Room Escape. The concept is simple: you and your motley crew of fellow “risk-seekers” get locked in a room and all you have to do is escape! This sounds more risqué than it is, except perhaps with the exception of those prone to bouts of claustrophia.

Our adventure began on a Friday night (as most do) in an unassuming restaurant that served some of the best grilled meat in Beijing.

“I reserved a room, for Room Escape, at 9,” Xiaoting, our organizer-and-mastermind, said unassumingly.

I turned to her, “Runescape?”

“Room. Escape.”

“As in, escape from a room?” I attempted a smile, thinking she was joking.

Xiaoting would be a brilliant Poker player. Her face betrayed nothing; in fact, she looked surprised that I didn’t know what she was talking about. “No. Room Escape. Finish your food, we’re going to be late.”

I looked to Yuan, who looked just as confused as I was. Edward shrugged. Christina, however, piped up excitedly, “Really? I love Room Escape!”

“I play online! All the time. This is fantastic! I really wanted to go play for real!”

By this point, I was imagining the five of us in a dark room armed with axes, manually knocking down walls, “Escape a room? Is there no door? What do you mean, Room Escape?”

Xiaoting smiled ominously.

Thirty-minutes later, the five of us watched on as the attendant dramatically closed the room. A click worthy of any Stephen King novel and then silence. I assumed he’d thrown away the key.

The room was a small square, decorated the way you would expect to see a cheap sea-side Hotel on the Cote D’Azur would be. Christina, Online-Player-Whiz, instantly sprang into action, going to the makeshift fireplace and peering up into it. Xiaoting and Yuan grabbed a ‘parchment’ letter and started reading out loud. It was the story of a Captain’s traverse, down around Cape Horn and beyond, sprinkled with anecdotes of his parrot and an ending with a rather dark story about a missing sailor in a boat in the midnight waters of a lost island.

“Is this him?” Edward poked at a painting of a Haddock-inspired Chinese Sea Captain.

Christina flew to the painting, going directly for the rather ostentatious frame and feeling the corners. Yuan shrugged, “Maybe?”

Xiaoting was still looking at the letter. “We should all jump at the same time,” she announced decidedly. I looked at her like she was crazy.

This game was making very little sense. Christina’s prodding suggested we were looking for physical clues, and as far as I had understood, the aim of the game was to find a “key” to get out. Somewhere in this room was a safe. And in that safe was our way out. The letter, the painting, the stand overflowing with seashells … all of these were clues to help us find the safe in the jumble.

Which is why all of us jumping at the same time seemed completely ridiculous.

As it turned out, this would be one of the less ridiculous things we would end up doing that night. So we jumped. Nothing happened. The room was still a room and no magical clue had dropped from the sky. Christina seemed disappointed.

For the next half-an-hour, we dissected the letter. The Captain had a parrot – where was the parrot now? He kept mentioning a wheel that turned to the right. What about the missing sailor? Edward was convinced the clue was in the large nautical map of the world on the wall. I was convinced that the key had to be inside the bulky old-fashioned phone. (My attempts to get inside said phone, however, were entirely unsuccessful – despite having dialled every number combination of the numbers in the letter and around the room).

With twenty minutes remaining, we had yet to discover one substantive clue (read: we had done nothing more than stand awkwardly in a room touching everything and reading cryptic letters). We had to call for help. Two knocks for help later (three would have meant we gave up) and the attendant was in the room, rolling his eyes a little.

His clue: watermarks on the map, when read through the letter spelled out roman numerals. It was brilliant. And it also happened to be the combination for a jewellery box sitting on the bookshelf. Inside the jewellery box: a small slip of paper with the words ‘The White Man’. We were all beside ourselves with excitement.

“Ha. It’s me, I knew it,” Edward quipped, “I’m the missing link.”

“For the next clue, use the pictures,” the attendant called back to us as he –again– locked the door behind him.

The attendant’s illuminating information gave us a second wind: we hoarded all the pictures in the room and found that in all of them, the ugly mermaid figurine was inside the open jewellery box and the phone was unhooked. Then Christina made a momentous discovery: the boat in a bottle, carelessly placed among the sea shells was called ‘The White Man’. Only it was too late. Ee were out of time! The walls started closing in on us…just kidding…in Room Escape you have one hour to decipher the clues and escape.

Our escape attempt had failed. The attendant came back, with a smile.

“Want to see where the key is?”, he asked.

He should have warned us to brace ourselves.

[Warning: spoilers ahead]

He unhooked the phone and placed the mermaid in the jewellery box (just like in the pictures). He then proceeded to wave the bottle boat in front of the map, tracing the voyage the Captain had narrated in the letter.

There was a noise like thunder. I might have screamed. The wall behind the fireplace just gave way! It just, slid away. Light streamed in pouring off rickety stairs.

“It’s a secret room!” Christina launched herself forward with me right on her heels.

The stairs lead to what appeared to be the inside of a wooden shanty. The sound of crashing waves played through the dimly lit room and a stuffed parrot scrutinized at us from a ships helm. Yuan grabbed it and turned it right, just like the Captain had repeated at least ten times in his letter.

This time, the wooden planks that made up the floor started moving.

There were at least nine other clues that followed. A set of cards in the floor correlated with coins and a cup inside a treasure chest tucked into a hidden closet. There was some math involved. Some speaking parts. At one point it involved waiving some coins while the parrot is wearing a crown that finally revealed the safe.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is Room Escape!

For my part, if I find myself trying to escape the room again (which is most certainly on the “to conquer” list) and someone says jump, I won’t be asking “why”. Just “how high?”

How to get to Room Escape

If you’re feeling daring enough to try this out, here are some of the popular Room Escape spots!

Omega Room Escape:
Is the biggest with eight themed rooms (and the one we went to).
Location: 90 Guangqumennei Avenue, Dongcheng district
Cost: < RMB 100
Contact: +86 (10) 84091284

Miyuan Room Escape
Location: No 16 courtyard, Jiaozi hutong, Dongcheng district
Contact: 13520880878

Lost Room Escape Workshop
Location: Zhongxinjinyuan 4-15, Caishikou Avenue No 6, Xicheng district
Contact: 15811530051

Room 222 Room Escape Club
Location: Jindimingjing, Liyuanlibei Avenue No 2, Chaoyang district
Contact: 010-65774240

Photo courtesy of Flickr: Tom Wachtel (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)