/ Mark Frauenfelder / 4 pm Tue, Apr 28 2015
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  • My daughter and I almost escaped from a sealed cavern before running out of air

    My daughter and I almost escaped from a sealed cavern before running out of air

    Dying in a mysterious cavern deep below the streets of Los Angeles was the most fun we've had in a long time

    We had about thirty seconds of oxygen remaining when we finally spotted the tiny hidden compartment in the floor. It contained a key. My 12-year-old daughter Jane grabbed it and ran to the locked door across the room that separated us from an elevator leading to the surface hundreds of feet above our heads.

    "It doesn't fit!" she yelled, panic in her voice. Seconds later, a siren sounded, indicating that we'd run out of air. We were dead. Fortunately, we were just playing a game, but what a terrific game it was!

    The Cavern is a real-life room escape experience produced by Escape Room L.A.. On Saturday, Jane and I drove to 8th street and took an elevator up to the third floor of a nondescript building. The drabness of the hallways gave no hint of the wonders that awaited us inside.

    christoper

    We were ushered into a small staging room and seated on benches along with six others who'd signed up to participate in The Cavern. A staff member asked us to introduce ourselves. We then met Christopher, a genial British chap in a yellow hardhat who would be our guide during the 50-minute experience. After going over a few rules (no photos, no running through every possibility on combination locks, be careful with fragile items, no biting), and some suggestions (remember to communicate with everyone about everything you discover, use the notepads to write things down) Christopher led us to an elevator that was really just a tiny room. The sounds of a whining motor and creaky pulleys, and the illusion of the elevator shaft whizzing by in the elevator window gave me the uncanny feeling that we were actually descending.

    Christopher opened the elevator door opposite the door we entered and we followed each other into a dimly lit cavern that looked like it have been carved out of solid rock. The main area of the cavern was roped off, preventing our entry.

    cavern-1

    "I can't let you enter this area until we get the lights on," Christopher said. "It's not safe." Getting the lights on would be our first challenge.

    A tangled mess of patch cords hung from a hook, with two columns of sockets on either end of the wall. We had to consult a visible light spectrum chart to figure out how to connect the patch cords, and when we were successful, we were able to open a combination lock that covered a light switch. Once we got the light on, we found out that we had another puzzle to solve that would turn on the remaining lights in the cavern. This puzzle was tougher, but Jane cracked the problem.

    cavern-2

    We were ushered into the main part of the cavern, which was about the size of a two-car garage. It looked like Indiana Jones had set up a field lab, and then abandoned it. It contained a large table with broken shards of pottery, strange artifacts with symbols carved into them, guidebooks, hand written notes, cabinets of mineral specimens, a gram scale, a telescope, test equipment of various kinds, and many other odds and ends. These clues had been left there by an ancient civilization, and it was our job to decipher them.

    Everyone was overwhelmed by the dizzying number of items in the room. Where to begin?

    After a moment of bewildered wandering around, we regained our sense of purpose and started working on the puzzles, usually in teams of two or three. The first order of business was trying to figure out what the puzzles actually were, which was challenging in itself. The solutions to the puzzles yielded clues to other puzzles, which contained more clues, which, when finally solved would allow us to escape from the cavern before the large LED counter on the wall ticked down to zero. Christopher gently prodded us to "ask the others about those shapes," or "look around to see if you can find that symbol on an item." Without his help, I don't think we'd have gotten nearly as far as we did.

    almost

    Despite our best efforts we didn't escape before the clock ran down. No one minded. Everyone had a wonderful time. I was in such a powerful flow state that the 50 minutes felt like 10 minutes. The Cavern was a refreshing change from staring at a screen for amusement -- it was a real, unmediated, in-the-flesh experience that couldn't be replicated digitally. These kinds of experiences are well worth paying for. (Escape Room LA charges $30 Wednesday-Friday and $35 Saturday and Sunday). I also found that interacting with six strangers was more fun than I imagined. Everyone was nice. If you are down on the human race, go the The Escape Room to remind yourself that other people can be a pleasure to interact with.

    Jane loved it, too. We are going to sign up for every new experience that Escape Room creates.

    If you don't live in LA, but want to experience a real-life escape room, consult this directory. There are hundreds around the world.

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