Despite the available evidence, I continue to have confidence in my own intellectual powers. So I was excited to try out an increasingly popular activity marketed specifically to smart people: the escape room.
Escape rooms are immersive puzzles that you and a few friends work to solve together. There are more than a dozen escape room companies in the D.C. area, and each offers a variety of themed rooms, such as “Runaway Subway” or “Back to the ’80s!” I chose the “Ghostbusters”-themed room at Escape Room Live in Georgetown more or less at random, and recruited five of my smartest friends to come along (at a cost of $28 per person).
When we arrived, a woman welcomed us and had us sign electronic liability waivers. I should have known we were in trouble when one of my recruits was immediately stumped.
“Where am I supposed to sign?” asked Dave, who, by the way, has a Ph.D. in economics. “Am I doing this right?”
Luckily, we had plenty of time to figure it out. I had badgered my friends into arriving a half-hour early because the Escape Room Live website warns of dire consequences should you show up even a minute late — “THE DOOR TO THE ROOM LOCKS EXACTLY AT THE TIME YOU SIGNED UP FOR,” it shouts.
We loitered at the Escape Room Live bar as our assigned time came and went.
“Are we supposed to go somewhere?” I anxiously asked the front desk lady.
“No, your host will come and get you,” she replied. “He must be running late.”
When our host — let’s call him Chris — finally did arrive, he hustled us into our room and rushed through our instructions. All I was able to glean was that we had 45 minutes to solve the room, and that entailed capturing three ghosts and putting them in boxes of some kind. It seemed there was no “escape” element to our room’s plot. In fact, we could walk out anytime, Chris said, but that would end the game.
“What do we win if we succeed?” I asked.
“Bragging rights,” Chris said. He handed me a walkie-talkie, told us to call him if we needed a clue and left.
Our room was set up to look like the library from the original “Ghostbusters” movie and it was pretty impressive, with real bookshelves flanking a big screen that showed ghosts floating between the stacks. We riffled through desk drawers, moved books and read cryptic, handwritten notes that were scattered about, but we were unable to find any puzzles, much less solve them.
After about 20 minutes, we decided to ask Chris for help.
“Hello?” I said into the walkie-talkie. There was no response. I tried again,
“Hello? Anyone there? We want a clue,” I said while mashing buttons and twiddling the knobs of the walkie-talkie. Still no answer. Was this one of the puzzles?
Meanwhile, two of my friends — a nuclear engineer and a Navy pilot — had figured something out. They rearranged a tray of objects, which caused a hidden door to swing open, revealing another room.
Escape room puzzles, it turns out, involve making arbitrary connections. For example, there might be three green candles on one side of the room, and somehow you are supposed to intuit that they are telling you to pick up the green phone on the other side of the room and dial the number 3.
My team flailed around for a little while longer, and I again tried to reach Chris. Finally, at around the 30-minute mark, he reappeared.
“We asked for help but you never came,” I whined.
“You changed the channel on the walkie-talkie so I couldn’t hear you,” he said, clearly impressed at my ability to create new challenges for my team.
Around this time, some of my friends began excitedly shouting numbers across the room to one another. Then they clicked a combination lock into place, thus solving another puzzle with no help from me.
At 45 minutes, Chris came back in and told us that our time was up. My competent teammates were close to solving the third and final puzzle, and Chris showed them how to do it before escorting us back upstairs.
“Oh, man, we were almost there,” my friend Tori said. “I wish we had just a few more minutes.”
I, on the other hand, was glad to get out of there and move on to more important puzzles, such as finding a restaurant in Georgetown that could seat a party of six on a Friday night. (The answer: Farmers Fishers Bakers.)
My friends want to try another escape room, but I’m hesitant. I mean, why pay $28 to complete meaningless tasks with unclear directions when you can go to the D.C. DMV for free? But perhaps this is just sour grapes from someone who, apparently, doesn’t excel at pattern recognition. So if you think you’re clever like my friends, by all means, check out an escape room. And if you’re hungry afterward, well, at least I can help you with that.