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Analog Antagonist? Why Physical Locks Aren't a Dealbreaker

Analog Antagonist? Why Physical Locks Aren't a Dealbreaker

Jeremy Kowkabany |

Do you cringe when you encounter a directional lock? Does turning a key or rotary lock dial bore you to your core? Many believe that the industry should begin leaving physical locks behind in favor of more technological options. This, however, may be a bad direction for the industry. Thus, it is good for us to click the lock twice, reset, and rethink.

Avast! Board me pirate ship! We are off to find the mysterious treasure of Red Beard The Barbarous! Along the way, we will encounter many fearsome creatures, mysterious ancient curses, terrifying sea witches who wrought rancorous riddles for you to solve, and… a number pad? Yes, after brilliantly solving your way into the secret cave on the mysterious ancient island, you need only to input a single four digit numerical code into a modern number pad mounted on the wall in order to enter the treasure room. Wait, you did remember to press pound at the end right? No? Oh well wait for a moment for the lock to reset, once the red light comes back on you can try again. Okay now make sure you hit pound this time. Great! You have entered into the grand treasure room, and the gold is almost in your grasp! You simply must place the idols you’ve collected onto the great alter and the treasure will appear… wait. You need to move one of those idols just a little to the left. The ancient sea gods are apparently very specific about where they want their idols placed. Yes so move that anchor a little to the left and that flower a little to the right and…

This may be one of the most frustrating things to happen in an escape room. Often, the sea gods are not to blame but rather the malfunction of some technological sensor. This seems to have happened to me more often recently than it did in the past. Indeed, as escape rooms have evolved they have incorporated more and more “tech locks” and less physical locks, and thus an increase in malfunctions should also be expected. Of course, I do not believe that this should prevent escape rooms from using the tech locks. When used properly, these locks and their corresponding puzzles have a huge capacity to enhance the quality of a room. This piece should not primarily function as a refutation of tech locks, but a defense of physical locks. This defense may be especially critical now, as I commonly observe enthusiasts ask for recommendations for rooms which have few or no physical locks at all. These requests always sadden me a bit as I think of all the amazing rooms I have done which had many physical locks.

For the sake of this piece, I am defining a physical lock as any lock that does not require electricity to function. Directional locks, lock boxes, key locks, letter or number locks, and even deadbolts would be examples of physical locks. Tech locks are a bit more diverse. They include number pads, touch screen inputs, and puzzles in which objects must be placed or arranged in a certain way in order to open a maglock or other automated lock. Often, physical locks and tech locks have the same input (numbers, letters, directions, etc.) so that they could be interchanged if necessary. Thus, it is often a question of cost and theming as well as functionality when it comes to determining which kind of lock to use. Given these criteria, there may be pros and cons for both physical and tech locks, as I will discuss subsequently.

I have heard many enthusiasts complain about physical locks breaking immersion. I will admit I am sympathetic to this argument in some situations. It does seem strange that the alien spaceship from another galaxy would have a Master Lock securing their control panel. This argument, however, also applies to tech locks under different circumstances. It is very off-putting to see a number pad in a pirate ship or ancient temple and has the same immersion breaking effect. That is not to say that technology cannot be implemented in rooms with a pre-modern aesthetic. While simple number pads and touch screens may be off limits, puzzles which utilize object placement can still be implemented. Often, this is done by invoking “magic”. Everyone understands that when you finish constructing the ancient emblem and the tomb entrance suddenly and automatically opens, we should credit some magical entity, rather than ascribing a modernity to the theme. This, however, brings us to another potential problem with tech locks.

After playing a couple hundred escape rooms, I can think of less than a handful of times when a physical lock has failed. Physical locks can get old and stick, or can be reset incorrectly such that their input is not longer proper, but their simplicity makes them far less susceptible to malfunction compared to tech locks. Unfortunately, despite having seen them slightly less often than physical locks, I can think of many times in which a tech lock has failed or worked imperfectly. This is a big problem for cutting edge escape rooms and is a key source of consternation for enthusiasts. I sometimes see the people who demanded that rooms only utilize tech locks later complain when those locks fail. Thus, it is fair to say that tech locks can greatly enhance the escape experience… if they work.

While the drawbacks of physical locks are more commonly stated, it would still be unfair not to include them here. After doing many escape rooms, it becomes annoyingly evident how similar most physical locks are. I have opened so many padlocks at this point that it has lost much of its luster. It is certainly more satisfying to see a treasure chest rise slowly and grandiosely from a hidden location when you correctly arrange the appropriate items than to simply put in a four number code and open lock and then a box with the chest inside. There is no question that the presence of tech locks allows rooms to incorporate thematic elements and puzzles that physical locks would not be able to support. I can even understand the viewpoint of enthusiasts who refuse to do rooms with absolutely no tech locks, as such rooms are virtually always limited in the awe they can invoke. If the standard is, however, that rooms can have no physical locks at all, this clearly creates perverse incentives for owners who will incorporate tech locks and puzzles where they are not thematically appropriate or even perfectly functional.

Ultimately, a balance must be achieved here. Tech locks open many doors for the escape room industry, both figuratively and literally. This is a good thing. However, eliminating physical locks and implementing only tech locks is a problem. Choosing to fulfill a theoretical ideal rather than to enhance the theme and functionality of a room is a bad direction for the industry.

Jeremy Kowkabany

Jeremy Kowkabany

Writer, escape room expert

I am a lover of puzzles, riddles, and puns or anything mentally challenging! Along with my day job as a condensed matter physics PhD student, I am seeking a new challenge writing about my extensive experience with escape rooms in Florida and beyond! My writing experience encapsulates a great range of topics, from highly technical physics papers to wacky romantic comedies! When I am not calculating, researching, or escaping I am probably playing Quadball or playing trivia at a local bar.

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