Outside the room
Just occasionally the planets align in a way that makes me almost believe in fate. This was just such an occasion, as a trip up to visit my parents for the Bank Holiday weekend overlapped with a two week long run of an escape room called St Helens vs The Lizards, just round the corner from their house, which I managed to find out about while there was still availability. Yes, definitely fate, or possibly, just possibly, a master race of Lizard people who are in control of mankind’s future. Perhaps believing in fate doesn’t seem quite so bad after all…
The background for this escape room is particularly interesting. It’s been organised by St Helens Arts Service, hosted in the St Helens Central Library and created by Re-dock, a “community interest company delivering high quality creative projects throughout the North West of England”. That in itself is pretty cool, but to add to the intrigue, some of the puzzles were designed by local children through a series of workshops. Did I mention it was free too?
And since it was free, set in a library and I had a ticket to admit four people, I thought I might as well drag my children along. I didn’t hold out much hope for them contributing, but they’d at least find out what escape rooms are and worst case scenario we took in some books for them to read.
Despite growing up just round the corner from St Helens, I’ve not visited that often and never to Victoria Square, where the library’s located. It’s an absolutely gorgeous area which, as with many towns in the North West, harks back to the wealth of the industrial revolution. Up into the library we went, and again were enchanted by the wide open space and high Victorian ceilings, not to mention the red and black structure built right up front. I’d expected we’d be hidden in some dark corner of the library, in a room that had previously housed musty old books, but no, this was in your face as soon as you entered the building. We grabbed a seat and before we knew it our host was ready and explaining why we were here…
St Helens’ Library service have been doing some research work in the archives, and uncovered a portal connecting to the 1980s. It leads into the bedroom of a boy called Sam, who’s discovered that the world is being taken over by lizards, disguised as pop stars and politicians. You’ve decided to head through the portal to the ’80s to help Sam solve the mystery, but you’ll need to get return in the next hour before the portal closes. To make matters more difficult, Sam is paranoid, so he’s locked up all the information he’s found around his room.
Don your tin foil hat and enter…
Inside the room
This room abounds with 1980s nostalgia, whether with a View Master, ET dolls or a Gamorrean Guard Star Wars character that I’ve not seen in thirty years (no I didn’t know that was what they were called either – fortunately Google obliged when I searched for “fat green star wars figure”). This was entirely lost on both the children, but every few minutes I’d spot something that brought back memories from my childhood. They’d obviously gone to a lot of trouble (and probably a fair number of charity shops) to put the room together but it was undoubtedly worth it. This room couldn’t have oozed the ’80s more if they’d decked out in dayglo, shoulder pads and a bubble perm.
On top of that they’d liberally sprinkled it with the lizard theme (and occasionally branched out to other things reptilian) with vivariums, toy lizards, dinosaurs and cuddly snakes. They’d even put in an Illuminati reference for the ultimate in conspiracy theory. In short this room did a fantastic job of immersing you in the plot.
Of course, that’s all relatively easy (well, I say that, but the biggest franchise in London seems to struggle with it…) because it’s just a case of finding a few props and then integrating them into the puzzle flow. This being a free room though, I fully expected that to be the highlight, with the puzzle elements being a series of padlocks and keys/codes hidden round the room.
Turns out I was wrong. There was a very good variety of puzzles around the room including a couple which were impressively technological. Even with the conventional puzzles, there were novel ways of giving you the clues, one of which is my favourite single clue EVER to a numeric code. I wish I could tell you what it was, but it would be a spoiler, so I’ll just have to be a tease.
Sadly, their crown jewel puzzle wasn’t working on the day we went, with an old TV having broken down the day before. I don’t think I’ll be surprising anyone by telling you that they’d intended to have a little bit of old skool Teletext interaction as part of the experience. After the game I was fortunate enough to have a quick look at the control room, including the teletext system, so I can vouch that when all was working it would have been very impressive. Such things happen, and with a
two three week run you can hardly expect them to have a full set of spares sitting ready.
As with most rooms, there were a few puzzles that were a bit contrived but generally they fitted in very nicely, and since the puzzles were created by Sam to hide his acumulated knowledge, even the slightly contrived ones weren’t truly off theme. None of the puzzles felt unsolvable, and I genuinely think that a team could get out of this room without a single clue.
If I had one minor criticism it would be that the clue giving was very generous, but to be honest, I think that was probably the right decision. This is meant to be a fun experience and not a huge challenge. Yes, they could leave you hanging a little longer, but who really cares? (other than the St Helens Arts Service, who’ve been taking great delight in taunting people who just failed to beat their 30 minute record!)
After Friday’s disappointment of my first escape room failure, this was the perfect pick-me-up with us escaping after 36 minutes. As noted above, that was a few minutes off the record, but I was happy with how we’d done. I’d like to pretend that if I hadn’t had to entertain two kids at the same time, we’d have been quicker, but in practice they solved at least two of the puzzles without our help… mini escapers in the making!
It wasn’t a total success though – we didn’t succeed in escaping the library itself in an hour, as our younger child made a beeline for the children’s corner and firmly ensconced herself with a Rainbow Magic book… you can’t win them all, and frankly, I’m quite happy to lose that one.
Wow. For a free, temporary escape room, this was simply amazing. A distinctive plot, well themed and with fun puzzles.
Perhaps this gives a flavour for just how good I felt it was: I deliberately haven’t mentioned any of the room details above because, even if I published it after the end of the run, I’d be holding out hope that someone would take this on as a permanent commercial game. Throw in a couple more puzzles, be slightly less generous with the clues and I think this would stack up well.
We went for lunch beforehand in the George and Dragon in Glazebury. Granted, not the most convenient for St Helens, but with the kids in tow, we went for something we knew – good food, good service and a play park out the front.
Detailed Room Ratings