Becoming Sherlock Holmes: Our First Escape Room Experience

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london map
Checking the coordinates of a location on a map of London at Operation Outbreak: El Paso’s Escape Room. Image: Lisa Tate

My teen daughter and I got to play detective this week with our first Escape Room experience.

For those who haven’t visited an Escape Room, it’s a puzzle-based game where participants are “locked” in a room for a certain amount of time. They have to solve a series of puzzles before that time runs out. There are plenty of themes, some a little scarier and harder than others, including mad scientist labs, pirate adventures, bank heists, medieval quests, futuristic space adventures, and more.

For the longest time, Escape Rooms were just cool things they had in “bigger cities,” but recently there have been a few popping up in the El Paso and Las Cruces area.

The one we went to was called Operation Outbreak, and their inaugural escape room adventure was right up my (and my daughter’s) alley: a “Baker Street Mystery.” In this scenario, the players get to take on the role of Sherlock Holmes in helping to pin down the members of a gang called the Baker Street Five, especially one murderous member who would be skipping town at the end of the hour. If you don’t solve the mystery by then, the killer leaves town and the trail goes cold.

Fair enough.

The room was located in a small, unassuming strip mall that you wouldn’t think would be the front for a Victorian mystery. We booked our room for 8 p.m., and when we got there it was already dark outside. We stepped inside a simple waiting area with cozy steampunk lighting, art deco designs, and 1920s and ’30s era music playing. My daughter loved this vibe, as it reminded us of the Disneyland’s “Tower of Terror” before the Marvel redesign.

While we waited, we heard a group of voices approaching a nearby door. The lock began to jiggle, and they all cheered as they burst out the door. A couple of staff members entered the room to “reset” the mystery. Of course, they closed the door so we couldn’t peek at any found clues. What would be the fun in that, though? It would be like buying a half-completed jigsaw puzzle.

This particular Victorian era mystery was created for two to eight players, and we were soon joined by a group of four other players. Good thing, too, as we learned this is definitely not like trying to solve a puzzle on paper, in a book, or in a video game. The more brains in the mix the better.

After the next group arrived, we were greeted by our Game Master, who shared basics of the game, including how certain locks need to be opened, and how many clues we are allowed to ask before we were no longer eligible to be on the Leader Board. The fastest team to solve it did so in 40:06 minutes. Pretty impressive, we learned, as this was not an easy mystery.

We were led into a different door and found ourselves in a simple sitting room, created to resemble Sherlock Holmes’s 221B Baker Street residence. There were some locked boxes and trunks, as well as Sherlock’s locked violin case. There was also a large bookshelf that we soon learned held a pretty significant discovery. The only “modern day” element was a small flat screen in the corner. Our Game Master told us to watch the story on the screen, let himself out of the room, and locked the door behind him.

Once the little narrative of murder and betrayal faded out, the countdown started, and the game, as Sherlock would say, was afoot. We had one hour exactly to find the key, open the door, and get out. Otherwise, the killer would escape.

Now, I can’t very well reveal exactly how we answered each clue in this mystery, as The Baker Street Mystery was created by an entity called N.E.R.D.: New Escape Room Designs, Inc. There are similar mysteries in other rooms around the world. No spoilers here.

However, I will say it took all six of us to solve it. This involved everyone heading in different directions at some moments, gathering together around one bigger clue at others. No one even thought of electing a group leader, as we all found places we were useful. My daughter was able to show off her map-reading skills she learned in ROTC last year. Once the clock started, it was instant teamwork. No one sat down or took a rest the entire time.

One of the things that was sometimes unnerving, but made the game especially fun, was that the game master was always watching us and always listening. Every now and then the monitor where we watched our story intro would chime with a hint, and we would all run to see what he had to say. There were also three little “lock” icons in the corner signifying the number of clues we were allowed to ask for, as long as the entire group agreed to it. Other hints, he offered on his own, likely to keep the ball rolling.

My daughter and I began calling him “Moriarty” (after Sherlock’s nemesis, of course).

Our Escape Room experience (clockwise from left): Our Game Master shows us some of the locks we may encounter. Settling into Sherlock’s sitting room with our team just before the adventure. The monitor above the door that showed us our mystery, the countdown clock, and a few hints.

After we beat the game—yes, we solved the mystery in time to “escape” the room and nab the killer—everyone had a chance to take photos and congratulate each other on a job well done. In addition to the many clues, I discovered the escape room scenario to be a great activity for parents and teens.

Here are a couple of reasons why:

It’s a hands-on venture. You aren’t just watching a movie screen or trying to get them to talk about their day over the dinner table. There is no smart phone-squinting or downtime. This particular escape room was pretty low-tech, as we were keeping with the mood of the era. Others, I learned, might include a few high-tech tricks that still demand more than just computer screens. You needed to solve some math problems, open different types of locks, be able to crack codes, read maps, and make use of every discovered resource (even a tea tin, but I might have said too much).

It isn’t a “jump scare” factory. I’m not against visiting a good haunted house, but I love gothic ghost stories and thrillers more than standard blood and guts. I like things to be eerie and spooky, but not constantly be bombarded with gore and in-your-face frontal attacks. This particular game wasn’t scary at all, but it did keep the adrenaline rushing, as a good mystery should. I’m claustrophobic, and I thought being locked in room would be a little daunting, but the game space is large, and the time goes by so quickly you hardly have time to think about anything else.

That being said, I wouldn’t recommend these games for anyone under 10. The puzzles may be too hard for them, and parents won’t be able to cater too much younger kids’ boredom or anxiousness. Make this outing a treat for tweens and older.

It gives you an opportunity to be social without the awkward weirdness of meeting new people. Once we introduced ourselves to the four other people on the team, there were no awkward conversations needed. It was all about the game. Everyone talked to each other and helped each other out. This was perfect for both my teen and me, who aren’t shy, but not the best at casual mingling. On the way home, my daughter talked enthusiastically about the game the whole way. That’s not always an easy feat when dealing with a 15-year-old.

Finally, the sense of accomplishment is refreshing. I’ve never left a movie and felt proud of myself, no matter how much I enjoyed it. Even completing a video game doesn’t give you that rush—we didn’t have all day to figure things out, nor extra lives and tries if we got it wrong. Every time we opened a lock, we cheered, every new secret we discovered was a satisfying feeling, and when we beat the clock and emerged from the room, it was like crossing a finish line.

When we finished our game, our Game Master congratulated us on how fast we were able to solve one particular clue he said less than 5 percent of teams can get without hints. He also assured us one of the clues we had a harder time with was one everyone had a tough time figuring out.

photo op
A little photo op machine allowed us to take a photo announcing #IEscaped.

As for our time, we made it out of the room with just under nine minutes left. Once the Game Master updated the times, that put us in 11th place of everyone who has played so far. We didn’t crack the Top Ten, but still did “surprisingly okay.” This is what my daughter and I dubbed our team.

The only problem we found was that once you solve the room, that’s it. Once you’ve found all the clues and know the secret, there isn’t any point in doing it again. That’s why it is up to the owners of Escape Rooms to either rotate games regularly or maintain more than one game.

Fortunately, the Game Master reminded us all a new game scenario—a Zombie Apocalypse—was in the works and would hopefully be up the next month or so.

Now we know we will be back—there are more mysteries to solve.

outbreak sign
Operation Outbreak is one of the newer Escape Rooms making their way to the borderland.
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