When I was young, I had to close my eyes during the CSI commercials that came on during Survivor. Even today, I tend to avoid haunted houses and scary movies. So a Silent Hill-themed escape room at Mr. X is the sort of thing that I’d normally say a firm but polite “no thanks” to. Sadly not an option when it’s ordered by your boss. After wondering if running away for the day would get me fired, I eventually agreed to join in on the “fun.” Unfortunately, the haunted-house-slash-escape-room turned out to be something far worse than scary: a disappointment. Combination of weak-ass puzzles and a sad excuse for a horror story.
So how did Mr. X drop the ball? And more importantly, how could it be pulled off better?
Mr. X Seems Like a Pretty Cool Place
Mr. X is one of Shanghai’s most well-known escape rooms, and for good reason. Located in Huángpǔ district, Mr. X offers a variety of different escape room themes, a full bar, and a unique environment. My main beef with the pre-escape room experience? 360-degree mirrors in the bathroom stall. What the hell?
We had a few different rooms to choose from, but the rest of the group couldn’t turn down Silent Hill because it looked scary and that’s somehow a good thing to them. Mr. X lists a tip for each scenario, and Silent Hill’s read “don’t be disturbed by the initial scene.”
The rest of the team looked damn near giddy, and I like to think I concealed my bone-shaking terror well. We ascended a staircase, entered a room with only a cabinet for our belongings (no phones allowed), were given a flashlight that only worked facing down (worst flashlight ever), and entered the room, awash with fear and excitement.
I’ll try to go light on spoilers, but here are the basics. You’re in a home, x-amount of years after a guy killed his wife and daughter, and then himself. You use a computer to WeChat his literal ghost-in-the-machine victims.
The room is made up of two identical curving corridors that are linked on either edge by identical, computer-holding rooms. There are also a handful of rooms in each corridor, which are mirror images of each other. It’s an oval shape, more or less.
Got the picture? Good, onto the more exciting things: puzzles and horror.
Uh, where are the Puzzles?
Once inside our puzzle escape room, we found, well, not very many puzzles. The mental gymnastics required, rather than Olympic gold medal-worthy, were little more than an inconvenience to proceeding through the challenge.
The puzzles turned out elementary and bland. Many were based on simple math, and all of them could have reasonably been solved by one person. In one puzzle we had to get a lock combination, and the computer told us exactly how to get the combo: some simple subtraction, and where to find said numbers. There was no nuance or extra layers – just straight up math. As a writer, doing math was probably the scariest part of the entire experience.
Many of the puzzle prompts were also given, and answered, at a computer terminal. I spend 8 hours a day in front of a computer screen, and all I wanted was to get away for 1 damn hour. Waaaaaaaaay too much like work for my taste.
The biggest problem, though, was that we weren’t really trying to escape the room. The entire experience boiled down to taking orders and typing on a computer (again, work). And instead of a simple “get out of the room” plot, Mr. X opted for a strange, vague, murder-based story that was light on details and logic. Thus the puzzles, in trying to fit into a weak plot, turned out watered-down and un-challenging.
And It’s Not Even That Scary
The puzzles weren’t up to par, but if the horrifying, Silent Hill aspect had delivered, I could have still chalked this up as a win for Mr. X. However, even for something totally averse to this sort of thing, Mr. X completely failed to deliver the terror.
Large mirrors with giant wandering eyes lining the hallway were creepy, but nothing more, and the music was out of a budget horror movie. Aside from the bitchin’ green fabric wallpaper and an oval, looping corridor that was marginally disorienting, little about the environment was unique – it just felt like a poorly lit house.
There were a few moments where I thought “Oh man, I’m about to have the shit scared out of me,” and then … it just wouldn’t be that scary. An especially fearless teammate had to comb his hair in a mirror and call out to a woman who definitely isn’t a Bloody Mary ripoff, but the scariest part wasn’t what happened in the mirror, it was the fact he had to comb his hair with an unwashed 15RMB fake market comb.
Perhaps worst of all, at least for the Silent Hill fans out there, the series’ ever-present fog was totally absent from the escape room; I mean, give us a pack of cigarettes and we’ll take care of it ourselves. It turns out that the room is “Silent Hill” in name alone: not a single reference to the series was present inside the room that we could see.
Maybe I’m too cynical for it all, but it was far too difficult to convince myself that a demon thing was going to kill me. Instead of the “disturbing” scene promised, the horror part presented a weak story and a weak environment, which failed to take any attention away from the weak puzzles.
So Let’s Make It Better
Fortunately, as an undergraduate editorial intern, I’m exceedingly qualified to design a horror-themed escape room. Here’s how I’d make the Silent Hill room awesome, assuming I had no supervision or budget.
-A half-liter of báijiǔ. Want to freak people out? Get them drunk and put them in the dark. The team has five minutes to finish the bottle before they go into the room.
-More challenges that require collaboration. It’s a group experience, so these brain teasers should require the (drunk) collective talents of participants.
-Jump scares. Give the people what they want: cheap thrills. I’m talking mirrors shattering, hands reaching through dummy windows and blood-curdling screams from the next room. Real screams. Pre-recorded audio doesn’t count, guys, we can tell, it’s not 1910 anymore. The group loses if any member pees.
-Some actual Silent Hill stuff. If it’s named Silent Hill, we’ve gotta give the people Silent Hill. Fog. Pyramid Head. Nurses. If you’re going to use the Silent Hill brand (totally legally, I’m sure), it may as well hit it hard.
-Team separation. Design the challenge so that one person immediately gets separated from the group. There are lots of directions to take this, but I’d like it if the group could see the individual on televisions, but not the other way around, and the individual looks to be in very explicit danger.
-Urgency. If participants don’t get out of the room in an hour, they should be convinced they’re getting ax-murdered or something. This one is all about the environment – some human interaction would really help here. You’re telling me you can’t get someone to axe his way through a plywood door on the other side of a metal grille.
-An actual puzzle. Mr. X bills itself as a “puzzle house,” so I’d give participants a real damn puzzle. 500 pieces, generic landscape. Combined with existential terror and drunkenness, the puzzle will be the cherry on top.
Trying To Be Two Things At Once Only Made For A Bad Experience
Here’s the thing. Escape rooms can be awesome, and haunted houses can be awesome. Sadly, Mr. X’s Mission 10: Silent Hill tried to be both, and the result was a room that appropriated the less-fun parts of each. There was no urgency from the horror or the puzzles – we were just sort of there, taking commands and typing on a computer.
All of that said, a Silent Hill escape room could be the scintillating, challenging, multiple-sleepless-nights inducing experience it promised to be – it just needs less computer terminal crap and more pants-wetting fear of axe-murder.
by Sam Thomas