September 1, 2021 – I had been avoiding Escape the Room Oak Brook. I had one prior experience in 2018 with Escape the Room, playing The Dig with a group of friends almost immediately after returning from a long road trip including Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and South Dakota. We felt The Dig was ok, and given that it’s quite pricy for smaller groups, I steered clear of another trip in this direction.
Circumstances changed in early September. I desperately needed a few more to add to my total so that the four hour Save the City game at City 13 Escape could be my number 500. It’s not like I hated The Dig, so a double feature at Escape the Room felt appropriate. Clock Tower even scored a TERPECA (top escape room project) nomination, so I was excited to see what they had to offer.
Unfortunately, my experience ended up being mostly negative. The rooms themselves had a lot of neat gadgetry and tricks, but not everything worked consistently, and our game master wasn’t watching us most of the time. I suspect this was due to having only one or two game masters running 6+ rooms at the same time, but whatever the reason, it was unfortunate to have a bad experience in some pretty neat rooms.
The Clock Tower
The Clock Tower gives players the chance to explore a time travel lab and solve a series of puzzles to find the missing scientist and restore the machine. The aesthetic felt very steampunk with well-designed props, some of which had unique functionality, like gears that rotate when put in the right place.
When beginning the game, we were advised that we wouldn’t be able to ask for a hint for the first ten minutes. Fair enough. However, three minutes in we had a question about whether or not we could interact with one of the objects in the room without breaking it. We asked, and got no answer. We asked again, still no luck. Finally, at the ten minute mark, our game master came on the loudspeaker and asked how things were going, and if we wanted a hint, with no inkling of the question we had been asking repeatedly for the last seven minutes.
The rest of the game played out the same way. We’d go without a game master for ten minute increments, and then every ten minutes, the game master would pop in and see if we wanted a hint. At one of these intervals, we asked for a hint, and the hint was to find a place to use a crank we had located. We spent the next ten minutes looking for a place for the crank, only to find that it needed to be inserted into a hole behind a panel that should have popped open when we completed an earlier puzzle.
By the time we got to the last area, we were in pretty bad shape time-wise and the game master finally stayed with us and gave us rapid-fire hints. That wasn’t really enjoyable either. As time expired, we were more frustrated than anything else.
I actually don’t remember what the plot of The Theater is. We had to solve puzzles in the theater and ultimately find a key to let us out, so maybe we were accidentally locked inside?
I just looked it up on the site. The goal is to “regain control of the puppet performances.” I’m pretty sure there was no intro explaining that to us, but ultimately I didn’t mind too much because the environment was neat- a theater filled with puppets, including some that had animatronic performances.
Our game master stayed in contact more often in this game, and it helped quite a bit. One or two times, the game master called out right away when something hadn’t worked properly, and we were instructed to tug or push on the right spots to keep moving forward.
We ended up finishing The Theater with nearly thirty minutes left on the clock. The room felt easier than The Clock Tower, but not that much easier. Honestly, the biggest differentiator in times between the two rooms was how much time we lost dealing with malfunctions in The Clock Tower.
Conceptually speaking, I actually liked the puzzles in both rooms. I can see how if someone had gone to the rooms with an engaged game master right after the rooms opened, the experience would feel very polished, with decent challenges and quite a few unique prop elements.
Unfortunately, the combination of poor maintenance and no game master most of the time is a huge problem for the customer experience. Dealing with one or the other can be a challenge. Dealing with both guarantees frustration.
This didn’t appear to be a one-off situation. Our game master was very friendly and clearly wanted to offer a good experience. I suspect the “no hint in the first ten minutes” rule is to allow the game master to bring players in and out of another room without having to worry about interacting with us at that time. Overall I wonder how much of our experience was designed around constraints like that.
This could be a “your mileage may vary” situation with different locations of the chain, but as for me, I’m once again holding off on any more from Escape the Room… until I’m desperately pushing for another goal!