Published August 1st, 2023 @ 7:52 am EDT by Michael

Mystery at Innsmouth

Type: Tech . Awe: 8/10 . Care: 8/10 . Challenge: 8/10 . Teamwork: 5/10 . Theme: 7/10


“You could take that old bus, I suppose… but… it goes through Innsmouth… and so the people don’t like it. Wonder it keeps running at all. I s’pose it’s cheap enough, but I never see mor’n two or three people in it —nobody but those Innsmouth folk… Looks like a terrible rattletrap—I’ve never been on it.”

That was the first I ever heard of shadowed Innsmouth. Any reference to a town not shown on common maps or listed in recent guidebooks would have interested me, and the agent’s odd manner of allusion roused something like real curiosity. A town able to inspire such dislike in it its neighbors, I thought, must be at least rather unusual, and worthy of a tourist’s attention.

 – The Shadow over Innsmouth, H. P. Lovecraft (1936)

This was the best room we saw in Seattle. Really though, in 2023, this level of quality should be the mean, not the height, of a city-wide escape room tour.

You’re inside a radio play, one based on HP Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth”. In the original story, the protagonist is drawn, for academic reasons, to the town of Innsmouth, Massachusets, where practically no one ever wants to go. The hero wants to go there because nobody else wants to go there. Naive curiosity, with results that push tragedy into pure unreality. On the one hand, it’s an unfair exaggeration of stereotyped Northern (or New England) discourtesy, but the more literal horror does take over, so that it really does become a story about evil fish-people who worship the god Dagon (erroneously thought to have been a fish-god until the middle of the 20th century, after Lovecraft wrote this short story) which is not, it must be admitted, any kind of metaphor for anything other than that. Among Lovecraft’s stories, Innsmouth has its own feel, and is a complete

This escape room at Hourglass Escapes, in Seattle, does more to capture the feel of Lovecraft’s stories than most things of the “Call of Cthulu” variety. Hourglass didn’t obsess over tentacled faces and “eldritch” this and “incomprehensible” that. Their Mystery at Innsmouth opens in the town’s only hotel, which the protagonist of the story (who has no business going there) is warned away from. Unlike many horror stories of the same era, the tone of the warnings isn’t ominous, it’s vaguely disgusted, and that very vagueness is what made the story’s main character so eager to see what the fuss could be about. (It’s also not on any maps.) — although when he says he’s sightseeing, and that he likes “old” things, he is told that, yes, it has plenty of old (read: crumbling) buildings, so, if that’s really what he wants, then… okay… maybe… you’ll “enjoy”… it… there?

The escape room opens on a convincingly dreary hotel — it doesn’t look haunted, it looks like the owners have forgotten what a hotel is supposed to look like, and have no reason to care, because they don’t expect any actual guests. I thought it was beautifully done, because I knew that if it had been real, I would have wanted to leave, and I would have regretted coming, not out of fear, but a subtler and deeper aversion to the place. That can’t be easy to pull off, just with decor. But this room luxuriated in it. The actress/game master (who was ostebsibly the hotel’s desk clerk) said she would be in her office nearby if we needed help, and I almost wished she were less personable and helpful, to capture the character of the actual Innsmouth townspeople. Not “good eeeeeevening” but a more natural confusion as to what kind of person would ever want to visit the place — coupled with aun understated eagerness to prevent the guest from leaving, since they were staying there, by mischance. But that’s a silly thing to gripe about — it’s disquietingly icky, and it feels like being inside the story, as it never teeters into Haunted Mansion territory.

The premise of the experience is that we’re inside a classic radio adaptation of the Innsmouth story. This dimension of the escape room is fairly well executed, though it does seem under-used in some ways. Before the story even starts, aa witty “ground rules” intro plays first, a vintage etiquette guide with a fun script. Its performer, sadly, didn’t seem quite up to it — a professional voice actor with experience doing a vintage-radio caricature would have made an excellent intro even more immersive. As “vintage radio announcer” is a common element on voice actors’ reels, finding one would be very easy, and it would be a good investment. When the escape room’s actual narrator came  on, as if after a commercial break, I was pleasantly surprised. His script is well-acted, but it would have benefited from more direct quotations from Lovecraft’s story (were there any?) — I wouldn’t have minded hearing that the old buildings “conveyed with offensive clearness the idea of wormy decay” as the lights came up outside the false windows of the game’s second stage. Or any part of a passage like, “a few decrepit cabins… houses with rags stuffed in the broken windows… here and there the ruins of wharfs jutted out… as I looked, a subtle curious sense of beckoning seemed super-added to the grim repulsion, and I found this [even] more disturbing…” He may not be your favorite writer, but no one gives the impression of H. P. Lovecraft like H. P. Lovecraft.

Alas, the languid luridness of the hotel phase did not follow us into the next rooms. The sets are gorgeous, expertly created and installed, and the objects within do make good use of the story in some places. An anatomy based challenge makes people examine the altered biology of the people of Innsmouth in a clever, fun, and engaging way, so that when the puzzle is solved, it not only advances the player’s quest, but also reveals (in the solution, not the setup) a major insight about what is happening to the town. I’ve always thought those were the best puzzles, especially in rooms that want to try and tell a story, because they leave the player feeling like they themselves are putting things together; discovering the disquieting truth rather than having it narrated to them. The room has many moments like that.

Other moments feel like missed opportunities for communicating the theme. The diary of an absent scientist, for example, indicates that he’s discovered the way to solve one of the puzzles — and he tells us exactly what he discovered. We succeed by imitating him. It would be better if he told us that he failed (even implying that he was once a player, as we are, but he didn’t make it). We had some idea of what the awful consequences of failure were for him. That way, when we read all the wrong things he did, we learn what not to do, so that when we do solve the puzzle, we’ve succeeded where our predecessor failed. We learned from his mistakes. The whole thing becomes meaningful, and the success is more fully ours.

The most upsetting elements of the story are not included in the room, and I’m sure that’s for the best. Even so, that would have been an even better reason for the designers to study classic radio adaptations of Lovecraft more closely, because those adaptations also had to censor judiciously. The escape room venue seemed not to have much interest in the artform (classic radio horror) that they were trying to pastiche. The voice-over, though competently performed, narrates your progress in 3rd person (“the strangers found [this]” or “the strangers discovered [that]”) which is charming, but that’s closer to an audiobook than a radio play. Vintage radio plays have delightfully melodramatic dialogue and musical stings, but what better excuse for pure exposition (a necessity in escape rooms) could there be? Even if they wanted to stick with the radio-narrator idea, they could have stayed with the doomed first person, somehow. I love the idea of being inside a radio play so much, that I bet if they’d taken more inspiration from old radio (maybe in some heavy-handed sound effects, lifted right out of an episode of Suspense!, to indicate that a puzzle’s been solved?)

Also, the menace (which, in an escape room, reflects the urgency of limited time) does not visibly progress the way it could. The second phase of this room has TV screens, effectively used as false windows on the town, yet the scene never alters quite enough to illustrate that the Shadow (however this room chooses to interpret that) is closing in on us. We don’t see townspeople crowding around us, or hear them chanting ominously in ever-increasing volume, nor do we see a wicked storm brewing, or much of anything. It’s true that seeingt the townspeople might have been cartoonish, but it would also have been a way to show us that they were turning into fish.

Look, I know it’s not reasonable to expect all of a story’s great qualities to come across in an escape room adaptation. But in this case, the room has so many terrific features, it, and in just about all the places where it seems not to live up to its potential, the text of the story would have given them exactly what they needed. We’ve classified it as a “tech-focused” room, because, on the level of gameplay (which is probably what determines whether players will love it or not) it engages people in the practice of weird science more than detective-work, or the “I dare you to go in there” of the best horror rooms. True, the technology in question is dated, a steampunk-adjacent and difficult-to-recognize form of pseudo-science peculiar to Lovecraft’s world, but the greatest joys in the room do involve learning how that science was practiced, picking up the strange instruments, and getting to work, which is exactly the fantasy that tech-rooms bring to life for people. In this room, the more science we do, the more likely we are to realize that we have actually been duped (sort of) into performing a ritual, which makes it appealing both to those who like playing with magic in a fantasy setting, and those who like test-tubes, bubbling beakers, knobs, and levers. Either way, the puzzles almost always feel like they belong in the room, and this offering of Hourglass’s is excellent enough to make a believer out of a first-time player who doesn’t think they’ll like escape rooms, or even someone who thinks they won’t like horror. The genre of the story is closer to visionary tragedy than horror, and that’s a tough sell, but the genre of the game on offer here is more science-fictional; it will make you feel like you should be a Professor at Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic University, and after completing it, you’ll be qualified to be the eerie, traumatized mentor in any American horror story, forever after.

Hourglass Escapes – 3131 Western Ave STE 422B Seattle, WA, 98121 – (206) 718-3705

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