It’s Christmas Eve when I find myself in a strange situation. Unlike other people in Chattanooga, I’m not fighting the traffic on Gunbarrel Road as I try to escape Hamilton Place Mall with my last-minute gifts, oooing and ahhing at the radiant display of lights at Rock City or home basking in the warm company of family.
No, I’m in a windowless room with three friends, and the only door is locked from the outside.
We take stock of our surroundings. A cozy-looking couch faces a stone hearth, where a fire is crackling below four Christmas stockings. Holiday-themed paintings adorn the walls, while shelves and dressers stocked with books and knickknacks occupy the rest of the room.
There’s also a set of switches and dials on a table behind the couch, but it’s not clear what they control.
In a corner behind the couch, someone has decked out a Christmas tree with all the trimmings. Colorful bulbs, curvy ribbons and other fanciful ornaments fill the branches. A golden star twinkles playfully at the top. I notice something curious about the star when a jolly voice fills the room, distracting my friends and me from our dilemma.
“Ho, ho, ho!” the unmistakable voice of St. Nick booms over a speaker. “Merry Christmas!”
Easy for him to say. He’s not trapped in a strange room with no way out. As Santa begins to speak, though, there’s tension in his usually jovial voice.
One of his elves has gone full-on Grinch, he explains, and locked his bag of toys somewhere in the room with us. He can’t get in and we can’t get out, so there’s only one way to save Christmas as the midnight hour approaches: my friends and I are going to have to find the bag and then (cue dramatic version of the first four notes of “Carol of the Bells”) escape the room!
Fortunately, the grumpy (likely overworked) elf left behind a series of clues to find and puzzles to solve, meaning hope is not lost.
I count myself lucky that I’m in the company of two of my smartest friends.
There’s Daniel, a quiet man who plays bass guitar in a church band but also entertains his social media followers with his dry humor and wit. My wife says Daniel also makes a killer cup of coffee.
Then there’s Mike, a mechanic who maintains and repairs airplanes for a living. If there are puzzles to solve, surely I’m in good company.
The fourth member of our band of unwitting detectives is Chris, Mike’s 17-year-old son. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to have a younger brain among us, but I’m not expecting him to do any of the heavy lifting.
“Good luck,” Santa says, then a timer counting down from 45 minutes appears on a monitor located near the ceiling on one wall.
Yuletide brain trust
At this point, I’m going to step out of my first-person narrative and explain what’s really going on. I know it’s disappointing to learn I didn’t have an actual encounter with Santa, but did you truly think that had happened?
St. Nick is far too busy this time of year for fun and games.
My friends and I, however, managed to carve a few minutes out of our busy schedules to try our hands at the newest room escape adventure in town – “Saving Christmas,” which is available now at Quest2Escape.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with room escape games, the idea behind them is simple: you’re locked in a room and must think your way out of it by looking for clues and solving puzzles.
Each escape room has a unique theme and storyline. One of the other rooms available at Quest2Escape is “Sabotage: Chattanooga 1944,” a period adventure in which the player must foil a Nazi plot to undermine the American war effort. All of the items and puzzles in the room are faithful to the time period in which the adventure is set.
Another local adventure is “Locker Room Lockdown: Mascot Rescue,” a sports-themed challenge that splits the participants into two teams that must work together to get out.
Puzzles range from simple, to imaginative, to downright devious, with the difficulty level varying from room to room. While I’m forbidden to spoil any of the enigmas you’d encounter in “Saving Christmas,” examples of escape room puzzles include extracting numbers from pictures, decoding messages and finding information in plain text.
Solving these puzzles can trigger dramatic events, such as a wall panel swinging open to reveal a hidden room.
The participants in an escape room adventure have a limited amount of time to complete their tasks, which invariably include opening the exit door. Fortunately, a limited number of hints are usually available to players who get stuck. (And you will get stuck.)
When my friends and I arrived at Quest2Escape, which is located above Taziki’s on Market Street downtown, we were greeted by Cheryl Harris, who turned out to be a friendly and helpful host. She didn’t give anything away, but she did explain the scenario, the rules of the game and how things would work.
Harris also made each of us sign a waiver, presumably so we couldn’t sue Quest2Escape if our brains imploded while trying to solve the game’s puzzles.
Then, like St. Nick in my account above, Harris wished us luck and shut the door.
We spent the first few minutes poking around the room and learning to communicate as a group. Then Daniel found an object of obvious importance and we were off to the races.
A surge of adrenaline rushed through our veins as we found more items. Then we hit the inevitable brick wall of our first puzzle. Although we had several objects in hand, the time had come to figure out what they meant and how they should be used.
Stumped, we continued to search the room for more clues. But there’s a danger in room escape games of unfolding too much of the narrative too soon and becoming unfocused. This can cost precious minutes.
As Daniel, Mike and I floundered, Chris remembered a piece of advice Harris had shared with us before closing the door: Use your imagination.
There was no fire crackling in the hearth, just a faux log with an amber glow, but our minds filled in the missing details. In the same way, we had to connect the dots between the clues and the solutions to the puzzles. This required thinking outside the box – even though we were confined in one.
When Chris took a moment to step back and approach the clues from a different angle, something clicked in his brain and he went from the tag-along to the leader of our group, darting from one end of the room and back again and taking the initiative with each step forward.
Even with Chris at the helm, each of us contributed something vital to the overall effort, whether it was spotting something everyone else had missed or connecting two pieces of information in a way that moved us forward. Teamwork was the key to our success.
It was Chris, though, who spotted the final detail – a very tiny one we could have easily overlooked – that activated the lock on the entrance and popped the door open with 8:45 remaining on the clock.
Before I risk sounding cocky, I should mention that Harris said “Saving Christmas” is the easiest room at Quest2Escape. Her husband, Bill, a retired engineer, designed and built the room to be a fun break from holiday stress.
It worked for my friends and me. Despite its comparatively low difficulty level, its puzzles challenged us, its dramatic moments surprised us and upon completion, we radiated with the glow of success. (To put it in less colloquial language, we hooted and hollered and strutted around like proud roosters.)
Racing against the clock to escape a room is the closest I’ve come to feeling like a character in a suspense thriller. “Saving Christmas” also helped to put me in the spirit of the season. With all the hustle and bustle associated with this time of year, it didn’t feel like Christmas until my friends, and I tackled the holiday challenge at Quest2Escape.
To book your escape room adventure, visit www.quest2escape.com. Harris says “Saving Christmas” should be available until mid-January, when it will be dismantled to make room for “Abducted: Detained Abroad.”
That gives you and your family or friends a few weeks to beat our time. Can you do it?