In episode 1 of season 2, we talk to acclaimed actor, producer, writer, and tabletop immersive experience designer Neil Patrick Harris. He’s a performer known for his iconic roles on stage and screen, but our community knows him as a champion of escape rooms and immersive gaming, as well as the creator of the brilliant tabletop puzzle experience Box One.
Neil walks us through the path that led him to his love of escape rooms and other immersive games (including Survivor), explaining that it all stems from his fascination with structure and figuring out the mechanisms of how something works. He explains that escape rooms and immersive theatre were able to combine his two loves, magic and theatre, into a spectacle of an experience.
We spend a lot of time dissecting Box One, with quite a lot of spoilers. Make sure you play the game before listening to this segment! Neil explains some of the more controversial design elements and talks to us about his game design philosophy.
After chatting with Neil, it became clear that the driving force behind many of his immersive endeavors was an intense curiosity about the mechanics of a puzzle or trick, along with a profuse appreciation for creativity and authenticity. His unbridled joy when discussing different immersive experiences was a pleasure to behold. We are thrilled to have someone like him championing this industry.
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Topics Discussed in this Episode
- Neil mentions that he loves Survivor, and that he’s friends with Jeff Probst, who has invited him to Fiji to be on the Dream Team. [1:29]
- Peih-Gee explains that the Dream Team is part of the Survivor crew. They test all the challenges on location and help film some of the overhead scenes. [2:07]
- Neil says he’d love to do celebrity Survivor, but not a “quasi-hybrid version.” [2:43]
- Peih-Gee muses that perhaps the reason they haven’t had a celebrity version of Survivor is because Jeff Probst doesn’t want it to be a watered-down version of Survivor. [3:22]
- Neil says he thinks “outwit, outplay, outlast” is very synonymous with life in many ways. [4:30]
- Neil says his two tenets in life are authenticity and creativity. He goes on to explain why most reality TV seems fraudulent and inauthentic, but Survivor seems to also embrace authenticity and creativity in both its portrayals and format. [4:46]
- Peih-Gee talks about not eating for the first four days when she was on Survivor China, and says the show is entirely authentic, with no secret food or hidden bathrooms. [6:06]
- Neil walks us through the path that led him to his love of escape rooms and other immersive games, explaining that it all stems from his fascination with structure and figuring out the mechanisms of how something works. [6:40]
- Neil says that as a child, his interest started with the state fair, and curiosity about how rides and the sideshow attractions worked. [7:13]
- As he got older, Neil became entranced with theatre and shows like The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which has multiple outcomes chosen by the audience, and Sleep No More, a show with multiple immersive experiences all happening simultaneously. [8:50]
- Neil says that he fell in love with escape rooms because they combine his love of figuring out the magic trick while immersed in an experience. [10:38]
- Neil talks about Accomplice New York, an immersive experience that takes you on an adventure through the streets of New York, billed as “adventure theatre.” He ended up co-producing Accomplice Los Angeles. [11:17]
- (Neil lists several other immersive experiences that have inspired him. Please see Resources below for links.)
- Neil talks about The Tension Experience by Darren Bousman and how a scripted “choose your own adventure” experience worked. [20:01]
- Neil muses that with immersive theatre, he always worries that he’s somehow doing it “wrong” but at the end of the day, there’s a lesson to be learned in just letting go and enjoying your own experience of the event. [21:02]
- David discusses the rise of escape rooms. He mentions how they seem to have started off copying one another in the beginning and that’s why they seemed so homogenous in the early days. [23:03]
- David talks about the artistry of escape rooms versus escape room owners that only see it as a business model. [24:51]
- Neil says that for him, one of the distinguishing features of a truly amazing magical performance is when someone has a knowledge of the craft and has figured out how to individualize it in a way that is fun for both laymen and magicians alike. [26:53]
- Neil discusses aspects of magic as a profession that he dislikes, including mediocrity and how bizarre it is that magic is a profession you can buy. [28:11]
- Neil talks about his tenure as president of The Magic Castle in Los Angeles—how he ended up in that position, some of the problems they were going through at the time, and why he was so passionate about effecting change there. [29:13]
- Neil says that his biggest change was “shifting the focus from being revenue-driven to member experience-driven.” They improved the guest experience from the quality of cocktails and friendliness of servers, to increasing auxiliary performances so guests could feel like they were being entertained all night, even when waiting in line for a show. [32:11]
- We discuss Neil’s game Box One. This is a tabletop puzzle trivia adventure designed for one player, and we are going to get a little spoiler-y. I strongly urge you to stop reading the show notes and play Box One first, if you haven’t played it yet. Or you can jump ahead to timestamp 1:04:40. [ 36:20]
- Neil talks about meeting Jonathan Bayme, the CEO of Theory 11 and how they became friends. He talks about the first game they created together called Amazed. [37:58]
- Neil says that Box One originally started with a single idea: What if there was a single-player party game? [41:48]
- Neil talks about playing The Werewolf Experiment by the Wild Optimists, who were guests on Season 1, Episode 3 of this podcast. [43:07]
- Neil mentions that he specifically didn’t want for Box One to be a timed experience. Rather, he wanted players to savor the production value of his game. [43:48]
- David discusses the difficulties in creating an escape room tabletop game that will appeal to both the mass-market and escape room enthusiasts alike, including how to gatekeep wow moments and puzzles. [46:05]
- Neil says that they purposefully slowed down the beginning of the game, and that was the intention behind creating a shoe for the deck of cards, requiring you to only focus on the top card in the deck. [47:16]
- Neil talks about doing interviews in-character as evil NPH from the game narrative. [48:35]
- We discuss the character of evil NPH from Box One [52:04]
- David explains that his style of reviewing games is to convey how the reader can best optimize their experience. [53:04]
- David discusses how experienced escape room players will do themselves a disservice if they try to anticipate the surprises in the box, and advises them to just play the game linearly as instructed. [54:31]
- Neil talks about some of the difficulties in manufacturing Box One. [56:44]
- Neil tells us that he put a forcible stop in the middle of the game because he wanted people to take their time with the game, to stop and think about it. He also wanted to boost the illusion that you were chatting with a real person. [58:37]
- Peih-Gee mentions that her only criticism is wanting more of a diegetic reason for the 24-hour stop. [1:01:27]
- Neil talks about using his platform to direct attention to the games, escape rooms, and immersive experiences that he loves, like Mysterious Package Company and Crack a Nut Mysteries. [1:05:19]
- David mentions Angela Lawson Scott, from Crack a Nut, who spent much of last year visiting multiple Targets to buy Box One and ship them to friends in Europe. [1:06:55]
- David mentions how grateful he is for Neil’s support of Room Escape Artist, and Neil mentions how difficult it can be to find resources for small, bespoke experiences. [1:08:15]
- Neil mentions that playtesting with different audiences is the most important lesson he learned from creating Box One. [1:11:23]
- He discusses the possibility of Box Two, but talks about the difficulties in finding a different angle to surprise people who are now primed to some of the tricks after playing Box One. [1:11:50]
- Neil talks about how much he loves Escape This Podcast, an audio escape room podcast that both Peih-Gee and David have been guests on as well. [1:13:46]
Resources Mentioned in this Episode
- The Mystery of Edwin Drood (musical)
- Sleep No More (immersive theatre)
- Accomplice New York (Adventure Theatre)
- Room Escape Artist reviews of Accomplice New York and Accomplice The Village
- Leonard Pickel (Haunt designer and consultant)
- Delusion (Immersive Horror)
- The Tension Experience (Interactive horror)
- The Magic Castle
- Box One
- Room Escape Artist review of Box One
- Jonathan Bayme (CEO, Theory 11)
- Amazed: The Game
- Escape Room The Game
- Room Escape Artist reviews of Escape Room The Game and two expansions to it.
- Room Escape Artist review of Mysterious Package Company’s The King in Yellow
- Room Escape Artist review Crack a Nut Mysteries’ Root of All Evil and S.O.U.P
- Escape This Podcast (audio escape room)
- David and Lisa on Escape This Podcast Season 2 Finale and Season 6, Episode 1
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