Back in the '90s, long before I was penned in an apartment with two small children and a diminishing supply of fresh fruit, I could never have guessed that each afternoon I spent slouched on the couch watching a game show about a labyrinth was preparing me for this future. Weekdays at 4 p.m. after school, me and my sister would sit watching seventh-graders run through the mirror room and the toy shop, past the penguins and down the crazy slide looking for letters and keys on A*mazing, a game show that saw Australian schools go head to head over the big prize (Nintendo Gameboys, mostly). My dreams of competing on Double Dare and A*mazing remain unfulfilled, but I have wound up doing the next best thing: recreating them in my Brooklyn apartment where nothing new can be created, and no new spaces discovered: where there is just me, my husband, my 3- and 4-year-old kids, and long hours to fill with increasingly bizarre games.
A*mazing, which aired on Channel 7, was hosted by James Sherry, a young man in bright colorways whom I still have a soft spot for, and followed in the tradition of Double Dare and British gameshow The Crystal Maze with a) a timer, b) people racing to find collectibles, and c) a sense from your couch that you would do much better than the competitors.
At the start of the show, James Sherry would introduce the competitors with a questionnaire ("When I'm old enough, I look forward to: Owning my own boat.") then punt them into the challenges. What was touching about the competitors on all these shows was that they were often very bad at the game, accidentally chewing through their teammate's time in the maze or walking blindly past the bonus prize key. On TV, as in real life, the fighter you get to choose is unfortunately just you in knee pads (or you clutching a wine bottle in a robe).
This was also true of The Crystal Maze, which had grown families navigating an extensive network of riddles in a hunt for Swarovski crystals before they reached the center of the labyrinth, The Crystal Dome, which looked like the kind of thing you might accidentally catalyze inside the Hadron Collider. Richard O'Brien, the "Maze Master" on The Crystal Maze, brought real Jared the Goblin King energy to proceedings, with camp theming, tight pants, and a sense of desolation where the set receded into darkness.
Watching unassuming Brits try to drag an oversized morning star through a room of bars, you had the sense that nothing existed beyond the frame; that families had simply arrived in the maze with no way forward other than through. In other words, that they were all of us in our houses right now playing a new, absurd MMPORG.
The good news is it is very easy to put on your own Crystal Maze at home. Our apartment is essentially a railroad with doors, but once you begin to think of it as zones with hidey-hole hot spots, it gets very exciting for a 3-year-old. Our labyrinth games began with a simple Easter egg hunt (in March, when I was a young lady of 22), but as we played over and over the best hiding spots began to emerge, fueling a more thrilling run the next time over to see if there was anything hiding in Santa's mailbox, a metal box that opens and closes. It is now week four of the shut-in, and I today glued together a proper glittery oversized key for us to hide and find. Other signature items have included a plastic banana and stuffed toy rabbit.
Letters will be next. I am not ashamed to say I have followed 0% of the pre-K curriculum generously emailed each day by my daughter's teacher — I have been parenting and working full-time on my own for three weeks, so no, we have not written out the sight words or performed the days of the week or sounded out the signature letter, but I will absolutely teach my kids about the letter K if it's hiding inside the jewelry box or behind the cactus.
As a parent faced with 13 hours of wakeful toddler energy each day in an apartment only slightly larger than some bouncy castles, I feel more and more like a Maze Master each day. There is the need to shout directions into the next room as my kids hunt for the one special thing they have misplaced, or the special pair of banana pants they can't find in their underwear drawer. There is the need to assure them, when they lose hope, that I am in control of this labyrinth, and know the way out. There is always the glint of the promised prize (a bribe of some sort) getting us through an ill temper.
Sometimes my kids take turns being the Maze Master, and I begin the hunt for plastic eggs by spying a carefully placed pink egg under the handle of the watering can, followed by four eggs "hidden" at the base of a lamp (the younger Maze Master shrieks with excitement once I find them). Of course they need to feel a sense of control, too. I highly recommend this activity as a means to getting through the alterreality of the next six to 12 months.
To create your own crystal maze at home, all you need are:
- your phone's timer
- to settle into the understanding that this is your new world for the forseeable future
Your time starts... now.