What Running An Escape Room Taught Me About People

Escape rooms are all the rage these days. They are live-action games in which you're locked in a room and have to find your way out by either solving a series of elaborate puzzles or getting into shouting matches with your friends until you run out of time, depending on how good you all are at cooperating. It's like living out a Saw movie, only you don't have to mutilate yourself (probably).

We talked to Nate Martin, the co-founder of Puzzle Break, and Cody Civiero, Operations Manager for SmartyPantz, to learn about what it's like to trap people for fun.

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4
You Have To Design Clever Puzzles (Which Frustrated Customers Will Smash To Pieces)

Puzzle Break

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Escape room puzzles tend to employ the same logic as old video games -- that is, you need to have the exact same mental illness as the developer to fully understand their reasoning. "In Morning Never Comes," Cody said, "the players are trying to solve the mystery of Vivian Blackwood, a librarian rumored to have been murdered by her husband."

SmartyPantz
Possibly due to her horrible taste in interior design.

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"Players have to pay special attention to the books, newspaper articles, photos, and paintings in the room. Maybe one article clipping will point them to a particular book on the shelf, or maybe the first letters of the titles on one shelf will spell out the location of the next clue. Perhaps the person in the painting over the mantle is holding something you've seen in the room? You never know. Eventually, the players will find a decorative box with some ashes, a dog's collar, and another key. What do they do with those? You have to come visit us to find out!"

The puzzles are about as straightforward as a wad of knotted Christmas lights, and while some people find it fun and rewarding to untangle the reasoning, other people get frustrated. And when humans get frustrated, they revert to a much simpler, Hulkier approach to problem solving.

SmartyPantz
Mark Ruffalo is preemptively banned, to be safe.

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"Doors that are obviously locked are assaulted with all their might," Nate said. "Fragile pieces are regularly dropped, crushed, or worse. Electronic components are ripped from their housings. One player spent the entire hour trying to surreptitiously disassemble and demolish all the furniture in the room in hopes of finding clues. A huge part of the job is quickly and efficiently replacing lost/damaged items between games."

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Cody saw the same phenomenon. "One time, a petite, 90-pound girl was somehow able to physically rip apart a locked briefcase. We attempted to replicate this so we could prevent it from happening again, but big burly guys were unable to do so. We still have no idea how she did it."

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It's rarely malicious -- people simply get too caught up in trying to find the next clue. But as with any industry, you also attract a minority of gaping assholes.

Puzzle Break
"Okay, I've assigned 'smash quadrants' so we can demolish the room with maximum efficiency."

"[We] once had a testosterone-fueled group of frat boys try to use force to break open an obviously locked door instead of solving the room correctly or even asking for a hint," Cody said. "We also had one puzzle involving a remote control car in a maze with Plexiglas over it. Some drunks just straight-up smashed the Plexiglas to circumvent having to run the car through the maze."

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Why don't escape rooms construct everything out of tougher material, you ask? Because people would still try to smash things apart, and hurt themselves in the process. And on that note ...

3
Customers Need To Be Protected From Themselves

SmartyPantz

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Both Nate and Cody emphasized that their tenures have been injury-free and that their rooms are safe, but both also admitted that this is sometimes only thanks to the fact they treat their guests like suicidal toddlers. "One of our rooms is set in a serial killer's basement," Cody said, "and there are jars with severed feet in rusty water that look like formaldehyde. Even though we tell people that anything glued or screwed down doesn't need to be moved, one group pulled all the jars off the shelf (which they were glued to), pulled off the lids (which were glued shut), reached into the gross water, took the feet out, and spread them in a row on the ground."

SmartyPantz
On the upside, the local foot fetish Craigslist group has some amazing team skills now.

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The group was huddled together so closely that the monitoring staff couldn't see that they were throwing a necrophilia-themed pedicure party. "The host finally overheard one of the customers say, 'Maybe we're supposed to drink the water' in a completely serious tone." And suddenly, the behavior of every horror movie victim makes sense.

SmartyPantz
Thankfully, there weren't any straws in the room, or they may have taken it as a sign.

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That wasn't the only time staff had to burst into the room and talk sense into everyone. "A group of friends goaded their buddy into crawling into the serial killer's incinerator after they turned it off, then they managed to lock him in with the electromagnetic lock. It doesn't actually generate heat, but he was trapped in a confined space, and our staff needed to intervene and let him out." Yeah, it turns out that escape rooms are a test of intelligence in more ways than one, which is why constantly monitoring guests is crucial. And also because ...

2
People Will Have Sex In The Rooms

SmartyPantz

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Escape rooms are essentially intelligence tests crossbred with haunted houses, and intelligence and fear are two of the top three aphrodisiacs known to man (the third is porn). And that's why, according to Cody, "One gentleman once showed up at the site, asked to take a look at the rooms, and then inquired if he was allowed to rent them by the hour to have sex in them."

SmartyPantz
Hey, who knows what position the owner of that spooky hand is in?

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"Another gentleman has come in repeatedly on dates. He always plays the same room and brings a different woman with him, and likes to make himself look smart by pretending he hasn't attempted the room before. My colleagues in Vancouver let me know that there had been two men and one women who pulled the same trick multiple times on their dates."

We'll never know if those dates were sufficiently impressed by the mock shows of intelligence, but other guests don't have the patience to get through an entire hour of puzzle solving and the time it takes to go all the way back to their homes, a hotel room, or even, like, a broom closet.

SmartyPantz
Maybe the character names aren't helping. Just sayin'.

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"One time, a pair of guests had gone out of camera range, and our host figured they were in the one place that had puzzle material and wasn't covered by the cameras. They failed the room, and the host went to conclude it after they ran out of time. He found them against each other in a blind spot, and they frantically adjusted their clothing after having had a quickie. We made sure to clean that room extra thoroughly that night."

And so, if escape room porn doesn't already exist, it's no doubt being made right now.

1
There's A Bitter, Destructive Rivalry Between Escape Room Companies

SmartyPantz

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When SmartyPantz was first starting out, the company had a visit from a supposed "celebrity blogger." Cody recalls the encounter: "The guy pried a machete off the wall (it was purely a visual prop) and basically went to town using it to hack and pry whatever he could in the room. He damaged light sockets and pried switches from their foundation so they couldn't be screwed back in properly. He also pried open a stereo we had in the room as a prop, and attempted to pry open our big incinerator puzzle (a particularly expensive and complex piece of equipment)."

SmartyPantz
"Why hang a big knife on the wall if I'm not supposed to hack apart everything in sight? That's misleading."

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He continued his low-budget rock star impression despite being told to stop numerous times. There wasn't much Cody and his co-workers could do -- they were still new to the industry, and didn't know how to handle the situation. Canadians are generally bad at handling jerks outside of hockey fights, and, most importantly, they were afraid of bad press. So you can imagine Cody's surprise when that's exactly what they got.

"Literally minutes after he left, the guy blanketed pretty much every major crowdsourced review site with one-star reviews where he trashed us."

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A little Googling made it clear what had happened. The guy wasn't a blogger, celebrity or otherwise. He had created a fake site and given himself fake followers, but he was really a saboteur working for a rival escape room company.

Yelp
"Cons: Shoddy props appear to have been hacked at with a machete. Pros: Free machete provided."

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"He had posted similar one-star reviews for several escape rooms in the area, while heaping overwhelming praise on one specific escape room business. Further investigation revealed that other group members who attended with him were listed as employees on their LinkedIn profiles and the corporate website of the one escape room he praised."

SmartyPantz eventually managed to get all of the guy's phony reviews taken down, but the story is a testament to how cutthroat a trendy industry that pops up overnight can be. We don't know what happened to the saboteur, but not long after his visit, Cody's company did add a realistic human skull to one of their puzzle rooms. That's probably just a coincidence, though.

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Nate Martin is co-founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first contemporary U.S.-based escape room company. For additional reading on escape room madness, check out the Puzzle Break Blog or follow him on Twitter. Cody Civiero helped launch SmartyPantz, and will be overseeing the opening of their new Calgary location in the near future. He can be reached at cody@smartypantz.ca. Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at c.j.strusiewicz@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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