In season 5, episode 6 of Reality Escape Pod, we step into the DarkVerse with Gijs Geers, CEO and Head of Design at DarkPark Escape Rooms, one of our favorite escape room companies. DarkPark distinguishes itself with its consistently high production value, intriguing storytelling, and masterfully crafted scares. This quality of work persists across all their games, their branding, and their marketing.
Gijs shares his thought process when designing rooms. I loved hearing about his approach to crafting the storylines. Rather than shoving a narrative at the players, he shapes elements of a story and offers it to his players, allowing them to form their own stories. Gijs also shares his secret to creating effective jump scares, which stems from his background as an actor and magician.
DarkPark’s approach to designing escape rooms is really unique. All of the games I played there are etched in my memory as a series of cinematic vignettes. The folks at DarkPark are master storytellers, infusing their games with drama, wonder, and thrills. This is a conversation you won’t want to miss.
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Topics Discussed in this Episode
- [1:47] David introduces DarkPark as one of his favorite escape room companies in the world, and Peih-Gee talks about the consistently high quality of all their games.
- [3:10] Gijs talks about the name “DarkPark” and its origins. The company was originally called Escape Challenge. He explains that the Netherlands is very densely populated with escape rooms and that their name didn’t feel original anymore. He says that after listening to Bob Melkus, CEO of the Fox in a Box escape room franchise, talk about the importance of creating a name that doesn’t have the words “escape,” “room,” “lock,” or “key,” he decided to change the name of the company. He went with a name that evoked the feeling he wanted for his company.
- [5:37] Gijs attributes the success of his games to the feelings that they evokes in the players.
- [6:35] DarkPark is celebrating its 10-year anniversary as a company. Gijs talks about The Dentist, which was one of the earliest escape rooms in the Netherlands. He talks about iterating on mistakes made and how the game has changed since the early years. The biggest change is that in the beginning it was white and pristine, but at some point, a player kicked a hole in the wall. They couldn’t fix it, so they just make it dirty and creepy instead.
- [9:05] Gijs talks about his background. Before designing escape rooms, he had a background in theater as an actor and also a set designer. David mentions that many of his favorite escape rooms run on Qlab, and he realized the common thread is a theatrical background, because Qlab is theatre software for designing sound, video, and lighting cues.
- [11:55] Peih-Gee observes that another common thread in escape rooms designers with a theatrical background is the evocative mood in their games. She mentions that DarkPark games all have a clear and distinctive voice.
- [12:30] Gijs talks to us about his creative process when designing games and bringing them to market. He says that the idea comes very quickly and he can write out a script in a few days. But after that, they start teasing apart the logistics and hammering in the flow. He mentions that he usually works with his creative partner, Eelco Claassen. They will also bring on a third person, but that the third person changes on every project so they can get a new perspective.
- [14:53] Gijs talks about the evolution of his games over time, and how they keep trying to improve. He talks to us about things he’s learned, like swearing off using water in his games (although he says he keeps breaking that rule). He’s really tried to remove as much reading as possible.
- [18:00] Gijs says he wants his players to come up with the story of the game themselves, based on the elements he provides. The first element is the location, for example, at the dentist. The second element is the story of that location. What happened here? (Hint: it’s usually something bad.) The third element is the story of the players when they enter that space. He says that players can form their own story and it’s usually different every time.
- [21:32] David talks about how, even though he might not be able to tell you the entire storyline, certain moments from DarkPark games are etched into his memory, like a cinematic vignette.
- [22:23] Peih-Gee talks about the memorable jump scares in the DarkPark games. Gijs explains how he crafts his jump scares. His goal is to split the player’s attention between two different misdirections, and then the jump scare will suddenly kick in.
- [24:00] Gijs mentions that he also used to be a magician who idolized David Copperfield, one of the masters of storytelling through magic.
- [24:20] Gijs tells us about his escape room, The End, which really wowed the industry when it came out. He talks about trying to finish it in time for David and Lisa’s trip to the Netherlands for the Up the Game conference. Peih-Gee mentions that The End had the most memorable and unique storyline of the games she played in the Netherlands.
- [26:17] Gijs talks about the ending of The End, and talks about different ideas they had for it. He tells us about how they had to make creative use of the small space, which used to be the changing rooms for a gymnasium.
- [27:58] Gijs gives us a teaser about their newest game, Rise of the Phoenix, and talks about how they are still crafting the ending for that escape room.
- [30:52] David talks about how his only criticism of DarkPark’s previous games were their endings, which he thought were relatively weak compared to the rest of the game. Gijs confirms that David’s comments were a motivation to create more bombastic endings.
- [33:07] Peih-Gee talks about how incredible the ending of Stay in the Dark is and describes it for those who haven’t played. She shares a story about how her friend Brian Corbitt, who was a guest on S2E6 of REPOD remarked about how spooky the building was before even knowing the game was taking place there.
- [35:50] Gijs tells us about having an entire building, 4,000 sq. meters, to run an escape room. Peih-Gee mentions that the scale of the location really delivers a whole different level of immersion.
- [36:35] Gijs talks about the game Wasteland Rebellion that ran only briefly before closing. This was an escape room that ran in the same location as Stay in the Dark, but with a different, non-horror plot. He talks about the mistakes they made and why they decided to eventually close it down.
- [39:04] Gijs tells us that he chose the name Rise of the Phoenix for his new game, in part, because Wasteland Rebellion was the first big mistake his company had made in 10 years, and he wanted to symbolize their recovery as rising from the ashes. He gives us a teaser for Rise of the Phoenix, telling us that there will be an actor, and it will be a little bit scary, but also will have humor and emotion.
- [40:41] Gijs recalls the early days of the pandemic and what motivated him to create a series of at-home games that have become very popular. He says that after the review of Conspiracy 19 by Room Escape Artist, they made revisions to improve the game, and now that it has sold out again. He plans to change it a third time.
- [43:12] David asks about a hot blonde woman who appeared in their second tabletop game, Witchery Spell, and they discuss how Lisa ended up as an actress for the game.
- [44:49] Peih-Gee talks about the production value in their third at-home adventure, Never House. Gijs says he was inspired by the production value of Mysterious Package Company. (David has his own opinions, which you can read about here.)
- [47:50] Gijs talks about what’s next for DarkPark, including finishing work on their newest escape room, Rise of the Phoenix, and celebrating their 10-year anniversary. He also tells us about the Darkverse, which is an overarching meta story that will tie together the narratives from their different games.
- [54:13] Gijs tells us a bonus story about one of his most stressful situations as an owner: the time Peih-Gee played Stay in the Dark and her entire team missed a crucial item because they were all too lazy to climb a bunch of stairs.
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Resources Mentioned in this Episode
- DarkPark website
- REA reviews of DarkPark escape rooms:
- REA reviews of DarkPark Games, the tabletop experiences:
- Qlab: Powerful macOS software for designing and playing back sound, video, light, and show control cues.
- Mysterious Package Company
- Poppedijn: Gijs’s wife’s toystore
About Gijs Geers
Gijs Geers is a Dutch entrepreneur and creative mastermind behind the DarkPark escape rooms. He founded the Dutch company in 2013 and has since expanded to multiple locations across The Netherlands. Gijs has a background in acting and has always been passionate about creating immersive experiences for players.
Under Gijs’s leadership, DarkPark has become known for its innovative and award winning escape rooms, which combine puzzles, storytelling, and immersive environments to create a truly unforgettable experience. Gijs is known for his attention to detail and his ability to push the boundaries of what is possible in the escape room industry.
In addition to DarkPark, Gijs is also involved in other creative projects and has worked with various companies in the entertainment industry. He continues to innovate and create new experiences for players, always striving to exceed expectations and create truly memorable moments.
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