The Red Bull Escape Room World Championships culminated in an actual escape room being played. Imagine that! If you just want to see what it looked like, you can watch some not very popular YouTubers playing it below (with cameo appearance from my teammate, Sera, doing a good job of acting as someone with patience) If you can’t/don’t want to watch a video, and/or you want to know my thoughts on it (and some of the secrets/rumours I picked up being around it), carry on reading below.
From the pre-tournament briefing, we knew that Omni, the AI that runs White Hat Laboratories, wants to ‘escape’ because they’re concerned at the direction the company is taking. The semi-finals acted as a selection exercise to find the brightest candidates, who now had a job at White Hat. In the final, the teams had to abuse this position of power/access (how rude!) to get deep into the bowels of the labs and hack the mainframe, or something, to set Omni free. Perhaps they’ll move to Brighton and open a B&B.
Room 1 – Reception
You arrive outside of Kyle Smith Jr’s office but, unsurprisingly, the door is locked. You need to find a way inside.
Kyle is so reclusive (apart from when sending you videos and making public appearances, hmm) that he doesn’t want to come in contact with his PA, so he has had a service hatch installed. This service hatch has a locking mechanism that means the door has to be shut, with something inside it, before the door on the opposite side will open, via a button on the PA’s desk. Therefore someone has to climb inside and have the the door shut behind them to illuminate the switch, so that someone else can press it. Once they climb through they can open the door from the inside and let everyone access part 2.
Also on the PA’s desk there’s a tablet with one of the games you played in the online qualifiers on it. This is functional at the moment, but you don’t know what picture you’re trying to make, so is a red herring for now. There’s also an Omni-eye on the computer screen.
I’m not sure why this service hatch is required, other than for escape room REASONS. But it’s a fine puzzle, working out the requirements whilst receiving feedback from the lights.
Room 2 – The Office
As soon as you enter the second room you see a piece of art (I guess) which looks similar to the game on the tablet in the reception area. The art won’t move (fair enough) but while the tablet can move you’re not allowed to move it (for REASONS) so you have to match the picture while looking through the door. When the tablet is unlocked Omni downloads from the PA’s computer (where it’s been for REASONS) on to the tablet, so that you can bring it with you.
In room 2 there’s a docking station for the tablet, from which Omni can upload into the security system and start to help you. The first thing Omni does is turn on a lighty-lazery-sensor thing. Now, narratively and “intent-wise” this makes sense. The sensor is a facial recognition scanner, and there’s a picture of Kyle Smith Jr in the room, which you can hold up to it to open the next door. The issue is that while I don’t know what a facial recognition scanner is, I don’t think it looks like a disco ball in a lazer show, and there was nothing to tell you that’s what it represented. The Slovakian team guessed it easy enough but the Croatians couldn’t work it out, and that was pretty much the end of the final as a competition (after 15 minutes on this section they timed out and were moved on, but this gave Slovakia a massive lead).
Once the face was scanned, it opened a door, which led to… another door. This one was locked with a pattern-lock – the type of thing you might see on a mobile phone. Because Kyle was always forgetting the pattern, he had it printed on to the side of his desk. But because he’s not a complete idiot (allegedly) he had it done backwards so that people wouldn’t be able to copy it. Unless you looked in the mirror which was handily provided (or you realised the symbol was an interlinked KS, and turned it around in your head).
Both of these puzzles made some level of sense. And didn’t cause Slovakia any problems, which is why they’re now World Champions. But you can certainly say that they weren’t well signposted, and when you can’t get clues to compensate for something you miss in the stress of an event (which can happen in any room, never mind the Escape Room World Championships final) it’s pretty tough.
Room 3 – The Vault
Oh dear. Everything was going so well.
In the next room the aesthetic goes from clean, sterile office space to run down and neglected inner workings. There are old computers hanging around, one of which Omni uses to download themselves onto a CD (it must be less than 650Mb). There’s a door to the right with four lights next to it. In the middle of the room there’s some sort of contraption combining large sheets of perspex with plastic rods going through them on different paths.
No prizes for guessing, moving the rods affects the lights next to the door, and you need to turn all the lights on to open it. The ‘trick’ is that once you move a rod it can only go in two directions; back to where it came from or on to the next step of the sequence. So if you just keep going forward eventually it will open.
But big prizes for telling me what the heck this is? First of all, what is it supposed to represent? Secondly, how are you supposed to know what to do? As the guy in the video says “what are we trying to do? What are we trying to create?” The lights don’t give any meaningful feedback. There are no visual or audio clues. It’s just a thing that you play with, and hopefully you keep going in one direction long enough (15 moves I believe) to succeed.
The official explanation was that this was a “two player game” that Kyle’s parents built in to the vault to prevent Kyle accessing it on his own. But that still doesn’t explain why it is what it is, or how you’re supposed to solve it. The unofficial explanation was that this was originally intended as some sort of vault door, and the perspex sheets had bars on them to indicate whether things were lining up or not, but this got cut due to production deadlines. That might have been better (heavy emphasis on ‘might’) but really this just looks like a poor attempt to introduce a physical element into the game.
Room 4 – The computer room? (WARNING: May not contain computers)
Onto Room 4. At the moment, we have Omni on a CD but for REASONS we now have to transfer it onto a floppy disk (for younger readers, that’s physical media storage that can hold 1.44Mb of data. That’s so little, Secret of Monkey Island 1 came on five of them, but sure whatever). To do this, firstly, you inserted the CD into a player. This showed a number being typed into a keypad that you had to replicate. I didn’t see exactly how this worked and you can’t tell in the video, but I can only assume there was more to it than that, otherwise I’m not sure it counts as a puzzle.
This moved Omni on to the disk, but the disk drive was now locked. Of course it was. To unlock it you needed to do a maths puzzle, where different batteries had different levels of power in them, and you had to put them in various slots to achieve certain power levels. On paper this is a pretty straight forward puzzle. But bear in mind there were 12 batteries. Each of them was physically identical (no “Battery A is a 3”). And there was no pen and paper. In a pressure situation, I think this is a pretty big ask. Again, Slovakia showed their qualities by taking a very systematic approach; removing them all, inserting them in pairs to work out their strength, placing them in order based on that strength, and then doing the sums to work out how they paired together. It must have felt painfully slow while doing it, but turned out to be significantly quicker than Croatia’s more trial and error based approach. And the guys in the video didn’t manage to solve it at all.
With the batteries correctly entered, the disk drive unlocked and a vent opened so you could crawl into the next room. Hooray! Definitely the most escape roomy thing they did all weekend was a have a crawl transition for no reason. Sigh.
Room 5 – The Core
In the final room, was The Cube. Of course it was. For those of you who didn’t read Part 1 of this odyssey, The Cube is the computer that travelled the World for the qualifying process. And this same ‘trick’ was used in the 2017 Championships too. Narratively, I get it, it ties the final back to the qualifying games in a nice little bow. But, and it’s a big but, IT’S A COMPUTER GAME!!1. The Escape Room World Championships should not be decided by a computer game. It’s obviously acceptable in the qualifiers as a practicality of the real world, but we’re not in the real world, we’re in an escape room!
Anyway, you inserted the floppy disk which activated the cube. And also started the walls moving in! Why were the walls closing in? Good ol’ REASONS of course. Luckily, not a single player noticed it because they were focussed on what they were doing. What they were doing was a sliding tiles puzzle that was a quarter of Omni’s eye, with a bit of background decoration. Each image was displayed on one of the ID cards that the teams had to wear all the way through, so some swapping of screens may have been required, but it was pretty basic. Once all the images were made the door opened.
And then Omni was free, I guess? I’m not sure how exactly that would work, but it’s something I can believe in the world of escape rooms. However, if you watched the video, you’ll hear Wei-Hwa explaining that Omni is now free because you’ve uploaded yourself to take their place. Which is somehow both more and less logical at the same time (which is hopefully also true for that statement). That does give a better explanation of how they escaped, but gives a very unsatisfying ending that we are now trapped inside instead. But if we return to the rumour mill, there was a suggestion that swapping places with Omni was only intended as the first part of the grand finale. After that there would be something where you triggered a self-destruct mechanism, and then escaped from the computer world as well, which does seem better. But again this had to be cut due to production issues. I can’t prove it either way, but it’s something to think about.
First of all, undoubtedly, this is something that is recognisable as an escape room, so a massive thumbs up for that.
But, if this was a room which was open to the public (which I believe it may be soon) I’d probably be rating it around 4/10. It starts off quite nicely. There is something of a narrative drive to it all. But it massively unwinds from part 3 onwards. And it isn’t beautiful. And I don’t think the puzzles are massively rewarding. I appreciate that a room that’s only going to exist for a couple of days can’t be the most sophisticated game in the World, but I still think we can do better.
Congratulations again to Slovakia. They put in a great performance in the final. Commiserations to Croatia.
So that’s it for the final and the official events. Come back next time for the wrap up, including the unofficial World Championships!