Dec. 15 2014 04:44 PM

Trying to escape San Diego's Puzzalarium with my dignity intact


Listen folks, you don't get your own hubris-infusing column by being book-smart. In this biz, quick-wittedness, perseverance, the ability to create emotionally driven headlines and—to a much lesser extent—the ability to write well are the keys to becoming a successful writer. 

In fact, I wasn't aware of how little I used the left side of my brain until a couple weeks ago, when I watched the dystopian sci-fi flick Snowpiercer. In the movie, failed efforts to combat global warming have turned Earth into an uninhabitable, frozen wasteland, and the remaining survivors live on a super-train that circles the globe every year. 

Even with my dumb-dumb writer brain, I didn't buy that scenario. I Googled the circumference of the Earth, divided it by the number of days in a year, and learned that—if travelling along the equator—that train has to travel only about 3 mph to meet its goal. But this train is going, like, a gajillion mph, so even on the most divergent track, it seems implausible. 

Not gonna lie: Solving that problem felt good. Like, winning-a-YouTube-comment-board-argument-good. So, when I heard about the Puzzalarium, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to practice more smarty logic. 

The Puzzalarium (841 14th St., Downtown) is among a growing number of escape rooms popping up across the country. They're immersive games in which players are given a certain amount of time to solve a succession of puzzles, which ultimately reveals the key that will let them out. If any of y'all are gamers, think of it like the parts in Resident Evil that don't involve killing zombies. 

Stevenson Streeper, the Puzzalarium's creator, gave me all this information over the phone. As I mentally assembled my team, I asked him if he recommended couples doing it together. 

"Um. No," he said bluntly. 

Cut to: an imagined, future scenario with my wife and me in marriage counseling, unpacking all my inadequacies as a man, all of them stemming from my inability to get us out of the Puzzalarium. So, I asked Steve and Nate to be on my team.

Steve and Nate are two of my best friends, both of whom I met while I was in college. Even though they've become well-respected and successful high-school math teachers, the Spirit of Debaucherous Past always reemerges when we get together. 

And that's why we ended up drinking Jäger and playing Street Fighter 2 at Coin-Op a couple hours before our big test of intellect, which are generally two of the dumbest activities you can do.

"The plan is: one more round, then we go home, sleep off this booze, get some coffee and then beat the Puzzalarium." This was Steve's plan, and in my state, it made the mostest sense. However, none of us actually napped because of a semi-conscious fear that we were already living through the Puzzalarium, à la Michael Douglas in The Game.

We arrived, caffeinated and jittery. Right away, I spotted Streeper by his magician's top hat and sword—classic puzzle-master attire. His receptionist, whom he introduced as "Jackie," wore a sheer-black boar's mask. It was totally not weird or unsettling at all.

Streeper took us into a stark office, stood in front of the entrance to the escape room—an eerie, antiquated portal that jutted out of the office wall—and laid out the ground-rules: We'd have one hour to find the key. Once we were in, there were no bathroom breaks. Cellphones turned off (even though I secretly recorded the audio of our experience. Sorry, Stevenson). He spoke in a practiced, theatrical voice that was both exhilarating and intimidating. And when he left momentarily to remedy an oversight, Nate thought it was a test and tried to break into the escape room, unassisted. 

Now, two things I learned that night: 

1. The Puzzalarium is (sung in high voice) ahhhmazing. It's difficult to talk about the experience without spoiling it for the uninitiated, because, sadly, the only real drawback is the lack of replayabilty. But the room itself is smallish, painted red and full of antiques—a cross between the game Clue and Agent Cooper's nightmares. The work, care and ingenuity Streeper has put into it is astounding, to say the least. 

2. I should stick to writing. As the audio recording reveals, we spent the majority of the time in tension-filled silence, inadvertently competing against each other to find clues first or outright branching off. Most of our sentences began with "Maybe this—" and ended with "Nope." Streeper, who stood in the corner to watch our progress, would offer cryptic hints if we were stuck—stuff like, "Hint: Something's amiss with the wrong-way desk." Then, when we failed, he'd break character and say, "Hint: That's not a desk." 

Yes, there was one point where we confused a dresser with a desk. 

In the end, we failed. In his debrief, Streeper informed us that we were on the last clue when the time ran out and that we did better than we thought we did. Given our jitters at the beginning, that was reassuring to hear. He also said that it's rare that a group of males took as many hints as we did. Males not getting hints—am I right, ladies?

"The best games don't have 'easy' or 'hard' modes," he said, explaining our results. "Instead, they will make subtle adjustments as the player moves along."

Perhaps it was Streeper's dramatics, but I took the statement as more profound than he intended. But, hey, if the world keeps letting me think I'm smarter than I am, I'll take it. 

Ryan is the author of Horror Business. Write to or follow him on Twitter at @theryanbradford


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