“Holy shit, I’m Gary.”
Standing inside the oval office, carrying a brown (knock-off) Leviathan, the magnitude of my situation suddenly dawned on me: I was Gary Walsh, Tony Hale’s character on “Veep” who serves as Selina Meyers’ “body man,” biggest supporter, and asexual second-half.
Suddenly, I felt like a 12-year-old boy trapped inside the body of a 12-year-old girl.
But I needed to get over my newfound role and figure out how to use my knowledge of Gary to help the team. The clock was ticking, and we needed to open the ballot box, count the votes, and help Selina Meyer win the presidency before time expired.
Part trivia challenge, part ultimate fan fiction, this blend of assuming roles and trying to beat the clock carried on throughout HBO’s “The Escape” installation, a series of three escape rooms built specifically for SXSW attendees and showcasing three of the network’s most beloved series: “Veep,” “Silicon Valley,” and “Game of Thrones.”
Each room featured an impressive amount of detail to admire. But you couldn’t spend too much time pretending you were inside your favorite TV shows for fear the clock would go off before you solved all the puzzles.
HBO wasn’t the only escape room game in town. Fox took advantage of the festival setting to stage its own challenge for “Prison Break” (not affiliated with SXSW, but conveniently operating kitty-corner to the Austin Convention Center, where much of the festival’s panels, screenings, and events take place).
Below, we’ve recapped what we learned in each room about the new seasons of each show, which rooms were the most challenging, and what game ultimately best served its series with an unforgettable experience. Oh, and we’ve included the “Veep” team’s videos to help give you an even better sense of what it was like to be there — and to admire showrunner David Mandel’s puzzle-solving skills.
As you can see above, the HBO challenge began with a brief message from a secret service agent:
“Your mission today is to work as a team as you go through three different rooms. In each room, you will have five minutes time to get through it and proceed to the next room. If you have any questions, literally shout out the word ‘clue.'”
Here, the secret service agent paused to listen to a message from his earpiece. “Roger,” he said to into his mic. “Copy that. OK, so we just got word from POTUS, and you’re going to enter the oval office. Behind the oval office desk you will give a speech to our nation, reading from the teleprompter as a team. Remember: Work together as a team, crack the code, and escape the room. Good luck, and thank you for serving our nation.”
At this point my team entered the oval office through a hallway typically guarded by Sue, and the secret service agent handed me the Leviathon right before I stepped inside. Before I could examine its contents — or fully realize my role — the “Veep” theme music played overhead, and we headed swiftly to the teleprompter to start our assignment: The missing ballot box from Nevada had been found and brought to the oval office. We needed to count the ballots in order to ensure a Meyer victory… meaning we were supposed to count every vote for Selina twice.
As we scrambled around looking for clues, insults from the show were hurled at us every minute or so. “You’re the world’s largest single-cell organism,” Ben (Kevin Dunn) shouted. “The level of incompetence in this office is staggering,” Amy said. And, the one that really hurt — “Go back to the natural habitat your nitwit mother found you in, you fucking shaved Sasquatch” — came from Uncle Jeff.
Perhaps in retreat from such hurtful words, I looked inside my satchel and found the keys to the ballot box. Rushing over to open it, a burst of air shot up from the bottom of the box, sending ballots flying everywhere — a fitting fate for the good-intentioned but rarely helpful Gary character. After counting the numbers on each card — Selina’s twice — we unlocked the door and were out!
There was a bunch of mini bottles of booze and a vibrator in the oval office desk.
What We Learned About ‘Veep’
- It’s worth noting that while the ballot counting may have sounded like a Season 5 storyline, the last line of the finale might have hinted at a missing ballot box that could come into play in Season 6. Bob Bradley (Martin Mull), somehow still in the White House, sees the new president, Laura Montez, and says, “Selina, good news: We found the missing Nevada ballots! You won.” Now, Bradley was proven to be off his rocker during Season 5, but every once in a while he told the truth. And considering that there were missing ballots in Nevada, perhaps he received an important phone call Selina did not. Only time will tell, but whether it comes up again or not, it’s a fittingly tragic premise for the ex-Commander-in-Chief.
- President Meyer keeps airplane bottles of booze in her desk — and a vibrator.
- Gary’s Leviathon has a few to-be-expected items like lipstick, Clearasil cream, chapstick, and a magazine. But it also had more booze and a pair of women’s underwear… which, given Gary’s lack of a girlfriend, we can only assume are Selina’s.
- We’ve always been teased about just how deep Gary’s personal relationship with Selina really goes, and now we really need to know more. Here’s hoping Season 6 sheds some light on what Gary’s done for Selina.
- Being Gary is the most thankless job on a staff of unrewarded laborers. Even when I found the keys to open the box, most of my team was just pissed about the ballots flying everywhere, immediately uncaring that we were able to open it. Poor Gary. I feel your pain.
2. “Silicon Valley”
Entering the “Silicon Valley” room felt the most like walking into a television show: References to old episodes, attention to detail in props, and a general onslaught of tips and tricks made it feel like a fully realized immersion experience.
And I reacted horribly.
As my teammates put together a complex puzzle involving arranging spare motherboards on a dish-drying rack, I wandered through the Pied Piper incubator (a.k.a. Bachman’s dining room) lost in all the information: White boards illustrated the greatest dick joke of all time — Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency — as the computers showed instant messages from the characters. It was all so overwhelming, it felt like magic; which led me to imagine myself as Jared: eager to help, but just happy to be in the room. (Of note: I’d never noticed how they have motherboards set up on dish-drying racks in the show, until I after I went through this escape room. Bravo, HBO.)
Once the motherboards were put together properly, the lights flickered — as though it caused a power outage — smoke rose from the kitchen sink, and the room was bathed in darkness. After Monica tipped us off to find the code on the white boards, we noticed that a black light had revealed hidden numbers on the wall. My teammates figured out how to input these as a code on the door’s lock, and we were out!
What We Learned About “Silicon Valley”:
- “Silicon Valley” needs more Monica. Or, at least, it needs more Monica if things don’t want to run awry quite so often (which is obviously part of the show’s charm). She was the biggest help to solving the puzzles, and she knew when to boss us around with much-needed authority.
- Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. The devil’s in the details for Mike Judge’s Emmy-winning comedy, and we’ll be sure to pay closer attention when Season 4 starts up.
- Gary is the Jared of “Veep,” not only because of my similar roles in each room, but because Tony Hale was the one to get ping pong balls dumped on him when the “Veep” team went through this room. (See below.)
3. “Prison Break”
The “Prison Break” room was built into an existing game at “The Escape Game: Austin,” incorporating elements from the upcoming revival series into an established storyline made up by the business. So outside of the tie-ins to Fox’s drama series, we can’t expose any specifics as to what went down in the room: People will still be playing it for a while to come, and we wouldn’t want to ruin it for them.
That being said, there’s not a lot to give away about “Prison Break.” Robert Knepper, in character as T-Bag, provided a welcome video before participants were locked up, and a poster sporting the lead characters — Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) and Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) — was set up in the lobby, but there wasn’t any hints as to the plot of the nine-episode event series.
What was there was pretty damn fun, though. The game itself featured great attention to detail — in terms of feeling like a prison — which made it easy to suspend disbelief and pretend to be a tatted-up Michael putting together a plan to break out. My group — with very little assistance from me — was able to run through the challenges fairly quickly, with seven minutes to spare when we got out, but never did anyone feel like the puzzles were too simple.
That there wasn’t any clues to “Prison Break” seemed secondary, as Fox was intent on providing guests a good experience more than anything. Given that the show’s been off the air for eight years, it’s probably best clues didn’t depend on convicts remembering details from Season 3, Episode 6. Still, we gotta knock a half-grade off since we didn’t really learn anything about “Prison Break.”
4. “Game of Thrones”
Admittedly, this is the one show most people would know backwards and forwards, but I’m not the most devoted “Game of Thrones” follower out there. Entering the room, I worried about confusing character names or forgetting key bits of the mythology. There’s so much information to pull from Westeros, I feared it would all prove overwhelming.
This was not the case. In fact, it was definitely the easiest room to escape of HBO’s three challenges. As we entered, the famous “Game of Thrones” theme song played as snow fell from the ceiling. Decorated like a castle dungeon, the room had a few dead bodies in one corner, a straw man in the other, and swords, shields, and other decorative memorabilia on the walls. Despite the many distractions, a teammate quickly found a note that read:
“Brothers of the Night Watch, winter is coming. Castle Black is under attack. You have five minutes to escape. You must build a map that will guide you to the Iron Throne. Only then will you be able to open the gate, which will require all of your team’s strength.”
We immediately started looking for gears in order to build a crank that would open the gate — “Oh, it’s like the main titles!” a colleague yelled — and found them hidden around the room. Other than a random night watch member running inside and screaming, “Close the door!” there wasn’t much to it. The gears turned. The gate opened. The Iron Throne was waiting outside.
What We Learned About “Game of Thrones”:
- I’m not sure we learned anything so much as we had our pre-established beliefs reinforced: It’s cold near the northern border. Survival is all that matters in Westeros. Don’t be an idiot.
- Perhaps the show titles will play a more prominent role in the end. It’s approaching quickly, after all, and the showrunners know what happens. (We did get a bit of vital information at their panel, in case you missed it.)
- Don’t take swords out of the dungeon. This was a mistake quickly corrected when we approached the throne — though one that does not apply if you’re Reid Scott, it seems.