Culture Shock Melting Pot

Escape Rooms on the Rise: Riddles Keep Customers Guessing for a Way Out | Jared Burgess

“Welcome to The Mall! You’ve reentered the building because one of you has lost their wallet, and their keys to their car,” game master Kylie began. All seven of us looked each other up and down, speculating which one of us could’ve made such a simple rookie mistake. “The worst part is that you guys have a dinner reservation in an hour!” Kylie pointed behind me at the flat-screen TV on the podium. The screen read 1:00:00. “Be sure to look high and low as you progress. Things may be hidden where you least expect them. Once you find the wallet and keys, you’ll have to find the code to the parking garage to make your escape!” Kylie started walking towards the entrance door. “I’ll always be watching, and if you want any hints, don’t be afraid to shout. I’ll be listening too.” 

Kylie, garbed in a green hoodie and baseball cap, offered final words of encouragement before walking through the door, out of sight. The lock clicked, and the weight of the moment hit everyone. We’re in an Escape Room called The Mall, run by Complexity Escape Rooms of Farmington, Connecticut, and for the next hour, our only goal is to work together to get out. 

Our ragtag self-named group “Escape Buddies,” included Nicole, Kyle, Francesca, Alexa, Isabella, Tyler, and Jared— the Blue Muse writer— were all about to discover firsthand why escape rooms are so popular.

Disclaimer: Spoilers for The Mall Escape Room.

Escape rooms grew from the seed of a simple video game concept out of Japan, then spread over to Europe, and then eventually blossomed in the United States. Today there’s thousands of rooms with a multitude of themes. In the rooms, participants interact with their environment to solve the conundrum, reach the next level, rinse, and repeat. What started out as this mind-stimulating activity sprung into a powerhouse of an enterprise. If you’re a buff for terror and suspense, “The Asylum” is a room where you’re a detective called to investigate the disappearance of paranormal investigators.

The rise in popularity spawned two movies centered around escape rooms, the first simply titled Escape Room, and the second, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions. The difference between those films and reality is that when the fictional protagonists can’t solve a riddle, they die. Luckily for us, the worst punishment for a real escape room is just the embarrassment of failing to escape.

As of 2017, there were nearly two thousand different rooms in the United States and the growth has been exponential in the last five years all around the world.

Right off the bat, Francesca pointed directly behind me at a silver tiny chest on the floor, right in front of the clock, slowly tick, ticking down. The red digits turn from 59:59, to 59:58 . . . tick tock. Everyone crowded around it trying to get a closer look. It had a number lock on it; a clear sign that there’s something to solve before we can progress. 

Bistro Setting in The Mall (Jared Burgess for Blue Muse Magazine)

The room we were in was shaped just like an upside down arrow. The arrowhead was where we entered. To the left of the arrow head, there’s a little bistro setting equipped with a little outside patio table and register. The register held another mini chest next to it, and the register itself had a padlock on it. Unopenable without a key. Across from there was the bookstore. Every book was carefully aligned, with some books having ominous numbers on their spines, and empty spaces indicating some books were missing from their places. Upon further inspection, we found a riddle implying that there will be books in every room we open, and we need to place them in the right spots on the bookshelves. Our group of seven fanned out to investigate anything that looked suspicious and then reconvene to share things we’ve found. Locks, doors, numbers, puzzles. 57:28

“Communication!” Game Master Emily Rieser hollers, “is a key to success.” After running through her second escape room, the experience compelled Rieser to apply for a job at Complexity in Farmington, Connecticut. We spoke over a Zoom call in April after my time in Complexity’s Mall.

Game Master Emily Rieser (Image courtesy of Emily Rieser)

“Touch everything with the appropriate amount of force, and tell people what you’ve found. I’ve watched so many people open something, look inside, and not tell people what they’ve found. It’s all about communication.” Rieser continues, “Pride is such a thing that crushes people in rooms as well. They don’t want to admit that they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t wanna ask for help. They won’t let anyone else look at their puzzle because they’re determined that they can solve it.”

Once The Escape Buddies figured out how to decode the numerical lock, it clicked open and we could get inside the hand-sized chest. A single key was waiting. Kyle grabbed it, went door to door trying the key in every doorknob in the hallway until it slid into the first door on the left. He thrust it open and we were met with a strangely decorated room. The walls were painted a mustard yellow with all types of orange decorations: an orange chandelier, pictures of oranges, huge orange puzzle pieces hanging here and there, along with orange plates. A wooden counter surface was attached to the wall; just about stomach height. Inside were three wooden figures with three different-shaped bases. One like a flower, one like a square, and one like a triangle. The idea of merging them together came up, but that didn’t work. Maybe there was something inside of the bases? Perhaps the figurines worked with the decorations in the room? Nothing. All of our leads and ideas went nowhere. 52:47

There’s no shame in feeling a little stumped. Game master Kylie is always watching and listening. Some like to refer to their GMs as “God,” “Chaperone,” or my favorite, “The Great One.” Their disembodied guiding voice might as well come with a powerful title. The game masters aren’t against you. They’d love nothing more for you to succeed so you can discover everything your room has to offer. It’s the exact opposite of Hunger Games. The forces above want you to succeed and work together instead of tearing each other to shreds. The former is also easier to clean and reset. 

“Pride is such a thing that crushes people in rooms.”

“Uhhh hey guys,” Kyle said, staring hard at the surface of the wall counter. “This counter has strange outlines on it that look like the bottom of the figurines.” Everyone else in the room crowded around the surface to witness incredibly faded, yet scarcely visible markings of three shapes. A triangle, a square, and a flower.

As Kyle placed the first figuring in its place, he said “Hey! I’m feeling some type of magnet pull this into place!” We were finally getting somewhere. The second slid into place, then with the third, a loud, dense thump forced everyone in the room to jump back. The under part of the counter opened up revealing the wallet! Relief washed over us; we were halfway there. Logically, the next thing would be to have a little look-see inside and our curiosity is rewarded. 43:14

Ever wonder why there aren’t many advertisements or commercials for escape rooms? Odd for something that’s grown so popular in the culture. The reason is obvious. Companies don’t want to show any parts of their rooms. Entering a room as blind as possible is the optimum way to experience all the mystery the room has to offer. If any part of the room is spoiled, it’s actually a huge turn off for amateur sleuths. The true fun comes from never knowing what’s next; immersion is the driving force of the entertainment.

“It’s one of those ‘trust me you need to do it yourself types of experiences.’”

Escape rooms advertise the old fashioned way: word-of-mouth. “The thing with escape rooms is you could make ads and commercials,” Rieser says, “but to do that, and not give away the experience is a little more difficult because I can show you pictures of Curse of the Golden Touch and you’re like, ‘Okay, it’s a castle,’ but if someone’s like, ‘No! It was cool! There was like this thing and this and this.’ You simply can’t explain the experience of playing one. It’s one of those ‘trust me you need to do it yourself types of experiences.’”

Kyle flipped open the wallet and stuck his hand inside the biggest pocket, pulling out another key. The number of key locks were dwindling down. Everyone looked over to the door that’s been shut all game. The gray door with the sign “Hey look at me!” The last door with a key lock. We rushed over, inserted the key, and pushed the door in! The room was smaller inside compared to the orange room across the hall, but the brightest room we’ve been in. Three mannequin heads, each with a different colored wig—red, black, and blue—sat on a counter to our left with a white light lamp shining right behind the middle head. Sitting on a ledge above them was another chest with yet another numerical lock. The number slots ran vertically, and the dials needed to be rotated horizontally.

On the opposing wall sat a poster with about sixty different-colored eyes. On the right was this diamond figure jutting out of the wall. And the weirdest thing was this giant camera was hanging from the ceiling. Bigger than the other ones that were hanging up throughout the rest of the mall. This one was wider, with a long barrel lens. What was bizarre was that it was hanging right next to another one of the regular cameras that’d been in the other sections of the escape room. What was the need for two cameras next to each other? 36:00

Kyle finds the secret room (Jared Burgess for Blue Muse Magazine)

“Guys, I think you’re gonna wanna see this,” Kyle yelled from the bookstore. Tyler and I came over, leaving the girls to continue scoping out the new room. “I found all the books the riddle told us to find and placed them in the right spots on the shelves. Then this happened.” Kyle pushed in a tiny section of the bookshelf and the wall opened. This entire time, there was a hidden, pitch black room emitting neon colors inside. I yelled out repeating Kyle’s call, “You all need to come see this!”

I heard the shuffling feet of Isabella, Nicole, Alexa, and Francesca. I gestured towards the bookshelf and Kyle pushed it in so the ladies could see for themselves. 

Tyler, Kyle, and I hunched over to cross the threshold into the black abyss. Neon numbers and symbols lined the walls, all spanning different sizes and sporting a variety of colors. A night black ceiling, wall, and floor combo made this space feel otherworldly. With the added luminescence of the neon numbers and symbols on the walls, the room felt much more spacious than it actually was. If I’d reach out into this vast darkness, my arm would go on forever. The real question though, what is a room like this doing in a mall? I couldn’t care less what the answer was, simply standing in this room and beholding what was inside was worth the price of admission. 31:21

Not only are people still going out to see new escape rooms in droves, the activity has become a lifestyle for some. After being exposed, I can see why. There are escape room fanatics who travel and finish escape rooms together all across the country. In ‌Central Connecticut alone, there are about fifty escape rooms to experience, so falling into a rabbit hole of consecutive rooms is easier than one may imagine. When asked if escape rooms were becoming a more prominent activity in our culture, Rieser responded, “Oh of course. Every other day people say, ‘this is my first one, this is my first one!’ I think it’s great because then people ask, ‘where have you played? What else have you played? Give me suggestions!’ And just like that, the word-of-mouth cycle repeats itself.”

After gawking and coming to a deservedly long standstill in the secret room, we returned to solving clues. I retreated out of the dark void to see numbers being displayed onto the wall directly across from the “Hey look at me!” room. Nicole and Alexa examined the numbers, speculating on what they meant. I peered inside only to find out that the giant wall camera wasn’t a wall camera at all. It was a mini projector! That made much more sense why two cameras were next to each other. Because they weren’t two cameras.

Isabella called from outside the room, “I found a button!” A circular, mustard yellow button that wasn’t connected to a wire. Kind of like one of those red Staples “That was easy” buttons. I could see that twinkle in her eye. She raised her hand as a dastardly smile spread across her face. She slammed her hand down! Nothing happened.

Everyone looked around the hallway and didn’t notice any changes. She pressed the button again, then again. Isabella said “Wait! Look at that window!” We looked to the window left of the salon room. The window that had been foggy before was now clear. We practically trampled over each other to peer inside. Symbols. Symbols on the wall behind that glass that looked like they corresponded to the ones in the secret room! 25:13

Francesca and Nicole were on the prowl, super determined to decipher this last code and get through the final lock on the exit door. They grabbed the nearby white board and marker, and got to work writing down each symbol to number correlation there could be. Each symbol from behind the glass looked like it equaled a number that was seen in the hidden room, but it looked like each symbol could’ve worked for at least two numbers. One based on its placement next to each symbol, but also based on a previous riddle. Long story short, this was ambiguous.

Nicole ran over to the huge black door in the back of the hallway and pressed in her first code on the keypad. The door responded with a disheartening “beep boop.” She input her second code. Same response, “beep boop.” Back to the drawing board.

She darted back over to the literal drawing board. Francesca was already writing down more code possibilities. Everyone yelled out their ideas. Alexa said, “Did you try putting the numbers in backwards?” I chimed, “No! The numbers might go greatest to least!” Our resident accountant and number expert Nicole shouted out, “Aha!” and rushed over to the door one more time. She input her final code! The wait is longer this time around. We stare at the keypad as its red light blinks in thought.


The light turned an inviting green and everyone’s eyes lit up! We rushed over to the door and Nicole threw it open! Standing right on the other side was The Great One, still rocking her baseball cap and hoodie combo with a wide smile on her face. Her voice, like sweet music to my ears. 

“You guys did SUCH a good job.”

Once finishing one room, the desire to go into another one is very much there. But you wouldn’t want to do the same one twice. The answers would already be known; which heightens the demand for more to be built. Hence the snowball effect and massive growth spurt of escape rooms all across the country.

The Escape Buddies finished the room with an extra twenty minutes to spare. An exceptional time, Kylie told us.

Rieser put it best. “From the playing side there’s that pressure of the time limit, the feeling of basically living a video game with the immersive nature of knowing we need to go save the world from this undefined illness, which is a very common theme,” she beamed. “And then you know, working together with your friends or family and making fun of each other for maybe not being the brightest.”

The brightest for sure we were not, but the Escape Buddies are raring to feel that high of escape room stimulation once again. I was feeling the sweetest rush of dopamine knowing we’d beaten The Great One. Time to spare 20:32

The Escape Buddies (Jared Burgess for Blue Muse Magazine)

Header Photo Credit: Jared Burgess for Blue Muse Magazine

Jared Burgess is a Staff Writer for Blue Muse Magazine

Blue Muse Magazine is a general interest literary magazine published by the students of the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We publish poetry, fiction, and a gamut of creative nonfiction on anything and everything the blue muse inspires us to write.

0 comments on “Escape Rooms on the Rise: Riddles Keep Customers Guessing for a Way Out | Jared Burgess

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: