Welcome to 2015's first official installment of Live Active Cultures. This month marks seven years since I started writing this column, and as the song still ringing in my ears says, I want to ensure auld acquaintances aren't forgot with a return to one of my first topics: gaming. In 2014, the international trend of "escape rooms" finally reached Orlando, and our area's first two examples made my list last month of annual highlights. I may have typed too soon, however: International Drive's Escapology joined the puzzle-solving scene just as the year came to a close, and has neatly delineated how the development of this exciting new entertainment format is paralleling the progression of the role-playing adventure games I grew up adoring.
Downtown Orlando's Great Escape Room was the first escape room I experienced, back during the summer, and while I was very impressed at the time, in retrospect it resembled those earliest text-based computer adventure games I obsessed over, like Scott Adams' Pirate Adventure and Infocom's Zork: Production values were virtually nonexistent, with fiendishly obscure puzzle solutions arbitrarily shoehorned into a skeletal plot. I followed that in the fall with It's a Trap in Winter Park, which was like jumping forward a few years to the age of early point-and-click graphic adventures such as Sierra's King's Quest or LucasArts' Maniac Mansion; though the sounds and visuals were a bit crude by current standards, the introduction of characters and humor counterbalanced the lower overall difficulty level.
Finally, I celebrated the New Year by visiting Escapology, which gave me my first good reason in years to drive south of SeaWorld on I-Drive. Orlando's latest puzzle attraction reminded me of my favorite era in adventure gaming: the golden age of CD-ROMs. In college, I lost more than one weekend (and probably a GPA point or two) trying to conquer the classic computerized epics The 7th Guest and Myst. Like those titles, Escapology is an exponentially more polished production than its competition, from the plush pseudo-steampunk lobby that welcomes arriving guests to the Hollywood-style soundtrack subtly escalating the tension as you scramble to complete one of three unique scenarios.
Escapology is the brainchild of owner/director Josh Gould, an Englishman and former escape-room employee who was inspired to create his own version. Orlando is the second site for the franchise (the original is in Koh Samui, an island off Thailand), and according to employees, it has already seen strong interest since its late-December debut. Currently, the available adventures are "Shanghaied," in which you must escape a Chinese junk ship, and "Cuban Crisis," a Cold War nuclear thriller; the Wild West-themed "Arizona Shootout" should come online soon.
I, with the aid of two companions, challenged the Cuban game, which kicks off with a slick video that sets the stage and makes you an American spy in Havana on the eve of Armageddon. Once our friendly game-master explained the ground rules and pointed out the closed-circuit cameras with which they monitor players' progress, we were locked in. Luckily, they listen closely for cries of "Help!" since we needed some hints to overcome our initial roadblocks (plus a couple more along the way).
In the end, we cracked the codes and made it out with about 90 seconds to spare. What happened in Havana, I won't divulge (no spoilers here!), but I can say I was extremely impressed how the parameters of the playing space expanded during the experience; the small (though not claustrophobic) room you initially see isn't all you get. Though a few were real head-scratchers, most of the puzzles fell between the difficulty level of the other two establishments, and were more cleverly integrated into the story line. One of my fellow players was actually an Air Force signal intelligence officer and Russian translator during the Cold War; she felt that Escapology "stayed true to the subject matter" and brought her problem-solving skills from her intelligence days into play, which is pretty high praise.
While pricing is currently in flux (around $25 to $30 per person, with two to six players per game) Escapology is the first such attraction I'd pay out of my own pocket to experience again – which means it shouldn't be long before Orlando's big players find a way to make a buck off it. Universal is rumored to be developing a Ghostbusters-themed escape room for Halloween Horror Nights, which sounds awesome if they can solve the issue of limited capacity. But imagine an entire game-ified theme park with Telltale Games-style ethical options and Elder Scrolls-esque character development, wrapped around an intellectual property like The Lord of the Rings. That's the kind of killer app this concept (and a few hundred million dollars) is waiting for.