Escape from L.A.
Since first popping up in San Francisco in 2013 – though they originated in Japan back in the 1990s – more than 100 escape rooms have opened up across the country.
Think of them as an adventure video game brought to life. With hidden clues, mind-bending puzzles and secret codes all hidden in plain sight, participants typically have 40 minutes to an hour to solve the mysteries and unlock the door before time runs out. And with a success rate as low as 9 percent on some of LA’s more popular rooms, the struggle is real.
We caught up with adventure race and scavenger hunt expert John Hennessy of Race LA—who’s responsible for four of LA’s escape rooms—to get the lowdown.
Where it came from
“The video game Crimson Room gets a lot of credit for their popularity and rightly so, but it, and games like it, actually came after a real escape room in Japan. Think of it like playing six versions of Cluedo at one time with a bunch of people and you can’t get out until all the puzzles have been solved.”
Creating the obstacles
“For me, creating the puzzles starts with a story: Where are we? Why are we here? What do we have to do? And why do we have a set amount of time to do it? Those questions are the basis of designing every room. I used to love playing 1940s style detective games so thought that’d be a cool theme to work with. So the process started with asking myself what one would find in a 1940s detective office. Then I try to create puzzles—math problems, brain games, visual and tactile puzzles or clues—from those things.”
Thinking up themes
“With our newest room the theme is earth, wind, fire and water—it’s the laboratory of a medieval alchemist who has captured the four elements and has an evil plan to take over world. And you need to figure out how to release those elements and join them together before the alchemist comes back. The imagination’s the only limit. I work with a theatrical set designer to make everything as real and effective as possible.”
Level of difficulty
“Difficulty is hard to gauge or control. I just go with ideas for puzzles that I think will fit into that environment and theme. With the alchemist example from earlier, I knew I had to have a series of puzzles that related to all four natural elements. It’s hard to explain but a lot of thought and consideration goes into every puzzle to not just be difficult but to fit into the theme. Our current success rate is between nine and 20 percent.”
“They key to succeeding is communicating, talking with each other, sharing information and being well organized. We’ve had groups where someone will find a key and not do anything about it. That’s an obvious clue and it’s important to let everybody else know. You don’t need any special knowledge to do any of these games. Some basic math and basic word skills are helpful but even if you don’t have those skills, someone in your group will. And the successful groups tend to be people with different skillsets. Some are good at math, others at visual or tactile things.”
“I think people love the opportunity to talk with each other and work together – it’s a very old school experience by today’s standards. You’re not staring at your phones. In fact, phones aren’t permitted and they’d be useless anyway in games like this. You have to work together with your friends, colleagues, partners or family. And what’s great is that everyone has to talk to one another, think together and work things out together. It’s a social activity that I think people have been desperate to have. And whether you win or escape or whatever, it’s a very rewarding experience.”