What if you entered an escape room where the choices are real and every decision you make causes ripples down the line of your adventure? Replayability is one of the hottest topics in the escape room world, and right now, no company showcases it better than Doors of Divergence in New York City. In Season 6, Episode 1 of REPOD, we chat with Christian Vernon and Zac MacKrell, the creators behind Doors of Divergence. They spill the secrets of their success, including their secret weapon when it comes to their immersive actors.
They describe their games Heresy: 1898 and Madness: 1917 as “escape room meets immersive theater meets choose-your-own-adventure novel.” We learn about how the branching narratives work in their shows. They talk about being surprised at the popularity of their achievement system “Chivo.” Christian and Zac tell us how they got their start in the immersive worlds of themed restaurants and extreme zombie paintball. We also learn about their philosophy when it comes to onboarding and the magic circle.
It’s clear that these two creators have a wildly ambitious approach to designing their escape rooms in ways that empower their audience. Sadly, they have lost their venue and will have to shut down operations while they hunt for a new home. Doors will remain open through October 20, 2023, and I highly recommend you experience their special brand of madness while you can.
Thank You to Our Sponsors
We are immensely grateful to our sponsors this season: Morty App, Buzzshot, and COGS. We truly appreciate your support of our mission to promote and improve the immersive gaming community.
Morty is a free app for discovering, planning, tracking, and reviewing your escape rooms and other immersive social outings.
- Morty now features haunt attractions!
- Morty for Android is here.
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Buzzshot is Escape Room Software, Powering Business Growth, Player Marketing, and improving the Customer Experience. They offer an assortment of pre and post game features including robust waiver management, branded team photos, and streamlined review management for Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google Reviews, and Morty. Buzzshot now has integration with the other REPOD sponsors: Morty and COGS.
Special Offer for REPOD Listeners:
REPOD listeners get an extended 21-day free trial plus 20% off your first 3 months, with no set-up fees or hidden charges. Visit buzzshot.com/repod to learn more about this exclusive offer.
COGS by Clockwork Dog is an easy to use software/ hardware platform for running interactive events, including escape rooms, and other immersive experiences. They have plug & play hardware that seamlessly integrates with their software so you can create a show with lighting and sound cues without having to write a single line of code. Map all kinds of inputs to outputs by building up simple logic steps which determine what you want to happen and when.
Special Offer for REPOD Listeners:
REPOD listeners can get the COGS Starter Set for only $130 + free shipping to the USA. This bundle is usually valued at $257. You can learn more and purchase your Starter Set at cogs.show. Use code REPOD at checkout.
Topics Discussed in this Episode
- [3:17] Christian and Zac try to describe what their games, Heresy: 1898 and Madness: 1917 are and how they work. We discuss how they’re like “escape room meets immersive theater meets choose-your-own-adventure novel.”
- [5:30] Christian talks about how he got started designing escape rooms while working as a zombie actor at an indoor extreme paint ball venue.
- [9:47] David talks about the Room Escape Artist review of Christian’s first escape room, Sanatorium at I Survived the Room. Christian describes his early design choices.
- [14:23] Christian talks about how his early work in Children’s theater informed the work he does in escape rooms.
- [18:27] Zac tells us about how he got involved with the immersive puzzle space. He tells us about being creative director at Jekyll and Hyde Club, an immersive themed restaurant in Manhattan.
- [23:45] Christian talks about why he designed around replayability and branching narratives. He says that David’s talk at Transworld inspired him to tackle this challenge.
- [27:44] Christian and Zac talk about some of the challenges they face when dealing with replayability in escape rooms.
- [29:15] Christian talks about how the games at Doors of Divergence work and how many different narratives there are.
- [34:23] Christian talks about the performers and how they are able to handle a script with choice-dependent diverging storylines.
- [37:41] Christian and Zac talk about things they might change now that they have the opportunity to rebuild Doors of Divergence, including strengthening their “Chivo” achievement system. They talk about how surprised they were at the impact their achievement system has on the players.
- [41:51] Christian and Zac talk about their philosophy when it comes to on-boarding and the magic circle.
- [45:52] Christian and Zac talk about their struggles with their website.
- [46:34] We talk about the way Doors of Divergence handle moral choices within their escape rooms that have very real and balanced consequences, where you don’t feel railroaded into one decision.
- [51:40] David talks about a book Christian recommended to him called Scream Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear by Margie Kerr, and they discuss some of their favorite sections including the idea of death meditations to overcome fear of our own mortality.
- [53:09] Christian talks about how Kerr’s work steered his design philosophy away from the more aggressive haunt approach towards a model that doesn’t victimize their audience. David and Peih-Gee talk about how the philosophy of enjoying physical lived experiences can create happiness in your life.
- [57:14] Christian and Zac talk about the future of Doors of Divergence now that their venue is closing, including a teaser for their newest game, Causality: 1971, which will have a time-loop style mechanic with a more immediate feedback on choices and consequences.
- [1:04:34] Christian tells us a bonus story about the time they ran an escape room where 2 people got locked in a closet with unexpected (or expected?) results.
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Resources Mentioned in this Episode
- Doors of Divergence website
- Doors of Divergence YouTube
- REA Reviews:
About Christian Vernon
Christian Vernon is a multi-disciplinary immersive artist currently living and working in New York City. He graduated in 2007 from Denison University with a BA in Theatre and Education. Since then, he has worked almost exclusively in the interactive and immersive sphere: writing, performing, producing, and directing a wide variety of productions for various companies over the past 16 years.
At Indoor Extreme Sports, he also directed their weekly show, “Zombie Experience” into a high-octane blend of interactive theater, haunted house, escape room, and laser tag shooter, with a cast of ten actors. In addition, he created Zombie Carnival in 2016, a 2 acre actor-driven haunt and carnival in Staten Island
From 2010 to 2013, he served as the Company Director of Child’s Play Touring Theatre in Chicago, IL. Child’s Play was founded in 1978 with a mission to promote writing and artistic endeavours in students by touring schools and local communities, and adapting stories written by K-8 students into stage plays. During his tenure, the company toured schools and museums in over 20 states, performing around 100 shows in an academic year. He also created 4 separate 60 minute long musicals, including “Global Energy: The Musical,” still in rep at the Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk, CT.
In 2015, Christian took over as Creative Director of I Survived the Room and Indoor Extreme Sports in Long Island City, NY. There, he wrote, designed, directed, and built three immersive escape rooms: The Sanatorium, The Order and Club Escape, each built on the principle of blending a traditional escape room with immersive theater by incorporating live actors, theatrical elements, and multiple endings based on player choice.
At present, he is the owner and Creative Director of Doors of Divergence (formed in 2021), a company aimed at producing a new kind of interactive experience, focusing on audience choice and blending gameplay with narrative storytelling in a real-world environment. As Creative Director, he serves as head writer, director, puzzle designer, as well as lighting designer and electronics technician. Doors of Divergence’s current project, The Paradox Cycle, is a trilogy of escape rooms blended with immersive theater, where the audience’s choices track through each chapter, giving every group a unique experience from beginning to end. The first two chapters are currently open: Heresy: 1897 (Winner, “Best Overall Immersive Experience”, Escape the Roomers) and Madness: 1917 (Golden Lock Award Winner 2023, Room Escape Artist; Winner, “Best Cooperative Game”, Escape the Roomers) with a third and final show currently in design.
Oh, and he has a bearded dragon named Calypso who is the cutest creature on earth.
About Zac MacKrell
Rain falls heavy on the roof of my Brooklyn office. Who is this Zac MacKrell, and why does he keep writing his bio in the third-person as a noir detective? Hubris? Madness? Or is it just the fact that he had to take a last minute headshot while dressed as a noir detective, and he decided to lean in? Maybe going over background on the rube will clear it up.
Zac was drawn to theater and gaming in his younger years, appearing in local and experimental theater at the age of 11, and designing elaborate games for the neighborhood kids for years before that. After studying performing arts in highschool (and playing Dungeons and Dragons and more RPGs than he cares to count) Zac went to study Theater Arts Management at SUNY Oswego. During this time was his first exposure to LARP and puzzle play.
After school, Zac worked with Warner Bros, writing, game designing, and performing in their live event, “Scooby-Doo Mystery Weekend.” New York was his next stop, working in film and live theater. He took a job with The Jekyll and Hyde Club in Manhattan, performing, writing, as well as designing their haunts at the Bayville Scream Park, ending his tenure as Creative Director. Then a hitch up at the Sterling Renaissance Faire only deepened his confidence that performance, story, and play are natural allies.
Which lead, inexorably, to immersive escape rooms and the broken reality of Doors of Divergence.
All of this leads to someone spending a 20 year career chasing and perfecting immersive play. But why? Childhood trauma? Some sort of base obsession with reactive storytelling? An inability to memorize, leading them to the improvisational arts? It doesn’t add up.
But it’s probably got something to do with the memorization thing.
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