit me from California, and I wanted to make sure that we had a fantastic time here in Providence over spring break. Thus, I was inspired to look up “escape rooms near me.” If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of an escape room, according to Escape Rhode Island’s website, it is a “cooperative, real-life mystery space where nothing is as it seems. You and your team are trapped; you have 60 minutes to escape a room by solving a series of puzzles that will challenge your mind and confound your senses. Explore, adapt, work together, think creatively––and you just might succeed.”


It seemed that our experience with perplexity began even before we entered the actual room. It wasn’t until we spotted an obscure black sign with a white key on it that we realized we were at the right place. With hesitation, we entered the building and followed a series of signs up the stairs and into the quaint space of their headquarters.


After a 10 minute introduction to the rules of the game, we were led into our room, titled “Ex Machina.” The following is the official description:


“During a recent renovation project in our building, a secret room was discovered littered with old mechanical contraptions. Their purposes are unknown, and there is a mysterious vault door that no one can open. What secrets are inside? And who doesn’t want us to get in?”


Three other, older strangers––two men and one woman––were going to be on our team, and with conviction they introduced themselves as experienced escapists; apparently they had set multiple records across the nation. Meanwhile, we were two inexperienced first-timers who were out to have a good time.


The coordinator guided us through a portentous hallway lit with a pink neon light into a small room decorated with a mid-19th century aesthetic. Copper tubes protruded from the walls, and a huge door equipped with various contraptions and gears stood beside the real door. The one-hour timer started as soon as the door closed, and with that the game began.


Without revealing too much, I can confirm that it was very interactive, seeming to pull out all the stops, with lights flashing, objects falling from above, musical aspects, locks, hidden messages, improvisation, magnets, alarms, and algorithms. At first, I felt didn’t know where and what to even start on. There were so many puzzles and locked boxes around the room, and everyone seemed engaged already. I talked with the other woman in the room, and we eventually figured out one of the puzzles. From there, we took what we got from that puzzle and figured out a way to unlock the next one.


The whole team helped each other out when anyone was stuck on a particular problem, and it was satisfying to solve two mysteries by bringing them together. There was one man who warned us that he was prone to “taking over.” He solved one of the biggest puzzles, which we uncoded and used to open a lock, but he remained fixated on it and was convinced that he had not fully figured it out. He spent the whole time on that one puzzle, and I think that we might have had a greater success if he was less adamant.


I observed that the other two were easygoing, and not at all the cut-throat escapists I had expected. They seemed to seek us for help pretty often, and I appreciated the camaraderie and shared frustration that we had when we could not figure out certain discombobulations. Sometimes, everyone would be certain that this object was supposed to open that other object or this code was meant for that lock. There were times when we would have to abandon those conceptions, which would eventually lead us to the actual solution. This is something that definitely relates to our everyday struggles with conflict and how the answers to our problems are not always apparent or expected.


We got decently close to figuring our way out by the time the clock ran out, but we unfortunately did not escape. In our defense, “Ex Machina” has a 12 percent success rate, and the record time is 50 minutes. If you are looking for something that will really challenge you, this is the best option. It challenged even our team members, who usually expect to at least escape the room if not set a record.


If you are seeking the pleasure of actually escaping, perhaps the other two rooms would be better. “The Study” can have up to six players. This is the story line:


“You and your team of secret agents have broken into the mansion of a reclusive billionaire, where many of your fellow agents have gone missing. You have 60 minutes to find out what secrets he is hiding, learn what happened to your fellow agents, and escape before he returns . . .”


The coordinator described this room as a classic favorite. It has a 21 percent success rate, and the record time is 34 minutes and 22 seconds.


If you’re looking for something in between the two extremes, The Gallery is the room for you. It can have up to 10 players and is a bit more difficult than “The Study,” but easier than “Ex Machina.” The basis of this one is described:


“A locally famous artist and critic has suddenly gone missing. You rush to her studio to investigate. Can you find clues to her disappearance and escape before the police arrive to take over the investigation?”


The success rate is 15 percent for this room, but the record time is 39 minutes and 10 seconds.


The Escape experience isn’t for everyone, of course. It is a test of your ingenuity, patience, collaborative capacity, and efficiency. It is, in some sense, a recipe for frustration if you enter with a narrow mentality. Be willing to confront challenges, think flexibly, and expect that success will not come immediately.


However, if this is appealing to you, I definitely recommend trying it at least once in your lifetime. It tests your boundaries in a more visceral way than online escape games can, and you definitely gain something from working with other people in this unconventional context. There was an interesting dynamic in my team, and I think both I and my boyfriend started off feeling intimidated by our “experienced” companions.


I realized that in this room, though, we were each vital to the ultimate goal of escaping despite our varying backgrounds. It is an incredibly validating feeling to struggle with a puzzle, solve it, and figure out how it fits into the big picture of what the whole group is working toward.


In the brief hour I spent locked in an unfamiliar room with other strangers, I think I built some character. Of course, this would also be really fun to do with a room full of your friends or family. Most of the time, we stay inside of our comfort zone, because it is the convenient thing to do. Spend one of your regular Thursday, Friday, or weekend nights at Escape RI, and you might see a different side of the people you know, or even a different side of yourself.


Sometimes, to think outside the box, you have to lock yourself in and find the key out.


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