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How close is Alexa's Escape the Room game to an actual escape room?

I've done lots of real escape rooms. Does Alexa's skill actually measure up?

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Can the Amazon Echo turn your living room into an Escape Room? 

Ian Knighton/CNET

Amazon's digital assistant Alexa can play lots of games at this point. Most offer some variation on party games and trivia, but a few promise more in-depth experiences. The one that intrigued me most is meant to replicate one of my favorite group gaming activities -- escape rooms. These puzzle-solving diversions are on the rise in a number of cities. You get locked in an actual physical room, then have an hour to find clues and escape. They're awesome, and a free game called Escape the Room tries to replicate the experience on Alexa-enabled smart speakers like the Amazon Echo.

I was highly skeptical at first. I've done a number of real escape rooms, and didn't think talking to a speaker could come anywhere close to the real experience. While you do need to allow for the occasional frustration from the game not understanding what you want to do, Escape the Room does a surprisingly good job of replicating the atmosphere and basic mechanics of real rooms -- you just need to have a pen and paper ready, along with some patience and big dose of imagination. 

The premise

You wake up stuck in an office, or in a car. The free Escape the Room skill for Alexa actually offers a handful of scenarios you can play, but those were the two I tried. You activate the skill by talking to any Alexa speaker and saying "Alexa, open Escape the Room."

At that point, the game kicks into action, and Alexa briefs you on what you can say to control the game. Alexa also warns you that you might find the puzzles difficult, and offers you a list of different scenarios to pick from. I picked the office and the car as they were the first two options on that list. Alexa then briefly describes the scene, tells you that you're trapped, and then prompts you to start taking action to escape.

Other than "I'm in this car and I'm stuck for some reason," there's not a whole lot of story. Don't expect to find out who kidnapped you and why. But that didn't bother me much. Real escape rooms don't have much in the way of story either. Each scenario offers a little bit of extra context -- you've been kidnapped by a serial killer or you're a team of spies and you need to find out where the villians are meeting -- but you're always essentially just looking for a series of codes, keys and puzzles to get to the next clue.

The actual answers don't have much to do with the story. The story is just there to help set the mood. In that sense, Escape the Room has scenarios that serve the same purpose.

Physical escape rooms traditionally involve some stakes in their story -- the reason you have exactly an hour to get out is because the killer is on his way to get you! Escape the Room doesn't have that. It's not even clear if you're limited to an hour -- and there's nothing quite as striking as the actual ticking clock traditionally present in most physical escape rooms.

The puzzles

Part of the reason I wasn't clear on the time limit with Escape the Room is neither puzzle took me anywhere close to an hour to solve. It took me 20 to 30 minutes both times, though I had a couple of co-workers helping out the second time -- partly because it's surprisingly fun and they wanted to join in, and partly because I wanted to see how the game handled multiple voices.

The fact that the puzzles are shorter is a little disappointing. More challenging escape rooms have taken eight of us 50 to 55 minutes to solve. Still, Escape the Room gets the feel of actual escape room puzzles correct.

In the game, you can look up, down, forward, left or right. The game tells you what you see in any direction. Inspect everything you find, and you'll gather clues that help you unlock and open items in other parts of the room.

Some of the puzzles are nicely intuitive -- you need to find a screwdriver if you want to get behind the panel that's screwed into the wall. Some are confusingly convoluted -- without spoiling anything, discerning the proper combination of colors for a puzzle was tricky in both scenarios I played.  

Nevertheless, that confusion mirrors my experience with actual escape rooms. The logic of a lot of those puzzles doesn't hold up to much scrutiny either. With both, you just need to keep inspecting what you see and putting the pieces of individual puzzles together without worrying about how much sense any of it makes in the bigger picture.

Also like the real thing, once you've solved the puzzles, there's little reason to go back. The developers just launched a new scenario -- Escape the Airplane -- for a total of five scenarios after launching with three, so hopefully they keep adding more. As it stands, five adventures of 30 or so minutes each isn't bad considering its free. Real escape rooms take a similar approach of swapping in new themed rooms for old ones to give returning players reasons to keep coming back.

If you do get stuck, real escape rooms have a guide watching that can give you a contextual hint. Escape the Room offers one generic hint for free, but makes you pay for further contextual hints -- $3 for all hints for a scenario with a $0.50 discount for Prime members (the clue price converts to roughly £2 and AU$4). I don't mind the idea of paying for hints too much, as the skill itself is free and real escape rooms cost $20 to $30 per person (Converted, that's roughly £15 to £20 and AU$27 to AU$40).

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The execution

It's obviously more engaging to look around a physical room searching for clues. A few escape rooms I've tried have been particularly good at hiding clues in plain site. If Escape the Room mentions something, you should probably inspect it. Instead of deciding what's important in a room with dozens of things to look at, you simply need to tell Alexa to inspect the 8 to 10 interactable objects then figure out how they fit together.

Aside from the limitations of the platform, Escape the Room suffers from a few issues with execution as well. Some of the phrasing you need to use isn't intuitive and you need to be very careful with your language when you give a command. For example, if Alexa reads off a long clue or goes over a series of objects, you can't just say "repeat that." You have to examine the area again.

Alexa also didn't understand when I called the "trash bin" a "trash can." And a couple of times I got stuck, even though I'd figured out what to do, mostly because I couldn't figure out what command was necessary to do it. It's aggravating to try to interact with a lock or a seatbelt that Alexa just mentioned, only to have it say "there's no seatbelt to interact with" just because you missed one step in your phrasing.

[[Editor's note: This is Andrew's editor, Rich, an old person. The game Andrew is describing here sounds a bit like Zork to me. Andrew says he has heard of Zork, but is not familiar with it. Perhaps if you are also an old person, you will have heard of Zork, and will find my comparison an appropriate one. You probably also need to make a mortgage payment, or lie down on the ground to relieve your back pain.]] 

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You can play Escape the Room for free on any Alexa-enabled smart speaker. 

Ian Knighton/CNET

As you might expect with a smart speaker, playing the game with multiple people can be difficult. You'll want to make sure your group is coordinated when it's time to give Alexa commands. If multiple people speak at once, Alexa won't understand and you won't get anywhere. In real escape rooms, having multiple groups working on different puzzles and looking in different places is almost a necessity. Here it's a hindrance. 

So Escape the Room certainly doesn't capture all of the cooperative magic of real escape rooms. I fondly remember many narrow escapes, and getting a beer afterwards with my cohorts to recap our puzzle solving exploits and near misses is part of the fun. But Escape the Room is free, you can do it on your couch, and it in no way spoils anything for real escape rooms.

In fact, Escape the Room does a surprisingly good job of replicating the nature of the experience as long as you're willing to meet it halfway with your imagination and your patience. For me, I plan to use this game as a great way to tide myself over until my friends can work out a time to tackle the next real set of puzzles together.

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