Puzzles in Pop Culture: TV Escape Rooms!


[Image courtesy of Yelp.]

It’s always interesting when TV shows incorporate puzzles into their stories. Not only do we get to see what Hollywood (and by extrapolation, the general public) thinks about a given puzzly experience, but we learn more about the characters when they face a particular puzzle or challenge.

This is especially true for sitcoms and comedies, since they usually have less time to focus on the puzzling and therefore put the spotlight on character relationships.

And it occurred to me that there are a number of different shows over the last few years that have featured the characters in escape room-style puzzle settings.

Why don’t we take a look at how accurately these puzzly experiences were portrayed, how difficult the room appeared to be, and what the characters’ solving skills were like?

Please enjoy as we explore fictional escape rooms from TV in our latest edition of Puzzles in Pop Culture!

big bang theory pic

[Image courtesy of IMDb.]

For our first offering, we turn to the CBS juggernaut The Big Bang Theory. Over the years, TBBT has featured puzzly activities like giant Jenga, a holiday-fueled session of Dungeons & Dragons, and a scavenger hunt with puzzly clues.

So I wasn’t surprised that their take on escape rooms was the same: fairly accurate, but simplified and streamlined for a mainstream audience.

The room in TBBT is pretty spacious, moreso than pretty much any escape room I’ve seen. But the level of detail is easily something achievable for high-end rooms. Also, I’ve heard about escape rooms with actors playing zombies before, so this is legit.

(In fact, one I heard about in Washington D.C. had a zombie on a chain; the chain got longer the more time solvers took to crack puzzles, cutting the room in half at one point!)

We don’t get to see much of their solving, as they allude to puzzles conquered instead of showing us, so it’s hard to gauge difficulty. But given that most of the characters featured in the scene hold doctorates, we can safely assume the puzzles were middle-of-the-road or slightly harder.

However, the episode ignores the fact that you’re trying to escape the room in a certain amount of time. The characters seemed disappointed by their impressive performance, but they probably posted one of the top times in that room’s history. Nothing to sneeze at.

  • Accuracy rating: 4/5
  • Room difficulty: 3/5
  • Character solving skills: 5/5

[Image courtesy of FOX.com.]

Another show that hasn’t shied away from puzzly content is the former FOX and current NBC hit Brooklyn Nine-Nine. This comedy/drama set at a New York City police precinct has featured a seesaw brain teaser, a crossword-fueled arson mystery, and several multilayered heist storylines set around Halloween.

Puzzle enthusiast Captain Holt invites his fellow officers out to an escape room, and is dismayed when the disinterested Gina and the bumbling Hitchcock and Scully end up being his only fellow players. The group is immediately hampered by Hitchcock wasting two of their three hints, and Holt accidentally wasting the third.

The hint system is usually not as rigid in escape rooms. Three hints is common, though many places allow you to ask for more; sometimes there’s a time penalty, sometimes not. Also, the room in B99 is a three-hour challenge, which was a surprise. The standard time is an hour, though I’ve seen rooms push it to ninety minutes.

The group has also clearly not tried the classic escape room method of “touch everything,” because an hour and a half into the game, having found only one of the four keys needed to escape the room, Holt has not yet investigated the bright red phone sitting out in the open.

This is another escape room where difficulty is tough to judge. Unfortunately, we’re not given enough details on the first key (which involves some sort of chess puzzle) and the fourth key to really gauge the room. But despite the rocky start, the lovable team of misfits manages to escape.

  • Accuracy rating: 3/5
  • Room difficulty: 2/5
  • Character solving skills: Holt gets a 3.5/5, everyone else gets a 2/5.


[Image courtesy of Variety.]

Next, let’s turn our eyes to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

The characters in this darkly comedic show all consider themselves devious masterminds, but for the most part, they tend to get in each others’ way and foil their own schemes through silly self-sabotage. Although a few impressive schemes do come to fruition over the years, it’s hard to consider this group a crackerjack team of puzzle solvers.

This escape room breaks the mold quite a bit, since the company brings the escape room trappings to the apartment of two of the characters. This is much more elaborate than any escape room set you can buy for the home, and I don’t know of any companies that deliver an escape room to the house.

You might think this home field advantage would be a boon, but instead, all chance of cooperation immediately goes out the window. One pair takes the key to a lock, the other pair takes the lock, and they spend the entire time negotiating instead of solving.


[Image courtesy of IMDb. Because of the language involved, I couldn’t
use an actual video clip and keep the blog post family friendly.]

Once they actually agree to collaborate and open the lock, they discover a list of tasks for them to complete, and they have virtually no time left to do so. (Our only hint to the room’s difficulty comes from the fact that Dee has completed the room beforehand, so it can’t have been too difficult.)

They claim victory when Sweet Dee falls out a window after getting trapped in her brother Dennis’s bedroom. In order to check on Dee’s status, the game runner opens the door and the remaining players consider it a win.

  • Accuracy rating: 1/5
  • Room difficulty: 2/5
  • Character solving skills: 0/5


[Image courtesy of Frame Rated.]

The final entry in our comedic quartet of escape room episodes comes from the musical CW show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. This romantic drama, comedy, and coming-of-age story often features characters breaking out into elaborate song and dance routines, and many of the songs have become modern classics.

The show didn’t tackle puzzly content often, and indeed, the escape room in question is a b-plot in this particular episode, as main character Rebecca offers her escape room experience to friend Paula and her two disinterested sons.

The escape room is medieval-themed and huge, with lots of great set pieces and detail. The mix of exploring, touching things, solving puzzles, cooperating, and placing objects in particular places are all very traditional escape room moments.

ceg escape

[Image courtesy of Laura E. Hall.]

Though I was a little disappointed that the elements of the final puzzle are sitting out in plain sight the whole time. You could easily ACCIDENTALLY solve the last puzzle first and be out in minutes.

But Paula’s sons prove to be able puzzlers, attentive and clever, revealing things about themselves that Paula didn’t know. (In fact, the entire escape room subplot is all about Paula learning about who her sons have become, which is Puzzly Storytelling in Sitcoms 101.)

They all escape, having found new common ground, and it’s easily the most delightful ending of the four escape room scenarios we’ve looked at today.

  • Accuracy rating: 4/5
  • Room difficulty: 3/5 (the final puzzle is a long anagram, which is pretty tough, but the rest of the room is easy)
  • Character solving skills: 4/5

What did you think of this look at escape rooms from TV, fellow puzzlers? Should we look at more fictional escape rooms and see how they hold up?

I’ve heard Bob’s Burgers has one, as well as Schitt’s Creek. Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


Hey, have you checked out our special summer deals yet? You can find them on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

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PuzzleNation Product Review: LEGO Maze

For years, one of the most marketable things about LEGO sets has been that you can use their pieces in your own ingenious creations. They’ve taken it a step further over the last few years, and now fan creations have the chance to become actual sets!

The Ecto-1 from GhostBusters, the set of The Big Bang Theory, a collection of noteworthy female scientists… these are some of the awesome sets that were designed by amateur builders, voted on by LEGO fans, and approved to become marketed LEGO sets.

And the latest edition to that fan-created line of specialty sets is one of the puzzliest products they’ve ever sold: the LEGO Maze.

Jason Allemann of JK Brickworks created the original design, which was voted on by fans, approved by LEGO, and then improved upon by professional LEGO model designer Steen Sig Andersen.

It’s based on classic wooden marble mazes; the goal is to tilt the board with the two dials on the sides of the maze in order to navigate your marble from one end of the maze to the other without dropping the marble through one of the many treacherously placed holes.

In the LEGO maze, those holes are replaced by black depressions in the maze that trap your marble without dropping it out of sight. (Though I’m sure amateur builders are already designing their own maze layouts that incorporate actual holes just to up the challenge factor.)

[The medieval layout included in the instructions.]

Oh yes, there’s not just one layout. As you can see, the set includes all sorts of pieces with which to create numerous possible layouts from basic ones to advanced. (I’m currently working on one of my own design. Maybe it’ll pop up on Instagram soon!)

The adaptability of the maze layout is one of the highlights of this set, encouraging the same entrepreneurial building spirit that inspired the set in the first place.

And speaking of the set, the design is pretty impressive. It cleverly allows you to lock the tilting maze in place by using the storage box for the marbles as a stabilizer, and you can remove it just as easily. (Remove one piece — and the travel lock under the opposite corner, and you’re ready to play!)

Replicating the full range of motion cannot have been an easy task for either Allemann or Andersen, and that leads to the only negative aspect of the set. I was a little underwhelmed by the control offered by the two dials. Each tilts more toward one direction than the other, so you don’t have the full range of traditional marble mazes. (I suspect this could be remedied by a slightly shorter rod connecting each dial to the two frames allowing you to tilt the maze more in the opposite direction.)

That being said, it’s a minor quibble. On a perfectly flat surface, a steady hand will lead you to victory, if you’re patient enough.

[The build in progress…]

As a long-time fan and builder, I enjoyed both the simple and complex aspects of the building process, and I was surprised that they didn’t number each bag of pieces, as they’ve recently started to do with their higher-end, more complicated sets. That might put off a casual builder, but as someone who enjoys the additional challenge of digging through a pile of pieces looking for that one particular piece, I didn’t mind at all.

LEGO has really been pushing the boundaries of what you can accomplish with these classic interlocking bricks, and the LEGO Maze is one of the most inventive and impressive designs I’ve ever seen.

[The LEGO Maze is available from LEGO.com for $69.99.]

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Big Bang Theory

Puzzles in Pop Culture is all about chronicling those moments in TV, film, literature, art, and elsewhere in which puzzles play a key role. In previous installments, we’ve tackled everything from The West Wing, The Simpsons, and M*A*S*H, to MacGyver, Gilmore Girls, and various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.

And in today’s edition, we’re delving into the world of The Big Bang Theory, CBS’s runaway hit about four nerdy scientists — Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj — bumbling their way through social interactions of all sorts.

Although the show covers all sorts of activities often deemed “nerdy” — roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, comic books, cosplay, conventions, obsessive fandom, etc. — they rarely play puzzles. Usually, the closest they get are board games and card games, whether real ones like 3-D chess or fictional ones like Mystic Warlords of Ka’a.

But in episode 3 of season 7, The Scavenger Vortex, the boys and their girlfriends embarked on one of my favorite puzzly pursuits: the scavenger hunt.

Here, hunt organizer Raj lays down the rules with plenty of style:

The teams end up being the odd couples of Leonard and Bernadette (Howard’s girlfriend), Sheldon and Penny (Leonard’s girlfriend), and Howard and Amy (Sheldon’s girlfriend), allowing some new pairings for the writers to have fun with.

For instance, we’re treated to this exchange between Howard and Amy, where Amy references her unpopularity growing up:

Howard Wolowitz: Wow, you’re really good at puzzles.
Amy Farrah Fowler: I did them all the time as a kid. As my mom used to say: when you’re doing a puzzle, it’s like having a thousand friends. She was full of fun lies like that.

The game starts with a jigsaw puzzle, which quickly reveals the location of the next clue: the comic book store. (Although Sheldon forces Penny to wait while he completes the entire puzzle.)

When the competitors arrive at the comic book store, a cardboard cutout of the Riddler holds their next clue.

Riddle me this:
Arrah, Arrah, and gather ’round,
this hero is legion-bound,
He multiplies N by the number of He,
and in this room the thing you’ll see.

Sheldon instantly solves the riddle, followed by Howard and Amy, then finally by Bernadette and Leonard, highlighting how well the three teams are working together. (Either Sheldon or Penny takes the lead, depending on the task, while Howard and Amy collaborate well, and overcompetitive Bernadette basically yells at Leonard the entire time.)

Arriving at the geology lab at the university, Penny and Sheldon reveal the next puzzle: To continue on your quest, leave no stone unturned.

While they turn over various rock samples in the lab, Sheldon explains how he solved the riddle.

Arrah pointed to Jan Arrah, a member of the DC Comics superhero team The Legion of Super-Heroes, who goes by the name Element Lad. This pointed Sheldon to the Periodic Table of Elements, where he multiplied the atomic number of N, Nitrogen (7) by the atomic number of He, Helium (2), getting 14, the atomic number of Silica, which pointed him to either the geology lab or the chemistry lab.

And the final line of the riddle — “and in this room, the thing you’ll see” — pointed toward the Marvel superhero The Thing, who is made entirely of rock.

As Sheldon is showing off his impressive riddle-cracking skills, underdog Penny actually solves the current puzzle, realizing that “no stone unturned” didn’t mean the samples in the lab. It meant the Rolling Stones poster hung on the door, which she lifts to reveal map coordinates.

This sends them to a bowling alley, and then to the disused elevator shaft in Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny’s apartment building. A montage mentions further puzzles at the planetarium and the tar pits (and plans to attend a Neil Diamond concert for new chums Howard and Amy), before ending up in the laundry room at Leonard, Sheldon, and Penny’s apartment building.

Three bags of laundry await the players, and they quickly realize each bag contains only pants, except for a single shirt of Sheldon’s. A shirt with a spot on it.

Fans of the show, of course, know where their final destination — and the coin — awaits them. But when they tear apart the couch, there’s no coin.

In the end, we discover the final clue was a red herring, and Raj had slipped gold coins into everyone’s pockets earlier in the day. (Which is some pretty impressive sleight-of-hand, I must say.)

And although Raj’s big lesson — it’s getting together and playing that’s important, not the prize at the end — is lost on his fellow castmates, it really does encapsulate the best in group puzzling and gaming… the experience.

Maybe The Big Bang Theory gets puzzles after all.

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5 Questions with Actress, Musician, Comedian, and Puzzler Whitney Avalon

Welcome to another edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, writers, filmmakers, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m overjoyed to have Whitney Avalon as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Whitney is a quadruple threat, splitting her time between acting, music, comedy, and puzzles, leaving her distinctive mark on each field. You may have seen her on The Big Bang Theory, in the Cheerios commercial during this year’s Super Bowl, or in the delightful viral video series IKEA Heights (which was secretly shot in an IKEA during working hours).

Then again, you might have seen one of her songs or parodies on YouTube, or solved one of her puzzles in GAMES Magazine. When you’re dealing with someone as creative and prolific as Whitney Avalon, you’re bound to have stumbled across her work somewhere.

Whitney was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for Whitney Avalon

1.) How did you first get into puzzles?

That I can blame, with great joy and gratitude, on my parents. My dad has worked in computers since before most people really knew what computers were, and he started me as a toddler on simple graphical puzzles (“One of these shapes is not like the other” springs to mind) and programming languages. Growing up in a family of thinkers meant I got to fall in love with wordplay, logic, and eureka moments. Lucky me!

[Whitney’s vocal chops are on display in this marvelous song about
spending too much time on the Internet, “Going Down the Rabbit Hole.”]

2.) You’re an actress, writer, comedian, and singer, but you’ve also had puzzles published in GAMES Magazine and other outlets. Do you have a particular favorite creative activity or one you wish you could devote more of your time to?

I’m one of those people fortunate enough to have always had one overriding passion (creating) who then gets to make a living pursuing that passion every day. So while the tide ebbs and flows – after all, I don’t get to choose when a TV show casts me, but I’m happy to drop everything else for a while every time one does – I love all the different ways I can make stuff that others might enjoy. I try to dedicate myself wholeheartedly to the next creative project in front of me, even and especially if it’s nothing like the one just completed!

3.) Has constructing puzzles influenced how you approach putting together videos, songs, or other visual media? Or has working in so many creative fields influenced your puzzling style?

I think spending a lot of time solving and/or crafting puzzles has, perhaps, made me more likely to strive for innovation, in that the repetitiveness of certain traditional forms might mean I’d seek more out-there options when it’s my turn to make the rules. Or maybe having a vivid imagination makes me drawn to interesting, elaborate puzzles.

I’m probably not good at analyzing my brain from inside here, but there are definitely parallels between taking the viewer on a good journey through a film or song and taking him or her on a good journey through certain puzzles – one of my published works, for example, is a 1000-word short story that not only contains a solvable mystery but also an additional layer of meta-surprise the reader will discover as it’s read.

[In this pic, Whitney displays some fantastic grayscale makeup
work and costuming. You can check out her tutorial here!]

4.) What’s next for Whitney Avalon?

More television appearances and commercials! (Including Girl Meets World on Disney Channel.) More writing! More singing! (I front pop rock band Strangely Attractive.) And, I surely do hope, more puzzles! (Most likely to appear as exclusive content in my monthly newsletter.) I can’t wait to see where the creative winds take me this year, and I’d be delighted if folks want to join me on my travels. I’ll always do my best to make you smile, laugh, and think.

5.) If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring content creators, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Take a moment to ponder how improbable it is that you exist at all. Grin. Be kind. Have fun. Revel in your glorious good fortune.

Many thanks to Whitney for her time. You can follow her on Twitter (@whitneyavalon) for the latest updates, watch her videos and songs on YouTube, check out her website, and sign up for her monthly newsletter! There’s no telling what entertaining endeavors she’ll have for us next.

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