If you live in New York, you may have occasionally seen a banner ad pop up on Facebook advertising Paradiso Escape as one of the newest and most cutting-edge entrants in what is beginning to seem like a possibly over-saturated immersive theater market. They have recently added a Part II (The Memory Room, discussed here) and Part III (The Path of Beatrice, a longer-form higher-priced ‘real word’ adventure) to accompany their initial production called The Escape Test, which was previously reviewed here. According to Paradiso Escape’s website, they are seeking to elevate the escape-room experience by adding a continuing narrative throughout their work – they “tell the story of the Virgil Corporation, a global mega-corporation led by a team of behavioral scientists who seek conclusive proof of the Escape gene”¦those with the gene may help to lead our precarious species into an enlightened paradise of order, balance, and peace.” Presumably, if you’re capable enough to escape the room, you will have caught the attention of Virgil Corporation.
Before we enter into the review portion of this essay and to ensure that you’re in the right state of mind, I’d like you to solve a riddle. Are you up for the challenge? Let’s begin.
The riddle is: What kind of room has no doors or windows? Your time starts NOW.
Maybe you guessed “an escape room.” You’re most likely extrapolating that from the accompanying show details, headline, and photos, but you’re also incorrect. Although an escape room often has no windows, because it is generally (at least in Manhattan) a tiny enclosed office-type space on some middle floor of a nondescript office building, it will have a door. In fact, that’s usually the central feature of any escape room – the door that you must unlock to get out.
Unless you’ve already resorted to googling the answer on your phone, which is intelligent in terms of problem solving but not actually the point, which I think – having now one experience under my belt – is to use your brain and not your technology, I’ll keep waiting for your answer. That said, I really wish I had brought my phone in with me (it was optional) because our first puzzle was a riddle and it took us something like fifteen minutes to figure it out, which is bad when you only spend an hour in the room before you run out of time and the lights come up and you are ushered out. (Spoiler – we lost.)
Stuck on the riddle? Maybe you’re like me and haven’t actually participated in an escape room until now. For the most part, it’s what you would imagine. A team of usually between four and ten audience members are essentially locked in a room (after, in our case, signing a terrifyingly worded waiver in which we acknowledged that what we were about to do was extremely physically dangerous and may result in death or serious injury) and given an hour to figure out how to get out by solving a series of puzzles and challenges.
How, then, even to write this response – how do you review a room? I came across a really excellent white paper published in 2015 full of interesting statistics and varying ways of building a room and the variables that go into it, so I’d highly recommend you linking out to that report, but ONLY AFTER YOU’VE SOLVED THE RIDDLE. Which you still haven’t solved.
Regarding what I learned about the escape room experience in general – your level of engagement will likely be dependent upon whoever you’re in the room with and what kind of a day you’ve had up to that point. It is, after all, a group experience, and often utilized as a team-building exercise. I attended at the end of a very long day; I had asked my wife to come with me, not really knowing whom else to ask, and we staggered our way to Koreatown out of obligation rather than anticipation. Your mindset plays a big part in how you’re going to experience the room, and so – my first recommendation – try not to go on a day that you’re just squeezing it in. Also, if you’re attending with a spouse or long-time partner, make sure that there are other people also ticketed for your room. In our case, it was just us. At one point, I think we both lay down on the floor (not part of what the room wanted us to do). This may or may not have been before we even solved the first riddle.
Of course, it’s not like the room is sentient, not by itself. Another component to the escape room experience is the Gamemaster. This is the person who will introduce the room to you, and then (probably) they will go into a booth somewhere and survey your progress, triggering the various special effects in the room, sometimes speaking to you (or offering clues should you become, as we did repeatedly, stuck). The element of the human behind the room watching is what elevated the experience beyond just gameplay to something a little creepier and more interesting. If not quite theatrical, it was at least moderately interactive. I felt responsible to do as well as possible, so as not to let down that person watching. I wondered what that person was feeling, particularly during that part wherein we just lay on the floor. Did they feel badly for us? Did we feel badly for them, having to experience our seriously inadequate response to solve their puzzles? Was there a sense of ownership over the room; was there a letdown when we failed to solve a particular piece of the puzzle without resorting getting the inevitable clue? Would the Virgil Corporation fire them for helping us out? (In The Memory Room, that plays out as a disembodied pre-recorded voice intoning, “The Answer”¦ Is On The Wall.” And then, in some way, the immersive projected environment that you’re in reveals something that will help you solve the puzzle.)
Obviously I’ve been avoiding commenting too directly on this particular room, in part because it doesn’t seem fair to give away any of the experience (not knowing what will happen when you solve a particular puzzle is most of the fun), and in part because I’m not an expert and haven’t experienced any other rooms (or narrative experiments) and therefore have little to compare it to. I got the sense that this room was centered on the research of the mind of a classified test subject. In terms of storytelling though, the puzzles and the room didn’t do much to reveal said narrative. I wasn’t clear enough on the set-up and situation to apply any story-based logic to the puzzles at hand, although viewed in hindsight, they can be abstractly linked into something resembling a story. Inside the room, however, the experience more closely resembled my experience of watching the BBC’s recent Sherlock television show. It’s moving so fast that you can only focus on the puzzle that’s right in front of you – it’s Sherlock who explains how it all fits together. And despite lacking a Sherlock in our room, we were able to get fairly deep into the room’s experience (it’s a sequential room, which means you have to solve one problem before you can get to the next one) but unable to take away a sense of story or insight, other than we’re not very good at puzzles. Clearly, the Virgil Corporation will have forgotten all about us by now, burned the tapes. We lack the Escape Gene. Then again, perhaps some of the fault lies also with Paradiso Escape, at least in terms of promising an immersive theatrical experience that, for the most part, The Memory Room fails to deliver on. Perhaps they lack the Narrative gene.
My goodness, your time (like ours) is already up. What’s the answer? (Clue: The Answer”¦Is In The Response.) (Even more obvious clue: What letter does each paragraph start with? Read from top to bottom, starting after the riddle is introduced.)