Critical Play: Puzzle – Bank Heist Escape Room

This week was especially fun, as the weekend landed on two important family events: my father’s birthday, and Mother’s Day! To celebrate, my family decided to splurge on a very engaging activity – an escape room. The specific escape room was themed as a Bank Heist, hosted at Limitless Escape Games in Livermore, California. We played as a family of four (myself, my mother, my father, and my younger brother) alongside another family of four (with two young boys ~8 years of age).  The target audience was arguably very large in range, as in addition to our relatively family-focused play group, there was a larger party of adults (mid 20’s) that went to a differently themed room. The escape room was also labelled “Medium/Hard” in difficulty, with a 60 minute time limit. Michael Hill created and founded Limitless Escape Games the company, though it is unclear who actually designed the games themselves. 

The simple, yet thought provoking, mechanics of the puzzles embedded into the escape room probe the mind into viewing the whole experience as a fun (mastery) and collaborative challenge. I will be reviewing the different mechanisms of a few puzzles completed in this game experience. 

Photo of the 1st room featuring the computer (which needed the Computer Password). (Sourced from G. Maps)

The Computer Password

Arguably, one of the first puzzles intended to be completed in the room, the computer password was actually the puzzle that completely stumped my entire 8-person team. In retrospect, it was very simple. The puzzle was to use a provided poster and a provided paper with cut-outs to overlay the cut-outs over the poster, thus using the exposed letters as the password. However, my team tried several different approaches in reading the exposed letters, failing to realize that the letters were supposed to be rearranged into a word. So, we made several attempts with “nenpy” and “ ypnen”, until near the end of the entire game, we entered “penny.” This was one puzzle that left us frustrated and confused, blaming the keyboard, blaming the computer, and turning the poster every which way. After solving the puzzle of course, the answer was glaringly obvious. Thus, the mechanism of the puzzle which failed to indicate to us that the letters needed to be rearranged, negatively impacted the experience of the game. This one failure in the overall game did not have too much of a negative affect, however, and again in retrospect seemed quite obvious. I wonder if including a hint that the password was a word rather than the more modern randomized scramble of letters and numbers would have improved the solving of this puzzle. Furthermore, I speculate that the only issue we had with that puzzle was because of our mental model of a password is something more similar to “p3nnY67#!@847”  than “penny.” This is likely a change that has occurred over time, a change that the creators of the game back in 2017 may have not yet expected. 


Manual Override 

Artistic rendition of the fourth puzzle block provided in the email on the computer.

This puzzle included several different pieces that were unlocked as a result of other puzzles being solved. This is an example of several loops leading to a larger arc; the loops being similar poster-based puzzles unlocking a drawer that held the block; the arc being the final puzzle completed by adding all blocks together. Thus, it was one of the more advanced puzzles which also needed multiple people to solve. It began with three wood blocks with filled-in and empty circles of different colors. Each block was the prize of a different puzzle being solved, and only near the end of the game did we assemble all the blocks together.Note: The fourth block, was not physically present, and needed to be accessed via the emails stored on the locked computer. This is a successful use of level regulation; intentional use of space to control the timing and linearity of the game. Because we had to complete several puzzles to access the final puzzle, it created a linear path that could not be avoided or bypassed. This is also a fair escalation in challenge, as by completing earlier puzzles/levels, we ensure the player has learned the necessary skills to complete the later  puzzles/levels. Once all blocks were assembled, it formed a 4×4 grid of circles. At first thought, it might have been a binary code. But after a glance upon the room, I was able to identify a 4×4 grid of switches and matched my mental model of On/Off to Closed/Open circles.

Artistic rendition of what my mental model of what an on/off switch looks like. (Sourced from G. Images)

Through this match, and the further clues given as the result of a different puzzle indicating that a green full circle = right, green open circle = left, etc, I was able to solve the 4×4 switch grid which then unlocked the large safe door (allowing access to a new room). This culmination of puzzles resulted in a feeling of mastery as satisfaction, as by learning to solve little, easy puzzles, we were able to solve even larger, more complex puzzles. The completion of an arc with a more difficult puzzle also allowed us to feel satisfaction in ending a physical level(room) and moving to the next level(room). The Manual Override puzzle was a very effective use of game architecture that allowed for player mastery, satisfaction, and adequate challenge.



Overall, this bank heist escape room was a very enjoyable experience! My team of 8 escaped with 20 minutes to spare, meaning we only took 40 minutes to solve all the puzzles. I have the feeling that we would have solved the room much faster had we been able to figure out the computer password faster, but the game was played in a lighthearted manner and I believe everyone was satisfied with our end result.

Photo of me (far left) with my family after completing the escape room. My mother holds the diamond that we successfully stole 🙂


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