I’m too competitive. In any game I play, I always have to win. Scrabble, Monopoly, Poker – HAVE. TO. WIN. I’m pretty much completely insufferable. But my true Achilles Heel: Cooperative Games. Once I invited my girlfriend’s parents over for dinner. We ended up playing the cooperative board game Pandemic – the one where you as a four-man team rush to stop and cure a global outbreak. To make a long story short – the night ended with me screaming at her father, telling him to stop making moves on his own and just listen to me, do as I say or the entire human species will go extinct. We ended up losing that game. Her parents have never come over for dinner since.
Perhaps this is why I’ve yet to do an Escape Room in LA. It seems like everyday a new Escape Room is popping up. Right near where I work there are two within a ten-minute drive. These Escape Rooms basically function like a physical board game, as players are trapped in a room and have to use the elements within – puzzle pieces, clues & keys – to get themselves out. I’ve been invited a couple times to join a group of friends and solve one; but have always turned them down, mostly out of fear of losing said friends after the experience.
So when Sony invited me to participate in an Escape Room in promotion of Fede Alvarez’s upcoming horror feature Don’t Breathe, the proposition was bittersweet. Sure getting to reenact a movie seems like too good an opportunity to pass up; but could I, just for thirty minutes, work as a team player? I mean — what’s the worst that could happen?
The Don’t Breathe Escape Room was modeled after the film – in which a group of no-good thieves break into the wrong house and get trapped within by a sadistic blind war veteran. Our wily group consisted of four – writers from EW, Joblo and myself plus filmmaker Fede Alvarez.
Two actors, modeled after Jane Levy and Daniel Zovatto’s thieving hoodlums, led us to a door. Within – we could hear a dog barking loudly. The Zovatto stand-in handed Alvarez a doggy treat. “Throw it in the doggy door” the actor advised, “It’ll make him sleep good.” Alvarez held the treat warily, offering sheepishly, “I don’t want to… I know how this ends.” He passed the doggy treat to me. I didn’t hesitate, immediately throwing it in. Once the barking subsided, Levy and Zovatto led us into the room – a darkened home complete with a couch, cabinet and fireplace.
The sensation of stepping into an Escape Room can be a bit overwhelming. At first I had no clue what the heck we were supposed to even do. The actors kept shouting about finding the house safe; but I tuned them out, just taking the setting in. I heard something crunch beneath my feet, the doggy treat laid to waste underneath the sole of my shoe. I panicked. Had I just lost the game? We had barely even begun. Was that goddamn doggy treat the key to everything? Was this just like the opening of Saw where Leigh Whannell accidentally flushes the key to his cuffs down the tub drain, dooming him without even realizing? Had I doomed us all too? I slyly brushed the crushed doggy treat to the back wall and made a mental note to blame someone else if that indeed was the key to getting out.
But we weren’t even trying to get out of the room. We were supposed to be looking for a safe. I started looking behind picture frames and within cupboards. Inside one such cupboard, behind some clothes, I discovered another room. I went to step in – when one of thieves stopped me. I had gotten too far ahead. “The safe. Find the safe”, the actors repeated over and over again, as if we were unruly kindergarten children refusing to do as told.
There wasn’t much communication between all the players at first. We just sort of wandered around the room haphazardly. There were domino letters and numbers scattered about, hidden within drawers, under pillows, on top of lampshades. Inscribed on the dominoes were their Braille equivalents. I made the suggestion to collect all these dominoes together. Obviously they would play an important role later on. We searched around for more dominoes as the actors continued to yammer on about the safe. “Find the safe. Where’s the safe? Have you checked all the pictures?” I couldn’t help but get slightly annoyed. “We’ll get to the bloody safe,” I thought, “I get it. The safe. Whoopty-freakin-do.”
When you enter an Escape Room for the first time, everything seems like a potential clue. The trash collected in the right corner surely hides some sort of secret message. The pattern of floral wallpaper with random letters fixed throughout could be an Enigma Code. You get so focused on the minutiae, that you lose focus of the bigger picture – the simple solution right in front of your eyes like that one large picture the Jane Levy stand-in seems to dart her eyes at every five seconds.
Eventually, I got the message and looked behind the picture, a safe hidden underneath. Attached to the safe was a thin piece of paper with some Braille written on it. I immediately knew this must be the combination for the safe and those collected dominoes – the key for decoding.
Unfortunately, we hadn’t found all the dominoes and could only successfully decode three of the four numbers for the safe. Some of my teammates went searching for the missing dominoes. I maintained we didn’t need them. We had found enough of the dominoes and their corresponding Braille equivalents to merely plug in the remaining digits for the missing number. There could only be three or four possible solutions. Of course by this time, we had fallen so far behind that the Jane Levy stand-in had enough and just gave us the solution. “Have you tried ‘3’?” she said. “I could have figured that out myself,” I thought.
Inside the safe were wads of bills that Levy quickly stuffed into her backpack. Mission accomplished. But just when we were ready to leave, the blind Stephen Lang stand-in (i.e. a twenty-something actor with powder in his hair) entered the room.
The Zovatto hoodlum and Lang stand-in recreated the scene from the trailer, wherein Lang gets the upper hand and shoots him. After the staged violence, to get away from Lang, we all rushed through the cabinet into the secret room hidden within. When we turned back, we saw that the room had been locked behind us. Now we actually were stuck.
The room was much darker than the one prior. I debated whether it was cheating to use my cell phone as a light, but then saw all my other teammates doing just that. Nobody seemed to stop them so I followed suit, switching on my cellp hone, illuminating a bedroom, scattered with debris and junk. Throughout the room, hidden, were jigsaw pieces.
By now, I had gotten the hang of this Escape Room. The room was driven by simple singular task-oriented goals. There weren’t any secret clues hidden in the garbage. No complex algorithms to be solved by the placement angle of a discarded TV in relation to a box of used VHS tapes. There were just jigsaw puzzle pieces to be collected and put together. My teammates and I found a majority of these puzzle pieces and in the process, I discovered a black-light flashlight illuminating a hidden message on the completed jigsaw: one word – “Blood”. Whilst this progress was underway – a couple others found another safe, within a bundle of key locked inside a circular word puzzle.
We quickly put two and two together, unlocking the circular puzzle with the code “Blood”, freeing the keys. From there we were off to the races, finally clicking as a team, freeing ourselves from the room and re-entering the lounge area we escaped earlier.
A number lock protected the front door of the home, the bundles of keys serving little use for our escape. At the back of the room, we discovered a hallway, another door at the end of it. We rushed to the door, fruitlessly trying various keys on the lock when finally one key snapped in place, opening it – revealing the Zovatto stand-in’s corpse. Clutched in the man’s death grip – a piece of parchment. We unrolled the paper – a death certificate for a woman named Emma. But what could this have to with anything? Suddenly it clicked for me: the date of death on the certificate must be the number lock for the door. I frantically started entering the date into the front door key-lock and voila – we were freed from the Escape Room.
I’d love to say here that the Escape Room taught me the value of teamwork, humbled me, made me a better person – but if I’m being honest: the very first thought I had after escaping was – “I could have solved that so much quicker on my own.” Well – at least I didn’t yell at anybody. It’s the small victories. And maybe next time I get invited to an Escape Room, I won’t be afraid to say ‘Yes’.
Special Thanks to the Countdown Escape Room for hosting the event.
Don’t Breathe opens in theaters everywhere August 26th.