I had my first Escape Room experience last weekend. You may recall my post about History Mystery a while back. Well, the stars aligned in a way that saw me taking my son, a friend’s boy and an old schoolmate of mine to Norwich for the last day of the Norwich Game Festival, and a visit to the Guildhall for an hour trapped in an an Escape Room.

Though, it wasn’t us that was trapped, it was city’s absent-minded historian who had managed to get himself locked in his own Archive. The override code would only work for one hour every day, and luckily for him, we had arrived in his office just moments before that hour started. But he could not remember what the code should be, he had made all sorts of cryptic notes to himself all over his office to help him remember, and it was our job to decrypt them find the override key-pad and enter the code. If we didn’t get him out this time, after three days trapped in the archive, there was every chance he wouldn’t survive until tomorrow!

This premise slightly jarred with us having only just met the same Historian, otherwise known as Richard Crowest of Corvidae, out in the Norwich Games Festival marquee, promoting History Mystery. But never mind, we were all willing to suspend disbelief. And in fact the sense of urgency was reinforced, not by Richard’s imagined peril, but by the understanding that we were competing against everyone who had already played the game or would in future. Our time would be recorded and compared with previous players. One team had managed the complete all the puzzles and free the historian with sixteen minutes still on the clock. Could we do better?

Obviously, I can’t reveal the secrets that we found inside the room. That would give teams following us an unfair advantage, but what impressed me was the wide variety of puzzles which meant that everyone from my 11 year old son to my 90, sorry 49 (almost 50) year old school-mate contributed usefully to the problem solving, without anyone feeling patronised by a “children’s” clue or anything like that. We worked together yet separately,  shouting codes and discoveries across the room and trying combinations in every one of numerous padlocks (the historian was a very data-security conscious fellow). One clue especially required two of  us to work together at different ends of a piece of complex plumbing.

There was one moment which both delighted and dismayed me. I can’t of course tell you want it was, but I think I can get away with saying that it involved a clue in the C.S. Lewis book, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. We had great fun and the hour passed incredibly quickly. Almost too quickly…

But only almost. We released the historian with over five minutes to spare. Not a record breaking time, but given that many parties don’t quite manage to complete the puzzles at all, we didn’t do too badly. It helps that the organisers keep an eye on progress and speak to you on a walki-talky, if you don’t tug hard enough at a padlock for which you’ve actually got the right combination.

We were rewarded with History Mystery badges (most escape rooms don’t give prizes, so this was a pleasant surprise) and a personal, live thank you from the Historian himself, who had come up from the Game Festival marquee the archive. This live appearance was an honour we shared only with the very first party to try the experience. In fact we did better than them because he took us to a pub and got the first round in!

When we’d first entered, I was disappointed by the tidiness of the office. I’d imagined a cluttered and object rich environment full of antique furniture when I booked the session, and was surprised to find that our historian had a desk not unlike that of a local council official. (Which of course he was.) I should have been thankful for the tidy desk though, because my the time we’d finished turning things over, pulling stuff off shelves and emptying lock-boxes, we’d made an almighty mess. We left all that behind us when we went to pub, and the History Mystery crew had the unenviable task of putting it all back together for the next session. Given that we’d scattered padlocks willy-nilly about the room, moved items, stacked boxes (or left them scattered over the floor) I wonder how long it takes to reset the puzzle.

I’m sure the crew are well practiced, but I’m intrigued about the operation. It costs each player something over £15 pounds to join in (its more as the group gets smaller), and I am curious about break-even and profit – how quickly can the room be reset, how many sessions can be booked in a day, and how many of those sessions need to be booked for the hardworking crew to get paid and the company to be sustainable?

Still, as I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, the Escape Room phenomenon seems to be every growing right now. There’s already a second company operating in Norwich, my boy pointed out that last year’s Van Dyke Vanishments was a sort of escape room, and in way, so was Against Captain’s Orders, the recent Punch Drunk production at the National Maritime Museum. I’ve heard that despite Arts Council funding and a reasonably high ticket price, that venture lost money, but I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of escape rooms in museums and heritage sites.

Whether its a way of learning about the past, I’m less certain. History Mystery’s USP is that all the puzzles are based on real historical facts. But given the constraints on time, the players skim over the facts looking for clues. And so all I can confidently recall is that once in the middle ages, the whole city of Norwich was ex-communicated by the Pope. I think it was something to do with Monks getting into fights with townsfolk, but honestly I can’t recall the context, though of course I’m now inspired to look it up.

Outside the Guildhall we had a look around the rest of the games festival. Meeting among the crowds, the developers of the current iOS timewaster of choice Super Arc Light which was fun but has nothing to do with cultural heritage. (Though, touching upon the yesterday’s post, this has a game with the simplest of interfaces  – “touch the screen, anywhere” and yet is fiendishly difficult.) Slightly more historical (but only slightly) was Ironheads. We managed to grab the last two fights of the day, one for the boys, and one for me and my old school-friend. It’s good to know I still have it where it counts (he said smugly).

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