Immersive Theater in Escape Rooms [Innovation Interview Series]

This is the third in a series of interviews about innovations that enhance storytelling, the next frontier in escape rooms.

“Take me to a place I have never been. Make me into someone I could never be. Let me do things I could never do.” -Lee Sheldon, on what game players want

Strange Bird Immersive in Houston, TX

My wife likes to play escape games. In fact, she has played more than I have. However, she raises an eyebrow every time I start going on about traveling thousands of miles to play the next great game on my list. She usually gives in and tags along, not reluctantly, but because she’s suspicious about my promises that it will be worth it. 

As we left Strange Bird’s The Man From Beyond and walked to our rental car, she punched me in the arm. I looked over. She had tears in her eyes and a big bottom lip. With a laugh, half mad at herself for being emotional and half laughing at herself for being emotional, she said, “escape rooms aren’t supposed to make me cry.” 

As we headed to dinner with our two sons and talked about what we had just been a part of, she teared up again thinking about it. That is The Man From Beyond. 

Image via Strange Bird Immersive

That is the power of story, the power of immersion, and the possibilities that become available through the proper use of immersive theater in escape rooms. It’s what turns a game into an experience.

The Man From Beyond was ranked #3 in the 2019 TERPECA listing, the highest ranked room in North America. My vote helped it get there, even if just a tiny bit.

I reached out to Haley E. R. Cooper, co-artistic director of Strange Bird Immersive and author of Immersology.com, to learn more about using immersive theater in escape rooms and about their creative process. Her response was inspiring.

Why combine immersive theater with escape rooms?

Cooper: Strange Bird Immersive is an immersive theatre company first and foremost—we just happen to enjoy making escape room stories. 

When we played our first escape room, we were inspired because it had all the features of immersive theatre. The world surrounds you and the audience has agency. It was just missing the theatre element of quality, live storytelling.

Why does it work?

Cooper: Adults crave adventure—the kind of adventure kids play-act all the time—but they need someone to create it for them. It needs to be serious, beautiful, and believable for them to feel unselfconscious, in order to slip into play-acting without feeling silly. We rarely find ourselves in situations that inspire us to act differently than we usually do. Immersive theatre is our doorway to that, and we aim for you to leave Strange Bird Immersive changed.

How does it work?

Cooper: Where most escape rooms start the imaginary world with puzzles and the 60-minute clock, Strange Bird Immersive immerses you in a believable world from the moment you cross our threshold, creating a more cinematic experience from start to finish. We never mention the word “escape room” on site. Players meet characters living in that world, giving the game a stronger sense of reality.

Our characters travel with the team of players creating the opportunity for a deeper relationship between character and team, while still using the actor-in-the-game in a disciplined format, never upstaging the game itself. 

We like to think of escape rooms less as a series of puzzles and more as an opportunity to make discoveries about your environment. Manipulating environments is insanely empowering.

How important is story in your experiences?

Cooper: Strange Bird Immersive’s heart is storytelling. We’ll never create an experience without the complex emotional roller coaster of a good story. I think the industry isn’t designing yet with story in mind. Most creators are focused on puzzles or set-magic (coming, respectively, from puzzle or haunted house backgrounds). I think the best games are memorable ones, and that’s the craft of theatre. Drama. Change. Emotion. In time, the games that live on will be the ones thinking about it more as an art form than a revenue stream.

We value most giving our guests the chance to engage in an imaginary world, befriend characters, and become heroes in that world. We want it to feel real, to get under your skin—we want you to dream about our experiences. That’s not a goal of most designers right now. We should set our sights higher. There’s so much potential for this art form to be fundamentally transformative.

Potential

Potential is the perfect word to use when discussing combining immersive theater with escape rooms. Nothing puts players into the world of the game more than interacting with characters that already live there. The potential to deliver memorable, meaningful stories that really reach the audience and make them feel. That becomes possible with the use of tools like well-designed and well-performed immersive theater. That is the point where escape games become something more.

Strange Bird Immersive’s next in-person project, Lucidity: A Dream Escape Room, is currently being built and has the potential to be something special.

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