REPOD S4E9 – Ukrainian Resilience: Tasha Tarkhanova, creator of Project Avatar, Ukraine

In Season 4, Episode 9, we share stories from Ukraine. We talk to Nataliya (Tasha) Tarkhanova of Hypno Dive, creator of the Project Avatar series of virtual escape room games. Project Avatar is an incredible virtual experience that plays like a live-action video game, where you are directing a live actor (the Avatar) through an enormous abandoned warehouse. With stylish, acrobatic moves and impressive special effects, tech and visuals, Project Avatar was a high point in quarantine-era virtual escape rooms.

Then war happened. On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in a major escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War, which began in 2014. This episode is a bit of a departure for us, but we wanted to share Tasha’s story. We begin with discussion of Project Avatar and escape rooms, but in the second half of this episode, we dive into how the invasion has turned Tasha’s life upside-down. It’s a heavy episode. It’s not graphic and there are no explicit depictions of death or violence, but Tasha candidly shares stories of the upheaval in her life and business. There is an emotional story of the war’s impact on her daughter that brought both David and Peih-Gee to tears.

woman with blue makeup and tribal like facial markings next to a stylized logo for project avatar. titled Ukrainian Resiliance: Tasha Tarkhanova, creator of Project Avatar, Ukraine

The stories that you’re going to hear are tragic and hilarious and kind of off-the-wall. Tasha is resilient, creative, and captivating. We think that this is a really important story to tell.

We are donating all of REPOD’s income from this episode to Direct Relief, earmarked for the crisis in Ukraine. If this episode touches you, scroll to the end of the show notes and click the button to donate.

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Topics Discussed in this Episode

  • David opens the episode with a small content warning about this episode, telling the listeners know that the middle of the episode will be focusing on Tasha’s experience in Ukraine during the Russian invasion, and that it is quite a heavy episode. [0:00]
  • Peih-Gee describes what made Project Avatar so special, including the live video game feel, the acrobatics of the Avatar, and the impressive tech, including cut-scene special effects and video overlay. [5:19]
First person view of an old building, the avatar's hands are visible along with various HUD indicators.
  • Tasha talks about their origin story, beginning with building escape rooms in 2014, to eventually becoming escape room suppliers, building everything from props to entire games. [6:23]
  • Tasha tells us that they had the idea for Project Avatar for a few years, but it didn’t seem like the world was ready for virtual escape rooms yet, and the equipment needed at the time was expensive. [7:10]
  • Tasha and David mention the presentation that Hypno Dive prepared for RECON ’21, Avatar Games: Innovating with Structure and Maximizing Fun. [9:16]
  • Tasha tells us about Ukraine imposing quarantine just as she was planning to take a holiday in Egypt, and instead they started running Project Avatar. [9:48]
  • Tasha tells us about choosing her location and story, and how normally she has to design for durability in escape rooms, but for the virtual game, she realized that it would be fun to allow players to remotely break things. [11:53]
  • Peih-Gee goes into detail about all of the dynamic moves the Avatar would do in-game, including breaking bottles, plates, and kicking down doors. [12:42]
  • Tasha talks about how they normally have to design rooms by taking into account that players will unintentionally break props. She talks about her hatred of “stop stickers” that tell you not to touch something, and says it breaks immersion. She said she seized the opportunity that remote experiences presented to encourage the Avatar to let players break items vicariously. [13:19]
  • Peih-Gee talks about how escape room enthusiasts tend to be more careful of props in an escape room for fear of breaking something. [15:18]
  • Peih-Gee talks about how good the Avatar was at nonverbal communication, an important detail because of how global their players were. She also talks about the on-ramping and “tutorial” for the game. [16:11]
  • Tasha shares some of the wildest requests from players for the Avatar, and how it helped them create the mechanic of “respawning” and having multiple lives for the Avatar. [17:02]
  • David talks about the successful balancing act of creating something both ridiculous yet serious. Tasha shares the story of creating “Utya Duck” at a festival. [19:55]
Utya Duck in glowing LED glasses.
  • Peih-Gee talks about how well-produced their videos are. Tasha talks about the airplane that was in the video. [21:40]
  • Tasha talks about the copious amounts of black light paint they used on the set, and explains that it’s because the paints were due to expire soon. [22:32]
  • Tasha tells us that when creating her characters, she gives them an entire backstory. [23:16]
  • Peih-Gee mentions how much personality the characters had, especially considering the lack of dialogue. [23:48]
  • Peih-Gee talks about the mechanic of needing to feed the Avatar to give them energy. [24:50]
  • Tasha talks about adding additional mechanics and tasks to keep a larger team entertained and to give the players more things to do. [25:04]
  • Tasha talks about her creation and design process. [25:43]
  • Tasha talks about creating games that really allow the player to take on the “hero’s journey.” [27:52]
  • We shift gears to talk about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and how it has affected Tasha’s family. She shares with us that she has moved her family to Poland. [31:26]
  • Tasha talks about volunteering to help her friends in the military and the non-stop effort it takes to support the war effort. [33:10]
  • Tasha shares with us a difficult story about watching her daughter playing with her toys only inside their carry box so she wouldn’t have to pack them in case of an air raid siren. [33:20]
  • Tasha tells us that was the moment when she realized the impact the war was having on her children. She goes on to talk about the realization that they will lose everything in the war. [34:50]
  • Tasha talks about a missile attack near where her children were living, and the heartbreaking choice of going out to help in the war effort, or staying at home to be with her scared children. [37:05]
  • Tasha talks about the difficult decision to leave Ukraine, packing her entire family of five, plus two cats and a dog, into a car and fleeing to Poland. [38:47]
  • Tasha describes for us the emotional upheaval of having to leave your entire life, work, and business behind in the midst of a war. [39:14]
  • Tasha talks about coming to peace with her decision to leave Ukraine. [42:40]
  • David talks about the importance of hearing personal stories of war, and mentions that the ad revenue from this episode will be donated to Direct Relief and flagged for Ukraine. [43:50]
  • David talks about why Direct Relief is his humanitarian aid organization of choice to support. [45:14]
  • Tasha says she’s worried that the war in Ukraine is receiving less coverage in the news, but that they still need international help. [46:33]
  • Tasha talks about the importance of sharing their stories and the Ukrainian viewpoint. [47:19]
  • Tasha talks about how much it means to her and her team to receive messages of support and offers of help, especially from the escape room community. [48:18]
  • Tasha talks about how her team is still continuing to host virtual games from their in-person escape room location. [49:22]
  • Tasha talks about the importance of continuing to work and create new experiences. [51:03]
  • Tasha talks about finding a location for their third game… which was an abandoned fallout shelter, but how they had to relinquish it for use as a bomb shelter when the invasion started. [52:03]
  • Tasha talks about hosting games with air raid alarms going off, and the weird normalcy of accepting air raids into daily life. [53:17]
  • Tasha tells us a little bit about the high level of escape rooms they have in Ukraine, due in part to the booming tech sector there. [55:50]
  • Tasha talks a bit about how the war has changed the type of projects she wants to design, including games that are not location dependent that can accommodate large groups. [56:51]
  • Tasha reflects on the opportunities created from quarantine, lessons learned from the war, and her gratitude towards the escape room community for their support. [58:51]
  • Tasha shares a bonus story about one of her Avatars that got a little too used to taking player directives. [1:03:48]
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Resources Mentioned in this Episode

About Nataliya (Tasha) Tarkhanova

woman with tribal looking facial markings, with blue tinted skin and braids in her hair against a dark background

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Моїми двома пристрастями завжди були проектування та письменство і в 2014 році мені вдалось об’єднати їх в одній справі, яка в результаті приносить мені масу задоволення. В Ескейп рум бізнес я потрапила завдяки моєму чоловікові Сєві, партнеру по життю, по бізнесу і по пригодам. Ми розпочали свій шлях, як власники однієї простенької ескейп кімнати яку ми зробили з речей знайдених гаражах та горищах нашого дому та в наших близьких. Вже за рік ми були власниками 11 ескейп кімнат нашого міста. Розпочавши з простенької електроніки і кодових замків ми дійшли до програмування та акторів. Далі доля закинула нас в виробництво і ми розпочали свій шлях як виробники та постачальники всього необхідного для ескейп кімнат.

В 2020, як і весь світ, ми адаптувались до нових реалій та створили онлайн продукт Project Avatar. Ми навіть не очікували що світ буде в такому захваті від нашого створіння. Це було неймовірно і випустило нас з клітки локдауну, ця унікальна гра стерла всі кордони світу між нами і тисячами нових людей, які приєднувались до гри.

По закінченню локдауна ми з радістю почали відновлювати роботу нашого виробництва паралельно розвиваючи онлайн проект. В кінці 2021 ми знайшли ідеальне приміщення щоб розширити асортимент наших ігор і масштабуватись. В січні 2022 ми вже розпочали підготовчі роботи в новому приміщенні для Аватара та нашого виробництва. Але нажаль в лютому всі наші плани були скасовані, а наше життя круто змінилось. З початку війни ми відмовились від багатьох речей, які були важливими для нас. Нам довелось закрити своє виробництво, ми відмовились від приміщення яке планували зробити новим домом для Аватара. І що найгірше ми покинули свій рідний дім, заради емоційного здоровʼя та безпеки наших трьох доньок ми покинули Україну. Ми покинули своїх рідних, друзів та близьких, ми покинули свою команду. Дуже важко проходити через це знаходячись в чужій країні але ще важче дивись, як твої діти втрачають нормальне дитинство.

На сьогоднішній день ми знаходимось в Польщі, наші діти в безпеці, вони знайшли друзів і вони далеко від ракет, які знищують наші міста і від людей що вбивають Українських дітей.

Ми з чоловіком сконцентрувалися на онлайн проекті та проектуванні ескейп кімнат, побудували нову стратегію і нові плани подальших дій. Наша команда і далі проводить ігри отримуючи найкращі відгуки від клієнтів. Ми подбали про їх безпеку та дбаємо про їх емоційний стан, тепер це дуже важливо. Також подбали про альтернативні джерела енергопостачання та інтернету, щоб і надалі працювати і надалі дарувати людям позитивні емоції. Це нова реальність в якій нам доводиться жити але попри все ми продовжуємо рухатись вперед і віримо в перемогу України.

Ми безмежно вдячні за неймовірну підтримку ескейп комюніті, підтримку поляків, підтримку всього світу це надихає.

My two passions have always been design and writing, and in 2014 I managed to combine them in one thing, which, as a result, brings me a lot of pleasure. I got into the escape room business thanks to my husband Seva, my life, business, and adventure partner. We started our journey as owners of a simple escape room that we made from things found in friends’ garages and the attic of our house. Within a year we were the owners of 11 escape rooms in our city. Starting with simple electronics and code locks, we got to programming and actors. Then fate turned us into production and we began our journey as manufacturers and suppliers of everything necessary for escape rooms.

In 2020, like the rest of the world, we adapted to new realities and created the Project Avatar online product. We did not even expect that the world would be so delighted with our creation. It was incredible and got us out of the lockdown cage. This unique game erased all the boundaries of the world between us and the thousands of new people who joined our game.

After the end of the lockdown, we happily started to resume work on our production while simultaneously developing the online project. At the end of 2021, we found the perfect space to expand our range of games and scale. In January 2022, we started preparatory work in the new premises for Avatar and our production. But unfortunately, in February, all our plans were canceled, and our life changed dramatically. Since the beginning of the war, we have given up many things that were important to us. We had to close our production; we gave up the location that was to be the new home for the Avatar. And worst of all, we left our native home, for the sake of preserving the emotional health and safety of our three daughters. We left Ukraine. We left our family, friends and team. It is very difficult to go through this in a foreign country, but it is even more difficult to watch your children lose their normal childhood.

Today we are in Poland and our children are safe. They have found friends and they are far from the missiles that are destroying our cities and from the people who kill Ukrainian children.

My husband and I concentrated on the online project and the design of escape rooms and games, and built a new strategy and new plans for further actions. Our team continues to host Project Avatar games and receive the best feedback from customers. We have taken care of their safety, and we take care of their emotional state, now it is very important. We also took care of alternative sources of energy supply and the Internet in order to continue to work and continue to give people positive emotions.

This is a new reality in which we have to live, but despite everything, we continue to move forward and believe in the victory of Ukraine. We are infinitely grateful for the incredible support of the escape community, the support of the Poles, and the support of the whole world… it is inspiring.

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