The 916: Puzzling Situation


When my friend floated the idea of going to a puzzle room for her birthday, I hesitated. I’d heard of puzzle rooms—also called escape rooms—but the concept seemed slightly claustrophobic to me. You’re locked in a room and cannot get out unless you and your teammates solve a series of puzzles based on themed clues—within a time limit. “This sounds a lot like ‘Saw,’” I said, thinking of the horror-film series featuring deadly traps and puzzles. I hadn’t actually seen any of those movies, because The New York Times crossword is torturous enough, but I knew enough to worry.

“It’s not like that,” she assured me and a group of our mutual friends, but I remained skeptical. It’s rare that I play well with others. I tend to retreat when pushed to perform. I couldn’t see a puzzle room activity with friends ending well, especially if she was wrong and this was like “Saw” and someone staggered out missing a foot. 

I did my research. Golden Puzzle Rooms in Sacramento offered only one puzzle at that point, with the theme of “Vampire’s Study.” OK, I like vampires. If it were zombies, I would say forget it. Zombie stories never end well and vampires are always much better looking.

We’d have one hour to solve the puzzle. We didn’t need to be walking Wikipedias of esoteric wisdom, according to Golden Puzzle Rooms’ website: “All of our puzzles can be solved with basic logic and teamwork using clues within the room. . . . We designed the game to be a test of fluid intelligence and teamwork rather than creating puzzles with answers that are obscure.” Once again, my vast knowledge of ’80s pop culture would not be needed.

Six of us bought tickets ($30 apiece, base price, for an hour). When the night for puzzling arrived, we gathered in the alley by a gold-painted door. Once upstairs, we met our host, Carter, a lanky young man with infinite patience, and he explained the rules: no cell phones, no moving furniture, what would happen in an emergency. We could ask him up to three questions if we needed help. No mention of “Saw.” This was a good sign.

The room itself was sparsely decorated; every item of furniture, every wall hanging had a purpose. Carter turned over an hourglass on the bar: The countdown was on. My friend sprang to one of the puzzles, and the others trailed behind her. I hung back a little and quietly studied the puzzles closest to me, telling myself not to make anything too hard and occasionally reminding my friends not to overthink anything.

I was proud of myself when I solved a clue on my own: I nested three glasses painted with patterns and—voila!—a number appeared. Another puzzle I attempted was much harder: fitting tiles together in a small box to display a riddle written on the pieces. Many puzzles were reminiscent of games from my youth: finding patterns in a series of images, alphanumeric cyphers, cryptic riddles and so forth. 

My friends either grouped up to solve the puzzles scattered throughout the room or went it alone for a bit. When people are frantic, I often rebel by slowing way down, and my near-indolence actually helped resolve a couple of puzzles that had been hurriedly solved and therefore didn’t work to open the alphanumeric combination locks in the room. I was fascinated by how many times my friends second-guessed themselves or didn’t speak up with their ideas on how to solve a puzzle, especially when paired up with others. We ultimately didn’t escape the Vampire’s Study within an hour, but Carter was kind enough to let us out, even showing us solutions to puzzles we had nearly solved.

Would I do it again? I doubt it. While I enjoy many puzzles, the time pressure takes away from the fun of the process for me. And I’m still not completely convinced it’s not like “Saw.”


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