The antique lobby of the Escape Hotel was dimly lit, smoky and adorned with candles and a Ouija board – eerie enough to put the haunted Overlook Hotel of “The Shining” to shame.
Gaunt, skull-faced hotel workers looked on silently as my group and I completed a scavenger hunt, unlocked a box and rang the bell inside. Thus began my first experience with escape rooms – puzzle games where players are locked in a room and must solve a series of mysteries within a time limit to escape.
Escape Hotel, which opened July 19, is the world’s largest escape room, boasting 10 games in its approximately 14,000-foot facility on Hollywood Boulevard.
Each of the 10 games has a different theme, ranging from a 1961 mafia meetup to the zombie apocalypse to a haunted daycare.
“We were thinking of themes that were interesting for video games because at the end of the day, this is really similar to a video game,” said Ivan Leon, one of Escape Hotel’s founders and game designers.
Leon said all of the puzzles were designed around the use of interactive props in each room to logically fit into the context of the setting and advance the story.
Players have one hour to tackle a series of puzzles and complete their mission in teams of up to eight people, depending on the room. Puzzle rooms vary in difficulty, and my team challenged the “Zombie” game, one of the more difficult games currently available.
Entering the game room presented a jarring transition from the posh, red cloth lobby to the metal, green-lit laboratory of the game world. My team had to complete a dead scientist’s work and find the cure for the zombie apocalypse in the final hour before the world ended. The props added a grisly atmosphere to the lab and included severed heads, gas masks and medical textbooks.
The elaborate set design made it easy to become immersed in the story of the game. The puzzles increased in difficulty as we progressed through the room, leaving us stumped and burning through our time. As this was my first experience with escape rooms, Escape Hotel set a high bar for scenery, game complexity and storytelling.
The desire to discover what lay behind locked doors and cabinets combined with the sense of accomplishment after completing a puzzle provide the motivation to persevere through particularly tough puzzles. Occasionally, the hotel staff dropped cryptic hints when we were stumped, but still left enough secret to leave us the satisfaction of solving the problem.
Most of the puzzles, though challenging, ran smoothly. One puzzle did not work as the creators likely intended, and after several hints, unsuccessful attempts and wasted minutes, the game maker gave the answer so we could move on. While it would have been nice to solve the puzzles without help, advancing through the room felt more important than pride or self-reliance. After pressing the final button, we finished as the first group to complete the game room.
Escape Hotel’s dedication to the story creates a sense of realism. The staff carried themselves in a formal, otherworldly manner and spoke with stiff, slightly menacing tones, like the evil butler from every horror mystery film. Props like trays of dirty medical tools and and blood vials made it easy to be sucked into the Escape Hotel mythos.
“We wanted to create a whole experience that starts from the entrance,” Leon said. “In regards to the game, most people have not finished them, but our goal here is to entertain; the success rate in the games is not something we are concerned about.”
In the age where entertainment is largely digital and technological, escape rooms bring back the types of interaction and connection of the pre-digital era. The physical movement through the environments and manipulation props create a game experience that the small screens of modern technology cannot capture.