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Escape-Room Escapades

Parents Prove Useless in Puzzling Through Adventure Game

Starshine and family, saving the world one Dark Wizard at a time.

We’re almost out of time — but I think we’re gonna make it. We’ve got five minutes left to unlock the chest that holds the ingredients to the potion that will defeat the Dark Wizard.

And then maybe grab some Yogurtland on the way home.

My husband, our sons, and I are in an escape room, and the clock is ticking. There are thousands of these adventure games all over the world now: a room or series of rooms intricately appointed with inconspicuous clues and puzzles, each one leading to another. You must solve them all within one hour to accomplish the goal: “Lift the curse!” “Steal the jewels!” “Defuse the bomb!” Each room has a unique story and aesthetic, from pirate’s treasure to haunted house.

My family loves the things; we’ve done a dozen between us. The riddles are challenging, the time element exhilarating. And when our clear-headed, collaborative solutions cause a black light to click on, a hatch to spring open, or a secret code to be revealed, it’s immensely satisfying. In a world of fragmented attention, how could you not love immersive entertainment that demands your full focus and your best self? “It’s like virtual reality,” says my 13-year-old without irony, “but without the virtual.”

This time, it’s especially enthralling because our boys are both graduating this month: one from junior high, one from college. The moment feels charged with new beginnings. With sentimental endings. And with the certainty that from here out, together-time will be as elusive as … well, as the answer to a riddle when the clock is ticking, humanity is counting on you, and hot-fudged froyo is waiting.

So we escape to an escape room, and, as usual, we start by bickering: “Really? Does that seem like a place where you’d hide a dragon tooth?!” (Okay, that was me). Eventually someone snaps, “All right, everybody SHUT UP!” (… also me). Then my husband and I begin imparting our considerable life experience toward the cause, explaining how a bellows is used (“Ah, youth!”) and identifying five unique scents that must be arranged in a particular order — skills which cannot be learned by playing Nintendo Rocket League.

At times, though, Dad and I are more liabilities than assets in this contest. When we discover a set of symbols that must be described aloud so someone can extinguish corresponding candles across the room, I shriek, “Ooh! It’s like the cover of Led Zeppelin IV!” and my husband begins shouting, “Okay, first John Bonham! … Then John Paul Jones! …” before our children wail, “What are you saying?! Stop! THAT’S NOT HELPFUL!”

I traipse around uselessly, discovering zero clues until I expose a spooky blue light I’m certain will reveal invisible ink on parchment; it turns out only to be a decorative stereo speaker. I come upon a secret door and fling it open with dramatic flourish … only to find it’s the door we entered through. An employee and customers walking by outside laugh and ask me if we’re doing okay in there.

But my kids? My kids are now killing it. The numbers whiz who can memorize patterns of any length is coolly solving a confounding 3D maze that requires a patience I long ago relinquished. The other, an observant common-sense master, keeps using the word “clearly.” “This is clearly a map of the desk” and “Clearly, we’re supposed to tap three times” … neither of which are clear to me. At all.

I begin handing the trickier tasks over to them, just as I do increasingly in real life: Please configure these five remotes so I can watch my show. Please calculate the tip on this $58.75 bill. Please remind me of the difference between a solar and a lunar eclipse using this salt shaker, dinner plate and napkin.

You can all thank my surprisingly wise and calm-under-pressure progeny for saving the world that night. The Dark Wizard went down easy enough, and so did that frozen yogurt. More importantly, I got to marvel at the competent, creative, confident problem-solvers my grads have become.

It won’t be much longer before they make their escape. We’re almost out of time. But I think they’re gonna make it.

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Published inColumnsParenting
My columns are collected in three lovely books, which make a SPLENDID gift for wives, friends, book clubs, hostesses, and anyone who likes to laugh!
Keep Your Skirt On
Wife on the Edge
Broad Assumptions
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