REPOD S5E5: Putting the Fun in Fungi – Joel Head from Headlock Escape Rooms

In Season 5, episode 5, we chat with Joel Head from Headlock Escape Rooms. Joel and Janae Head are the creators of The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us—a Golden Lock Award-winning virtual escape room. Picture this: a puppet musical escape room adventure infused with awesome dark fantasy vibes. Imagine if Labyrinth married Rocky Horror Picture Show and they birthed a deliciously villainous mushroom. Throw in a sprinkling of humor, original music by Joel, and absurdly charming sets by Janae. They’ve definitely put the “fun” in fungi.

Joel talks to us about the origins of the game and some of his game inspirations. He gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the intricacies of running The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us, revealing that not only is he puppeteering, he is also handling the software, the set changes, and gamemastering. Talk about a one-man-band! We hear about his musical influences like funk band Vulfpeck and Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-n-furter. Joel also shares his creation process when designing soundscapes for his virtual escape room.

The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us is one of the best games to emerge from the pandemic, and after chatting with Joel, it’s easy to see why. This game is a hilarious, rollicking romp through a puzzley, puppet-filled world. It’s remarkable how immersive a virtual game can feel. Headlock Escape Rooms is hard at work on the prequel, The Rise of the Fungi, which should be available later this year. We can’t wait to play it.

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Topics Discussed in this Episode

  • [2:24] Joel mentions that he and his wife Janae just had a baby and that’s why she couldn’t make it onto the podcast. They named their child “Obi,” short for Oberon. Peih-Gee talks about the Chinese meaning of her name, “miraculous herb.”
  • [3:33] David talks about feeling burnt out on virtual escape rooms, but The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us was so highly recommended he made an exception and played it.
  • [4:20] Joel describes his game as “a puppet musical escape game adventure.” Peih-Gee mentions that The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us has a nostalgic 80’s movie feel, like Labyrinth.
  • [5:00] David talks about the different pop culture themes he sees in The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us, like Mr. Rogers and Rocky Horror Picture Show. Joel says that he runs the game for many people in different countries, and that everyone has a different cultural reference. He says that many Canadians, for example, have said it reminds them of a show called Friendly Giant.
  • [6:23] Peih-Gee says they were intrigued by The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us because the creators were pretty new to the escape room scene. Joel says that they originally were planning on opening an escape room right as the pandemic hit in 2020. They pivoted to a deliverable tabletop game, The Mystic Ruins, instead.
  • [7:50] When they decided to create another game, they wanted something that they could run out of their spare bedroom. In order for it to all fit, they realized they were going to have to shrink down the entire set into a diorama.
  • [8:22] Joel tells us that he used to be a music teacher and that’s why they decided to create a musical. He wrote and produced all the music in the game. His partner Janae created all the puppets and the set by hand.
image of a diorama from the online game "keeper and the fungus among us". it's a woodland scene with a red watermill next to a green cave. in the front there is a fake miniature pond with colorful toy frogs. there are also buckets set into the ground, some stone blocks with symbols on them stacked vertically in the back.
  • [9:32] David mentions an article he wrote where he talked about deliberately designing for the virtual experience. Peih-Gee says that the two games with the most staying power, in her opinion, were games that were specifically created to be played online—Project Avatar and The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us. Peih-Gee notes that Project Avatar went with huge outlandish sets and gameplay that would be impractical in real life, and that The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us went the opposite—small and charming.
  • [11:13] David shares his short list of virtual games that he thinks are still worth playing: The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us, Project Avatar, The Beast, The Exorcist, and The Pursuit of the Assassin Artist. Joel says that he took little aspects of these games and tried to incorporate them into his game, and he also mentions the fun improv from the virtual Miss Jezebel.
  • [14:31] Joel talks to us about how the game came together. He says he was listening to a lot of Vulfpeck, an American funk band, and decided the game needed a really funky feel to it. (You can hear the theme for The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us in the background.) Joel says he knew they would need cutaway scenes for when they changed sets, and he wanted to create something really fun and musical.
  • [15:42] David mentions the Spoiler’s Club episode that Joel recorded with us where he talks about the practicalities of running the game. There are six scenes, two stages, a camera on a track, and the whole game is run through OBS. Joel shares the logistics of running the game by himself, operating several puppets while improving with the guests, while also running the software and camera. He says that when changing between sets it’s simple enough to slide the camera over while a short video plays. But when he needs to change out the stage, they have to play a longer cut scene with a big musical number.
photo of backstage on the "keeper and the fungus among us" set. We can see a camera rail against the back wall. There are black curtains separating Stage 1 from stage 2. We can see a glimpse of stage 1 which includes a miniature pond with colorful plastic toy frogs inside.
  • [18:07] Peih-Gee says she loved the behind-the-scenes tour Joel gives after every game. He says that he loves seeing the guest’s reactions when they realize how the game has been operated.
  • [18:52] Joel talks about the influence of Barnaby Dixon, a notable puppeteer who creates incredible miniature contraptions that he can puppeteer in extremely lifelike ways.
  • [21:12] David says he has a major affinity for puppets, having grown up with a puppet theater that his grandfather built. He says he also used puppets when he consulted for Create the Escape, a children’s escape room television show. (We interviewed Hilary Manning, the puzzle designer for the show on REPOD S3E6.)
  • [21:58] Peih-Gee mentions a bonus episode where they discussed recommended elements for children’s play and fun. They should have elements of hunting and gathering, secret spaces and paths, maps, and animal allies. She says that escape rooms have many of those elements as well, but animal allies seem to be the missing link. She says that’s why puppets are so much fun in an escape room, because they feel like animal allies.
image of the "keeper". it is a hand puppet of a spider dragon with large cute eyes and teal fur. it's facing a miniature door decorated with 4 knockers.
  • [23:00] Peih-Gee says she hopes having puppets can be the next evolution in hint systems.
  • [23:42] Peih-Gee says that a large part of the charm of The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us was the humor. Joel talks about working humor into the game and incorporating funny lines from players.
  • [24:56] Joel and David talk about working with their spouses on creative projects.
  • [28:11] Joel talks about the lifespan of a virtual game created specifically to be played during the pandemic. He says that the majority of his guests have been escape room enthusiasts. He thinks that because it’s mainly enthusiasts playing, the lifespan is much shorter than for a brick and mortar escape game. He concludes that they need to create more games to keep guests returning.
  • [29:45] Joel talks to us about his upcoming game, The Rise of the Fungi. He says it’ll be a prequel following the life of the bad guy, Paxillus, and how he became evil. This game will be in much the same style with puppets and music.
  • [33:00] Joel talks about his musical inspiration for The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us, including Vulfpeck, as mentioned earlier. He also cites Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors as influences, particularly Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-n-Furter character.
  • [33:13] Joel walks us through some of the different scenes in his game like The Tortoise Forest or the fungus fight scene. He talks to us about how he designs the soundscapes for these scenes.
  • [34:31] Peih-Gee talks about how she wishes more escape rooms would design soundscapes into their games. Joel says it was very important to them because it’s difficult to make a virtual game feel immersive, but sound is one method.
  • [37:12] Joel talks about moving to England from Arkansas and the biggest cultural difference he found.
  • [38:48] Joel talks about his portable games, The Mystic Ruins and The Pursuit for Redbeard’s Treasure and tells us how people can order those games for a party, wedding, or team building event.
  • [40:01] Joel shares his upcoming plans including The Rise of the Fungi, as well as possibly a brick and mortar shop and a YouTube channel.
  • [43:56] Joel tells a bonus story about the time our podcast editor, Steve Ewing, played his game, and somehow Joel managed to drop an entire inventory board into the abyss.
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Resources Mentioned in this Episode

About Joel and Janae Head

family portrait photo of a man with short brown wavy hair and a short beard in glasses. He is wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, grey shirt and khaki pants. He is holding a newborn infant wearing a sweater set. There is a woman with her brown hair in a bun, smiling, in glasses. She is wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and holding onto the man's arm.

Joel and Janae Head are the owners and creators of Headlock Escape Rooms. Their multi-award winning game The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us has been played by thousands across the globe and has been ranked as the top play at home game in the world. Their next game, Rise of the Fungi is a Fungus prequel and will be playable over Zoom this year.

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