Based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Escape Experience is an established, brick and mortar company delivering immersive Escape Room experiences to the masses. Recognising the impact of COVID-19, they’ve adapted to these uncertain times, and created several play-at-home Escape Rooms where you directly control an Avatar as they traverse the physical space around them. Whilst we are unable to visit in person, through a finely tuned and choreographed setup, we’re able to dive into the challenge and come out smiling!
I spoke with Michael, Owner of Escape Experience Chattanooga to learn more about his latest digital venture.
What is Escape Experience and what is your role within the company?
Escape Experience was the first company to bring the escape room game entertainment concept to Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2014, and I am the original founder and sole owner of the company. We’re a really small firm, only about 20 employees total, so that means my role is to do a little bit of anything and everything, from hosting groups and operating the actual escape rooms, to building the physical sets, designing puzzles, and doing really boring stuff like bookkeeping, payroll, and accounting. You name it, I probably do some of it. Most recently, I’ve even played the role of virtual avatar and operative – as needed, in our online games.
As a company, Escape Experience’s mission has always been to offered immersive, interactive escape room games in which participants are “locked-in” a themed experience and given one hour to escape by working together to find clues and solve puzzles all leading on a path to freedom. Each escape room we create is designed to immerse participants in the story with the set, puzzles, and overall experience all created to engage the senses, break the ice, and create a unique environment for fun interactions with one another. The Escape Experience has retail locations in the downtown tourist districts of Chattanooga and Nashville, Tennessee. But currently, our brick and mortar rooms are closed to the public. That’s why we are offering all of them online as a virtual escape room game experience.
With lockdown being imposed across the US and World, how does your new latest remote virtual escape room game products compare to the real thing?
Honestly, there’s still nothing like the real thing; like playing inside the actual sets of the rooms. But the virtual experiences are about as close as it gets and there are some key advantages over playing in person. The most obvious is you can play one of our virtual rooms from anywhere without having to travel. People in the UK that might never venture to Nashville or Chattanooga, Tennessee to play one of our rooms can simply grab a laptop and experience our creation online.
What’s more, you can play with people you might otherwise never have to opportunity to play an escape room with. Take for example families that are spread out across multiple cities can unite online and test their wits in one of our clever scenarios. Even remote workers and teams can play together with other remote co-workers and teams from other countries together in the same room online; which otherwise would require an enormous amount of effort to bring everyone together in one location.
How long did it take you to come up with the idea, from concept to rollout?
We came up with the idea almost immediately after being told to close our doors to the public. It was really more of a joke than an idea really. After that, the longest delay n moving forward was simply in convincing ourselves that it wasn’t a crazy idea. To be frank, it was out of desperation and need to start and generating some form of revenue that finally convinced us to move forward and give the virtual concept try. After that, it was just a tedious process of (about three days per experience) of taking creating the 360 virtual tours, taking pictures of literally everything in the rooms, editing, and uploading and creating the individual webpages to correspond to each level of the games. Oh, and with all of the stores closed, we had a lot of trouble acquiring all of the necessary equipment for video conferencing (i.e headsets, microphones, camera). We’ve upgraded a lot of our equipment, but during the first week or two, we were using equipment purchased from truckstops – whatever we could find.
What do you hope your players can take from this play-at-home or work experience?
First and foremost, I want them to have a blast. An escape room game is an event, and it suppose to be a really fun one. I want our virtual escape rooms to be the same – a fun event online; a reason and an excuse to get everyone together – even together online to just hang out and have fun. Just because we’re trapped in our home, that doesn’t mean we can’t still play together as a group – online. Most people won’t organize a Zoom call with 8 of their friends or co-works at once (unless it’s a boring work meeting). We give you a reason to get everyone together to connect and have some fun online – even at work. You don’t have to decide what to talk about or what to do. It’s not awkward – it just happens.
Ultimately, I hope everyone leaves with a fun memory of a place they’ve visited – in this case, a place they visited online. Whether you’re a group of friends or family or a workgroup doing a virtual team-building challenge, I’m just excited to have a new means of sharing our creative works with you and the whole world community and I hope you and everyone else leaves our virtual game rooms with a big smile on your face, and a sense of shared adventure and accomplishment.
SPOILER: What’s your favorite part of the remote virtual escape room game?
Definitely when we get to rip the eyeball out of one of the prop dead guy’s face. That always gets lots of player feedback and it’s fun to hear their laughter and comments. I also really enjoy listening to all of the different accents that are speaking. We get a lot of players from the United Kingdom, Ireland, even Switzerland – it’s really fun listening to how they speak differently than us – even calling things by different names. For example, what we call a trash can, they call a wastebasket, and so on. Little things like that I find intriguing.
My Review – Vaccine: Search for the Cure
I assembled my team and took on a couple of the currently available Rooms – Vaccine: Search for the Cure and The Bunker. We had an absolute BLAST in both and really enjoyed ourselves.
Starting with Vaccine: Search for the Cure, we heard a looped Radio Broadcast message that held some key points, and we became aware of the backstory. “The year is 2035 and the human race is in a terrible state of pandemic outbreak. Within months of discovering patient zero, 90% of the human population is dead already or worse. You are one of a few known survivors.”
Suddenly, we found ourselves trapped inside a darkened room, with nothing but a dim torchlight and a slightly panicked voice. Seeing everything from the eyes of the host, we were able to direct him to look around and see if we could find any clues. This was an old house, but it seemingly had no electricity and we were in near darkness. Shortly after starting the game, we were given access to a 360 degree view of the (darkened) room for us to view in a separate browser window, so that we could look closer at the details, and this proved an invaluable source of information. It enabled us to zoom in and pick out interesting key points to then relay to the host to inspect further, something that would be tricky to do without. Some things of note were pinpointed on this 360 degree map, but it was ultimately down to us to work out if it was relevant and what to do with it, if anything.
The system works well – the host is armed with a scanning device, and as they come across new items, they “scan” it in and provide you with a photographic copy for your records, that is accessible and visible at any time. I highly recommend having a second device that you can view these on (or a second monitor) so that you can flick through the pieces and find out what’s relevant without too much switching back and forth, but it won’t affect your gameplay too much if you just have the one device. Everything remains available once scanned, and as you start to decipher codes and bits of information, you can begin to eliminate used clues and focus on what remains.
We progressed through the areas without too many hiccoughs, finding clues and props across the entire area and were able to converse with the host throughout. Each scene was intricate and detailed, and gave plenty to think about and consider. This isn’t some small-time setup, this is an absolutely fantastic physical creation over in Tennessee!
Something I particularly appreciated and enjoyed was the fact that the host only did what we asked him to do. This meant that it was US playing the game rather than the game playing us. At countless points, the host could have picked up an object that was in an obvious location, but he refrained from doing so, meaning we were able to work out exactly what we needed and why. This for me is a big point as I was a little concerned that the host may be a little too generous with the clue giving, and give us an easy ride. Not the case here!
The narrative flowed quite naturally throughout, and we managed to work out the story and what we had to do, we just had to work out how to do it! The host held character for the entirety and was able to convey all the different feelings and emotions that we needed to pick up on – from nerves to panic, we felt it all!
I’m not about to spoil the surprises, the story, the mystery or the inner secrets of this escape, but there was plenty of searching, clue finding, code cracking and logical thinking involved, and each one of my teammates got stuck in and found something of value. It got a little tense in the final ten minutes when we were presented with something that stumped us, but noticing that we were a little confused, the host jumped in with some guidance and we were soon on our merry way. Escaping with seconds to spare, and in dramatic fashion, we made it!
We thoroughly enjoyed Vaccine: Search for the Cure and the entire experience was well crafted from beginning to end. The storyline was on point, and the characterisation was played perfectly by the host. With all of the interactivity of scanning in objects and being able to manipulate not only the host, but your own copy of the current room, this remote play Escape Room translated well on screen from many thousands of miles away. The technology making this possible is astounding, something we’ll be taking a closer look at very soon ;-).
After a short break and a change of host, we jumped straight into our second Escape Room – The Bunker. With a short introduction to the story, we settled in to the game and gathered our bearings, but not before a sudden scene played out live on camera, directly from the room. This set the story up perfectly, making the aim of the game crystal clear – Stop The Launch, SAVE THE WORLD!
The time started, and in typical escape room style, we collected as much information as possible. Giving the instruction for the host to search through draws, look at the walls, pictures, posters, locks and more, we slowly worked out which way we needed to progress in this bunker.
The thing that really blew us away with this particular game is the sheer intricacy of the room. This wasn’t just a room, this was a custom built and immersive piece of theatre set design. The walls, gates and ceilings all accurately represented the inner workings of a real bunker, and to see if firsthand was astounding. It’s difficult to put it into words just how great the themeing on this is, so here’s a picture from the 360 degree map for the room.
There was a LOT of stuff to sift through in this game, and the more physical props and clues we found, the more digital assets we had access to. As they’re delivered via the chat (in the form of a link to an external page), I was soon inundated with 20 open tabs alongside the live feed. We quickly realised that we had to split up and focus on individual bits and bobs, as otherwise we’d very quickly get bogged down with too much information!
We quickly gained access to further rooms within the bunker, but the puzzles became more challenging (but not impossible) to crack. A lot of what we needed was there in front of us, but we had to be alert and take notice in order to tell the host to grab it before moving elsewhere. As with the previous room, I thoroughly appreciate the fact that the host allows himself to be directed away from a clue, if that’s what he is instructed to do. This means you have to work for every little detail, making it more rewarding when you finally manage to complete a puzzle. Some may find it frustrating but for me it was the best way to deliver the experience. We’re the controllers for a physical being, and he’s taking orders (though, remain polite, we’re all in this together!).
The scale of the bunker became apparent at around the 20 minute point when we were looking at gaining access to other rooms. This combined with the ticking clock put the pressure on and ramped up the excitement – we HAD to stop the launch, and quick! We weren’t just passively watching somebody run around a bunker, we were in total control!
As we neared the end of the game, with the timer still ticking, we found our way into a room that I just wish I could have been in physically. It had one of the most enjoyable parts of the mission, and involved being able to accurately relay information to your teammates in order to pass. We nailed it and moved on quickly, but I can imagine that if you aren’t conversing well with your team, this would be very difficult. It solidified for me that these experiences involve teamwork and ability to converse clearly, as this puzzle required at least two people in order to pass successfully.
Part of the ending actually made me jump, but I loved it. The sense of achievement was great and we all celebrated alongside our host. We’d done it, we stopped the launch, and had an absolute BLAST in the process! The sheer scale of this room was astounding. Every inch was themed perfectly and really gave the impression that this is a real, underground bunker. I truly wish I could traverse the rooms in person, and maybe I will one day as it’s definitely a great theatrical set.
There are so many bits I want to share from both experiences, but I’ve refrained from doing so as I don’t want to give too much away. I could delve into the story, relay it, add a ton of photos and show you all of the props, but the fun in these experiences is finding it all for yourself. The sense of achievement when you crack a puzzle and unlock a new piece = unrivalled. I’ve focused on portraying the overall experience in a way that is unobtrusive, and hopefully gives you an incentive to try it out for yourself!
Many thanks to Michael and the entire Escape Experience Chattanooga team for inviting us to try out their two games. We’re set to have a run through of a couple of the other rooms, including some New unreleased experiences very soon, so keep your eyes peeled for this. We also have something a little different to share with you may find interesting, as we take a look at the inner workings and scale of the production, and just how much work goes into creating these fantastic games.
To take on these challenges, head on over to the Escape Experience Chattanooga Virtual Escape Room Games page to find out more. Prices start from just $25 PP.