Tanya Ward Goodman
THE WASHINGTON POST – “What do we know?” It’s a question I ask my family almost daily, and the answers, no matter how trivial or small, provide a steadying toehold in a trembling world. It’s also the first question you ask when you enter an escape room.
Combining the immersive thrill of first-person video games with a richly detailed physical environment, escape rooms are built around a theme. Players begin in a locked room (or series of rooms) and achieve their freedom by working together to solve puzzles and challenges.
Before fear of COVID-19 kept me at home, I’d participated in numerous escape rooms with my teenage kids and my husband. My son is an avid gamer, and this was a way for us to share an activity outside the house. It’s an exercise, designed to highlight the specific skills of each participant. My son, for instance, can recognise and decode even the most complicated of patterns, while I excel at physical clues that require touching and smelling. Escaping in 60 minutes or less, we’ve (among other things) defused a bomb, stopped a runaway train and thwarted the plans of a Russian spy.
As of this writing, my family has been at home for 134 days. We’ve eaten at least 115 dinners together and watched exactly 46 movies. Since March, all escape rooms in my home city of Los Angeles have been closed by order of the state.
“Thankfully,” Bob Glouberman said, despite his personal investment in the field of interactive entertainment, “because our numbers are going up”. Bob is the creator of The Virus and The Experiment. Installed in a defunct factory building in downtown LA, the complex and practical environments were created in partnership with a television set builder, an award-winning music producer and an amusement park FX designer. Pre-pandemic, participants in The Virus worked in a realistic military laboratory, complete with racks of test tubes, glowing wall charts and decontamination chambers. The Experiment uses what have become cliche escape room elements such as a sand-covered floor and a pirate chest to draw attention to the false reality of the game.
An actor and self-described “puzzle maker”, Bob may also have the ability to see the future.
“I predicted this,” he said of our current pandemic. “Some 890,000 people died in my version of the virus.”
Sensory clues, the presence of a live actor and, perhaps, a sense of decorum have combined to close The Virus, indefinitely. After the March 20 shutdown, Bob adapted The Experiment for virtual play by editing out half of the challenges and creating a script for a live guide. Unlike life (or quarantine), where multiple problems must be dealt with simultaneously, a virtual escape room is linear because the guide in the room (and therefore all participants on Zoom) can focus on only one thing at a time.
The Experiment was originally envisioned as a “meta room”, meant to examine our urge to let a contrived experience substitute for real life.
“There’s a privilege to escape,” Bob said. “For some people, part of an escape room is the idea that you’re not safe. You’re paying money to put yourself in danger.” Every escape room has a backstory, and, before opening in 2018, Bob took pains to make the one for The Experiment the saddest he could imagine.
The narrative began for us when we received a welcome email from someone named Dr Jay Elias explaining the logistics of the online adventure.
Attached to the email was an old newspaper article about a child named Jay Elias who had been found alone in a boat after the drowning death of his mother.
The character of Elias, Bob explains, is critical to the central question of The Experiment. Elias has experienced real danger. He knows what’s at stake and understands the imperative of making every day count. To synthesise this, Bob refers to the question posed by poet Mary Oliver, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
On our game day, actress Naya Rivera was presumed dead after her son was found alone in a boat at California’s Lake Piru. We’d invited our friends Courtney and Bill to join us in the escape room, and, as parents of a five-year old, they could not speak of the incident without tears, but I bring it up with Bob.
“The first thing I thought,” he said, using an expletive to express stricken surprise, “was that I’d predicted the future again”.
To play together, it was necessary to log separately into Zoom. From my desk in the kitchen, I could hear the muffled voice of my husband, who’d taken his laptop into the guest room.
Our friends joined from their apartment a few miles away. The only one of us physically inside the escape room was our guide, Josh. He explained that he’d be using the camera on his phone to show us the room. As our ‘avatar’, he’d function as our eyes, ears and hands just as if we were controlling a video game character. We would need to tell him exactly what to do. “I will be doing my very best to be a complete idiot,” he said “I know nothing about anything”.
It was a lie. As the manager of the room, Josh knew everything. I found this comforting, but my son was irritated by it. He didn’t need another grown-up standing in the way of his independence.
Sitting at my desk, staring at the faces of my family and friends as we played The Experiment, on the computer, I had not felt too worried about escaping our situation. We would decode the lock combinations and stop the ticking clock. Or we wouldn’t. Instead, I’d wondered when I might see Courtney and Bill in person, when I might again make lemonade or draw pictures with their young son. I’d known Bill for nearly a quarter of a century, but I could see no future when I would be able to give him a hug.
Zoom emphasised the distance between myself and my friends, but, in some way, it brought my son closer. I’m used to seeing him at his desk, caught up in a game, but here, I was the game and he was looking straight at me. He’d cast a blue light on the wall of his room and set another to illuminate his face. He’s grown several inches during our time in lockdown, and I savoured the ability to take stock of the change, gazing at him for as long as I wanted without the customary grumbled response.
I don’t want to reveal the answers to the puzzles, but I can say that the rhythm of working together online took a few minutes to establish. Much like the school meetings I’ve attended on Zoom, it is easy for one individual to become the voice of the group. In person, we would have had the autonomy to work on different puzzles at the same time, but online, we were forced to move as a single entity. The direction of our movement was guided by the loudest voice.
When I went back to listen to the recording of our session, I found that approximately nine minutes elapsed between the first time I mentioned a solution and our group’s collective move toward the solution. My voice was surprisingly soft as I offered the answer again and again.
“Women are often the least heard voice in the room,” Bob said. “They often have the correct answer to the puzzle and the men ignore them.”
Back in March, with four people at home full time, what I knew was that the sink filled with dishes and the refrigerator emptied. I knew the pattern of shoes and socks on the floor.
Tuned to the maintenance of order and cleanliness in a way my husband and children are not, I’d fallen easily into the role of housekeeper. I did not want to be reduced to a single skill.
Despite this, it took some time before I felt comfortable asking for help, and it was not until I insisted that we established a schedule of chores. My kids now wash the dishes and clean the bathrooms. My husband mops and takes a turn cooking dinner. We all do our own laundry. To make this happen, I’d had to raise my voice.
In the days ahead, I suspect, there will be plenty more puzzles to solve. For all of us.
“Live your life. Make it magical,” Bob said, reminding me that while we may have escaped The Experiment, our own clocks are still ticking. Understanding that it may be some time before he reopens The Virus, he is staying at home, wiping down his groceries and sometimes fielding phone calls from those who mistake his entertainment business for a public health service.
“I explain that they’ve got a wrong number, tell them to wear a mask and remind them to wash their hands.”