A long time ago, when many still viewed the internet as the thing that came on those CDs that arrived in the mail, flash-based games began to pop up on a few janky websites that challenged players to try and escape the virtual room they’d been dropped into. From these humble beginnings, the concept of the escape room has since jumped off screens and into real life. In the past few years, countless real world iterations of these locked rooms have popped up around the world, delighting and frustrating players, and making the proprietors quite a bit of money.
With virtual reality emerging as the umpteenth Wild West to be conquered in the digital age, and given the cyclical nature of everything, it only makes sense that escape room games have finally started to embrace the innovation. Combining the limitless canvas of a computer simulation with the full body experience of the brick-and-mortar escape room industry, a few intrepid developers have taken the next logical step for these experiences, bringing us all one step closer to the Holodeck in the process.
One such proprietor of these collaborative activities is Virtual Room Hollywood, a twist on the standard escape format that sends participants on a journey through time and space for far less than what such an endeavor might cost in the real world. Located right in the bustling, touristy heart of Hollywood, the company invites groups of two to four people to strap up in HTC Vive goggles and paddles before being dropped into a futuristic world in disarray.
“The year is 2217,” reads the company website. “These are dangerous times. The Alpha team, responsible for time exploration, has disappeared. A temporal rift has been detected in the past, which may cause humanity's disappearance from the Earth... forever.”
Apparently, the only way to restore order is for the Beta team of players to traverse various time locales across the course of history, solving a mystery in each new zone in order to progress. As someone who likes escape rooms and dislikes messy time paradoxes, I decided to visit Virtual Room Hollywood with a friend to personally tackle the challenge of cleaning up Alpha team’s mess. While it’s somewhat difficult to go into much detail about what transpired next without creeping into spoiler territory, I can honestly say it was one of the most immersive VR experiences I’ve had to date.
After we suited up and familiarized ourselves with the controls and rules of our virtual surroundings, my teammate and I kicked into gear and began blazing through the tasks before us with ease. My one quibble with the whole experience is that I’d have liked if the difficulty level were just a wee bit higher. That said, I am someone who has logged an above-average number of hours in both VR and escape rooms, so I imagine this game’s current difficulty has been optimized less for me and more for random people just wandering in off the street.
Though we were operating a few meters apart in our own private real-world empty space cubes, it didn’t take long before my partner and I had successfully pushed, twisted, shot and thrown our way to saving the planet from adystopian fate.
During our (still virtual) debriefing back at home base, we were teleported to a room full of props from various stages of our adventure that we were encouraged to pick up and play with while taking celebratory VR selfies. What very may well have been a throw-away feature, added in as an afterthought, proved to be almost as enjoyable an experience as the core quest itself. While posing and laughing our way through our “film roll,” my friend and I both agreed that this could be the secret sauce necessary to make such an experience a hit with the Instagram generation. After all, if you don’t have photo evidence of an activity, did you really even do it?
As VR becomes more integrated into our daily lives, at least in the realm of entertainment, I’m excited to see what the still-waiting-to-be-tapped wellspring of creativity can bring to the space. Virtual Room Hollywood currently only has the one scenario available for players, but a new one is already in development. Given the nature of the platform, it’s only a matter of time before they have a robust catalogue of interactive stories for teams to play through.
I can only hope that companies like Virtual Room Hollywood, integral players in the effort to normalize and demystify the medium for the masses, get their coins before this frontier is tamed. Because it won’t be long before every household has its own VR rig and square of carpet permanently partitioned off for all manner of activities, each easily downloadable in a Steam-like marketplace. And if these virtual-room escape companies haven’t figured out longer-term plans for transitioning to the next step in this cycle, they might be facing some real-world business problems, one without a time travel remedy available.