I Escaped the Labyrinth! Can You?

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Labyrinth Logo

“Escape Room” games are a very fun genre–I’ve played a bunch of them online (at sites like Jay Is Games), as well as the popular app The Room and its sequels (no relation to the recent film). My kids have gotten into them as well, and we have a lot of fun trying to figure out the puzzles. There’s even an Escape Room in a Box that recently funded on Kickstarter.

In case you haven’t played an escape room game, here’s the way they typically work: you’re locked in a room (or a building or an area), and you’re trying to get out. The theme can be scary or silly, but generally you just look around the room, finding items and clues and trying to piece them together. You might have to play the right tune on a musical instrument, or put together a jigsaw puzzle, or open a combination lock–and then a door opens, giving you yet another clue. Eventually, if you solve everything, you get out.

A recent trend is real-life escape rooms: instead of pointing and clicking on a screen, you’re actually in a room, manipulating real objects and searching for clues. There are a few here in Portland, Oregon, and I finally got to try one of them this week: Labyrinth.

Labyrinth PDX wall
Professor Schlusser’s study contains a lot of hidden clues… Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

A friend of mine was taking his family and invited me to join them, so I jumped at the opportunity. (Disclosure: a friend of mine works for Labyrinth and has been trying to get me to visit, but it just took a while to find time in my schedule.) Labyrinth in downtown Portland, a small street-level office space. There’s a reception area that’s quite nice–a lot of black and white decor that befits an escape room setting, and some fun little puzzles to tinker with while you wait.

There is space for three separate experiences, which are called chapters. The idea is that the various chapters form an overarching story–you don’t have to play them all (or even play them all in order) to enjoy the puzzles, but if you do, you’ll get a bigger picture. When I visited, it was set up for Chapter 1: Inheritance and Chapter 3: Blitzkrieg, with the fourth chapter under construction. (Chapter 2: Crucifixus was a scarier story, run during Halloween, and will likely make a reappearance in the fall.) We played the first chapter.

The story (I’ll avoid major spoilers) is that Dr. Schlusser, your former professor, contacted you … and then mysteriously disappeared. You arrive at his study, with an hour before the police will show up to secure the scene. There is a heavy safe under his desk–your goal is to figure out the combination to the safe before time runs out. (Ok, so … technically I didn’t escape the Labyrinth because we weren’t locked in. I was told that in Portland, fire code prevents businesses from literally locking people in a room, so Labyrinth’s stories are things like cracking the safe rather than breaking out of the room.)

Labyrinth PDX codex
We discovered a cryptex–but what’s the code? And what is inside? Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

You have to find the instructions for the safe by solving various puzzles … but first you have to find the puzzles. Throughout the room are various objects: books on the shelf, locked and unlocked boxes, a chessboard, statuettes, and so on. I won’t tell you specifically the types of puzzles there were (other than the cryptex shown in the photo above) but there was a good mix of puzzle types, and a lot of searching and observation. At one point, I overlooked a key object several times even though I was searching in the right location.

We did manage to solve the professor’s puzzles and got the safe open in under an hour, and we had a great time doing it. There are some ingeniously designed contraptions that you have to figure out along the way.

One thing I appreciated about Labyrinth is that there were several different puzzles that we could work on in parallel. In some escape room games, it’s linear–you solve puzzle A to get the clue to puzzle B, which unlocks puzzle C, and so on. If you get stuck on a puzzle, then you simply can’t go any further. For this experience, we were able to spread out and try different things, each focusing on what we were best at.

The Labyrinth rooms are designed for 6 to 10 people; if you have fewer than 6 in your group, they’ll pair you with another small group so you have enough people. We had 6, and I think it may have felt a little crowded with too many more. There’s also an actor in the room with you–they’re there to provide some help if you really get stuck, and also to make sure you’re not breaking things. (As our guide told us: “The electrical outlets are real; please do not try to disassemble them.”) That’s important to know, because in an online game, you pretty much click on everything–if it moves, it’s probably relevant. In this one, however, you never know which things might just be decorative. Is that giant chess piece a clue? Or just a giant chess piece? How about that picture on the wall? Or that vase?

Labyrinth PDX bunker
Chapter 3: Blitzkrieg has you breaking into a Nazi bunker to steal … something. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

I got a sneak peek at Chapter 3, which is set in a World War II bunker. You actually get helmets and ammo belts (and flashlights) for this one, which is a dark room lit with a few red lights. Just glancing around, we saw a big cage with a timer on it, some switches on the wall, and a small area with a sandbag barrier around it. It looked really cool. We were also shown a glimpse of Chapter 4, which is currently under construction. It’s more like the first, with two connected rooms filled with interesting gadgets and decor, this time with an astronomy theme.

After playing this time, I’m hooked, and I’d really love to go again. My kids were very jealous that I got to do a real-life escape room, so I’m hoping I get an opportunity to take them at some point. I was told there have been kids as young as 12, though I think the puzzles are challenging enough that it is helpful to have some adults along if the kids aren’t experienced puzzle-solvers. (Chapter 2: Crucifixus is rated 17 and up because of the horror elements.)

Labyrinth runs mostly on weekends and evenings, and many of the time slots are booked even several weeks out, so if you want to try it yourself I’d advise you to book well in advance. The regular price is $36 per person, but there’s currently a Groupon that will get you a lower price.

For more information about Labyrinth or to book a time slot, visit the website.

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