Refuge: Prologue [Review]

“Oh shit! We’re competing against each other… and I know how smart my friends are.”

Location: New York, NY

Date played: April 14, 2017

Team size: 4-8; we recommend 6-8

Duration: 90 minutes

Price: $38-43 per ticket

Story & setting

Refuge: Prologue was an immersive, narrative-driven, competitive puzzle game.

Set in a dystopian mirrored reality where humanity’s decisions have caused an environmental apocalypse, we were competing for coveted spots in billionaire Alex Ayers’ prosperous Refuge. Our lives depended on proving our worth.

Refuge: Prologue took place in The Mist, an immersive entertainment space in Chinatown. The various rooms were staged for different challenges, each stylized, some more intriguing and involved than others.

At any given point, our group was divided up, competing against each other in different challenges. As Alex’s recorded voice narrated the instructions for various activities, we also learned the extent of the plight of Earth and human society, a narrative that unfolded over the duration of the experience.

In-game: a player looking upon a picture hung on a wall in a hallway.
Image via Refuge.

Puzzles

Refuge: Prologue pitted us against each other as we each vied for a future in Alex’s Refuge.

The puzzles took different forms: understanding the objective and context of any given contest, puzzling our way through, and strategizing against each other.

During the various puzzle challenges, we used logic, riddles, math, intuition, deductive reasoning, reaction time, agility, luck, strategic thinking… and more.

In-game: A hand interacting with glass bottles containing rolls of paper.
Image via Refuge.

Standouts

Refuge: Prologue painted a compelling dystopian parallel reality. Its message provoked thought about our world.

Refuge: Prologue meticulously designed printed materials and set dressing. It was deliberately crafted and looked polished.

The puzzles and games were challenging. For most interactions, each individual had to rely on their own understanding, make quick decisions, and continually strategize.

My favorite challenge was physically involved and lots of fun. The story unfolded through the escalating complexity of the puzzle. It was clever.

Without spoilers, the website for Refuge: Prologue was as clear as possible about what this experience entailed.

Shortcomings

The tech in Refuge: Prologue was repeatedly buggy. Even before we accidentally knocked something a little too forcefully, it was finicky. The set was delicate, and the tech even more so. Much of the set and technology needs modification in order to stand up to repeated use.

It wasn’t entirely clear how points were calculated, and therefore which actions and decisions mattered most. It also seemed like luck played a substantial role in some of the games.

The challenges varied in quality. One slow-paced game seemed to drag on. In another puzzle, the order of activities seemed to create a markedly unfair situation for the players.

Throughout the experience, there was a lot of information to take in in short amounts of time. Sometimes it was reading on top of audio instruction. Other times it was comprehensive reading while searching for other information. While this was part of the challenge, it was also more frustrating than it needed to be.

Should I attend Refuge: Prologue?

Refuge: Prologue was not a room escape, but it was an immersive, narrative-driven puzzle adventure. It was challenging and interesting.

In Refuge: Prologue, you will be competing against the others in your booking. You will be alone, vying for your own spot in a better future. If you usually count on others to pull some of the weight, you’re in for a rough ride.

Your adversaries are the others who’ve booked into your session. We recommend that you bring a group of people you know are equally competitive, skilled, and engaged. All the better to strategize against them… Also, leave the sore winners and losers at home.

While the technology implementation and set design had flaws, the folks behind Refuge: Prologue were attentive to detail.

Note that the website gives the following warnings, all of which matter: Don’t be late. Wear comfortable shoes. Also, one puzzle uses the full spectrum of color; colorblindness will be problematic.

If you like quick-paced puzzle competitions where you work on your own against opponents, and you don’t mind that the game, the rules, and the points will be a bit opaque, then we recommend visiting Refuge: Prologue.

If you’d rather work as a team or you don’t want to compete without a clear picture of what’s going on, you might want to sit this one out.

Win or lose Refuge: Prologue offers a new form of immersive puzzle adventuring. We’ve seen a lot collaborative gaming, and a little head-to-head team-based gaming, but Refuge is its own beast. Battling your friends by yourself offers a new style of interactive intrigue.

Book your spot in Refuge: Prologue, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

 

Club Drosselmeyer, Behind the Scenes with Kellian Adams

We attended night one of Club Drosselmeyer, Boston’s two-night World War II-themed mass-puzzling, swing-dancing, and immersive performance event, and had a swell time.

The event was so massive, detailed, and incredible that we asked its creator, Kellian Adams, to talk about the intricacies of show.

We were most surprised to learn about how the show changed on night two.

In-game image of a the ornate Club Drosselmeyer stage witha swing band and a floor full of people dancing.

How did you develop the concept for Club Drosselmeyer?

I had always wanted to build an interactive game-based theater piece. I was at a ballet showcase when it occurred to me that The Nutcracker might be the perfect piece to experiment with because

  • It’s modular.
  • Interesting characters move around.
  • The basic storyline connects but isn’t too tight.
  • It’s a well-known story.
  • It lends itself to some great music and visuals.
  • It would have to be performed around the holidays.

The holiday connection was key for an experimental piece because people have more tolerance for playing along with magic and the unexpected during the holidays (as well as spending money on tickets and getting dressed up!).

What were your inspirations?

When I decided that The Nutcracker would be the base for the show, I pulled from a lot of my favorite movies. Casablanca was the main one: I had always wondered what it would be like to be a patron of Rick’s Cafe Americain, where there are all sorts of intrigues happening around you, but you might not be aware of any of them. I designed my main character, Drosselmeyer, as the club owner, which tied directly to Rick, especially where he had his perch up above everyone.

Each character has a fairly involved backstory. For example, mother Ginger – aka Ginger Lamarr – was Hedy Lamarr. Phylo Farnesworth is the inventor of the television and I took his dance team from the movie College Swing. Fritz was modeled after this fabulously devious playboy named Washington Porter Jr. Rhett the Rat was modeled after “King” Solomon, a Boston mob boss in the 30’s. You can see all of our character inspirations on Pinterest.

How much autonomy did each of the performers have?

The performers had a lot of autonomy in developing their characters and the storyline. I built out the structure of the story and they filled in the blanks.

Alice, Clara, and Phylo, for example, delved into radar and so that became a major part of the storyline, which hadn’t been part of my original vision. Also, many of the performers wanted to address the ethical question of whether we should use artificial intelligence, so we did.

The hat idea was from the actor who played the character Beta. One of my favorite parts of the whole show was him wearing a lampshade. He came up with the idea of handing out “research notes” folded into hats. They were detailed enough that many players tried to crack the codes and solve the notes, except there was nothing there!

What were your other favorite moments?

I loved seeing the looks on people’s faces when they came in on Sunday night. I don’t think they had any idea what they had signed up for, but then they walked in and the space looked beautiful: the band was playing, everybody was dressed up, and it was magical. It was so wonderful to watch everyone transition into “Dross mode!”

My other favorite moment happened during a dress rehearsal. A few people came up to me (as the character Kit) and said “WE KNOW WHO THE NUTCRACKER IS!!” Then they pointed at Beta, who at that moment was wearing a lampshade on his head and jumping up and down on the dance floor. In character I asked “that guy?” They looked at me, kind of dumbstruck and followed up with a defensive “well—he’s just a prototype…” and it was this amazing, hilarious moment where they were explaining to me the story that I wrote, and making excuses for it.

I also LOVED the waltz scene. It was a wonderful, magical moment to see everyone spinning in the snow!

Which aspects of the piece were most successful?

I was really proud that the whole “different levels of engagement” thing worked. I genuinely felt like there was something for everybody to do.

I took a lot of different activities that I love, but that can be really intimidating for other people, and arranged them in a way that I think was less intimidating than they expected. I’ve heard the usual comments to these activities SO MANY times…

  • Puzzles… “I’m not smart enough.”
  • Talking to characters… “I’m shy, that’s so awkward.”
  • Getting dressed vintage… “I don’t have anything fancy.”
  • Swing music… “I can’t dance.”

I think when they all appeared together there was at least one aspect of the show that almost everyone could engage with at some level. If none of them were even mildly appealing, you could still just sit in a beautiful time-travel club, watch the floor shows, listen to the incredible, original music of a really good swing band, drink martinis, and hang out with your friends.

What were the biggest challenges to bringing this piece to the stage?

The uncertainty of it was really hard for the cast members.

I deliberately chose my dancer friends rather than auditioning actors because I knew I didn’t want Club Drosselmeyer to be a traditional theater piece, and I didn’t want lots of professional theater people on board telling me I was doing everything wrong (because I was absolutely doing everything wrong). Also with friends, I was hoping they’d be better with the uncertainty of building something nobody had ever seen before when there wasn’t any proof that this method would work. (Nobody I knew of had done it, so I didn’t have much to point to.)

I also didn’t start with a written script, since there were a lot of moving parts. I sort of twisted myself (and my story) in knots trying to incorporate everyone’s ideas and keep them feeling good about their characters. We ended up with some serious story holes as a result. Next time I would write the whole thing out and hand it to them as a finished “script” and go from there. I would also hold auditions for some of the roles.

Pre-show image of the tables set and the band warming up. The room looks beautiful and elegant.

Were there any notable differences in player behavior between night one and night two?

There was a MASSIVE difference in the players between night one and night two.

Night one was a Sunday. At 7:00 everyone was at the door, dressed to impress and ready to play. I met people at the door in character as Kit Hollingsworth so I felt the definite buzz of electricity as everybody came in.

Night two was a Friday. At 7:00 I was at the door and … crickets. People arrived slowly, harried and distracted, and a lot of them weren’t dressed as nicely as they had been on Sunday. Many had been stuck in traffic and were grabbing really quick dinners. In general, they had a harder time transitioning into the right mood.

People also drank a lot more on Friday than they had on Sunday, probably because they didn’t have to go to work the next day.

How did you change the event from night one to night two?

First, we added line management. We added an extra person to “interview” people in the Drosselmeyer line and make sure they wanted to actually be there.

Second, we asked the performers to soften their characters and be more forthcoming with information, even if their character would “never” do that. There was this line between pretending, where you try to get as close to your character’s authentic response as possible, and performing, where you acknowledge there’s more to it. We had to remind ourselves that it was theater and our goals were for people to learn the story and have fun.

And finally, we didn’t change the ending, but the audience did.

We experienced the cheery ending on night one (because we chose it). Can you talk about the ending on night two and the reaction to it?

The teams were looking for blueprints, in order to bring these to one of the characters and trigger the ending of the show. On night two, the winning team decided to hand the blueprints over to the bad guy.

We actually had two groups get to the blueprints at the same time, but the group that wanted to give the blueprints to Drosselmeyer (the good guy) had one number in their combination wrong, so the other team got them instead and gave them to Rhett (the bad guy).

When other teams realized what was happening, a lot of them tried really hard to keep the bad ending from occurring. They tried to negotiate with the winning team. Then another team tried to negotiate directly with Rhett to get the papers back. Afterward, the actor who played Rhett told me after that he was really concerned they were going to physically restrain him and take the papers back.

The bad ending was really dark. When Rhett walked out, we pulled up the house lights and played Springtime For Hitler over the loudspeaker. No curtain call. Just awkward house lights and silence.

I wanted to create something where people felt that they had agency. I also didn’t want to theater-coat any of it and make the bad ending fun or cheerful or pithy. Choosing to give technology to Nazis is bad and I think we should let it be bad. I got many emails and asides from people telling me they thought it was an unkind ending, but it was 2016 and I didn’t really feel like giving people a happy ending if they didn’t choose it. Some people were upset and said that because they hadn’t chosen the ending – it had been chosen for them – they shouldn’t have had to suffer through it, but things don’t really work that way. Others said that they weren’t even part of the puzzling – they were just drinking and hanging out and then this terrible thing happened, to which I was thinking: EXACTLY. I wrote a lot about this in a blog post.

I don’t think I would do it like that again, but I’m glad that we did it once. That’s where theater and games diverge, right? I never could have done that with a show.

What surprised you most about how the event played out?

We were surprised how crowded the space was and how long people had to wait in line to speak with key characters. We expected some amount of waiting but not to the extent that it happened, so we got that under control the second night.

We were also surprised that people found it hard to engage with the story. They were confused and didn’t quite know what to do. We had three characters whose job it was to pull people in and we had a full “instructions” sheet, but it wasn’t enough. Next time I want to have a “briefing room” where – out of character – we help the audience figure out how to engage.

I was also surprised that people were so upset about the “bad ending” the second night. I did build a ton of story and nuance in there; it was a pretty dark commentary on 1939 and 2016. On the night of, people just looked confused, like it was a mistake. The people who chose the bad ending literally said “wheee! We’re glad he’s dead! Being bad is fun!” Everyone else was just like “oh well.” Later on they expressed that they were upset and even outraged. I wasn’t expecting the “slow burn” on that ending.  

In-show: The bad ending two characters have been shot and a reporter is photographing them.

How did you manage to put on so much spectacle with tickets as affordable as they were?

It’s hard to overstate how helpful it was working with Oberon and the American Repertory Theater. The pricing for the space was really reasonable and they helped with EVERYTHING from staging to lights to sound. This was a risk for them because they didn’t entirely understand what we were doing. I got this wonderful email from them afterwards where they said “we took a crazy risk and it paid out in spades!!” I’m saving that email forever! A bunch of people in the Oberon staff said it was one of the coolest, most unique, and beautiful shows they’d seen in that space.

Also, I design everything based on my resources. We had a lot of dancers and musicians and friends to abuse. Just about everybody worked for us under cost. Hooray for friends!!

Do you have any advice for creating this type of piece that you’d like to share with our readers?

Stay infinitely flexible. Give good people what they need to build good things and just keep your eye on the ball. I’m just so proud of how my team made this crazy idea into something special.

Use your resources. Club Drosselmeyer worked because I had a swing band, singers, dancers, and people who knew how to dress like it was 1939. If I’d had to find these people or have other people create this environment, it would have been much more difficult.

What was it like seeing the entire piece come together?

AMAZING!!!! Day of, I looked at the set and the band and the dancers working on things and I was like “this is exactly what was in my head… and now it exists.” It was a surreal experience. It was both totally natural because it had been hanging out in my head for such a long time and totally unnatural because I’m aware that imaginary things don’t usually exist in real life.

Should we expect a sequel?

ABSOLUTELY!! The story will have to be completely different. I think there will be some new acts and new characters. I think it will have to be 1940… and that brings a whole new set of challenges. Germany just marched into France so we’ve got the French Underground and there are spies everywhere!

Club Drosselmeyer - Cast photo on the stage

What’s next for the team behind Club Drosselmeyer?

We’re buzzing along with our Edventure Builder games and we just released updates to a game we built with the Boston Children’s Museum at lxbgame.com.

I’m most excited about a modular escape room for middle schoolers that I’m brainstorming with the Teacher’s Education Resource Center… I don’t want to say too much about it other than that I really really hope it happens.

We’re also building something for this summer likely called the “society for historical inaccuracies.” It will be an interactive mystery tour around Boston, helping people stay abreast of all the things that never happened in Boston fictional history. I’d like to say we’re making history. Up.

Accomplice The Show – New York [Review]

Bring a group of characters to play with their characters.

Location: New York City, New York

Date played: May 21, 2016

Team size: 10; we recommend 10

Duration: ~3 hours

Price: $80 per ticket

Accomplice the show logo

Story & setting

A day before our game, Lisa received a phone call from a man in character giving very specific instructions for our team.

While I can’t give away the details of where exactly we went, or precisely what we did, I’ll say this: they call it “Accomplice” for a reason.

The setting of Accomplice New York was truly Downtown Manhattan.

The game was something in a nether-realm spanning a live action roleplay, scavenger hunt, and escape room. There were compelling characters, interesting locations, and easy puzzles.

Interaction

This was an interactive show. There were specific tasks to accomplish and a fair amount of walking involved. We engaged with conversationally energetic characters.

Accomplice was not a passive experience.

A selfie of two people holding something. The object they are holding is obscured by a sign reading,
This was probably the most memorable activity of Accomplice.

Standouts

Accomplice was a tour of Lower Manhattan. We traversed a number of significant neighborhoods and met realistic yet humorous characters that were, shall we say, unique to New York.

The team at Accomplice had their coordination and stage management down to a science. They had impressive mechanisms to keep teams moving through the game on the right pace, especially considering the physical size of their stage.

The actors were wonderful. Not only did they portray great characters, but they didn’t stick to a script. We messed with them a bit and they never broke character. We shared a short meal with a particular character and he ended up engaging Lisa in an incredibly detailed discussion about her career in onomastics and what she could tell about him (his character) based on his name.

Most impressively, the Accomplice actors read our team of individuals so well and worked that into their performance. When they made fun of us, they were painfully accurate in their assessments of each of us. It was hilarious.

Shortcomings

We didn’t race through the game; we tried to milk each interaction for all that it was worth. There were points in the game where we received food or drink and we could not tell how much time we had with our nibbles and libations. Sometimes it was longer than we expected; sometimes we were chased out before we were through.

One character was so realistic that it was uncomfortable. We had to break our character during our initial interactions with this person because we were worried we were weirding out a stranger.

Speaking strictly as a puzzler, the puzzles were not Accomplice’s strong suit. However, I don’t think that they were supposed to be – nor should they have been – difficult.

Should I play Accomplice New York?

There was a lot of love about Accomplice New York. Through its decade-long run, the producers have developed a deep understanding of their craft.

Speaking as a guy who has lived most of my life within arm’s reach of Manhattan, it was hilarious to interact with all of these NYC stereotype characters. There are some people who only exist in the in this part of the world.

Accomplice was also an excellent walking tour of Lower Manhattan, taking us through a number of neighborhoods that a tourist should see while visiting The City.

If you’re only looking for puzzles, you should do something else with your time. However, if you’re looking to experience New York and an interactive show in tandem, I cannot think of a better way to spend 3 hours and $80.

Book your session with Accomplice New York, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Interactive Theater & Escape Rooms

You happen to it and it happens to you.

Image Sleep No More
Image Sleep No More

Background

With interactive theater, also known as immersive theater, audience members help create their theater experience.

In a traditional theater experience, through sight and sound, audience members passively experience a performance in front of them, out of reach. They do not create.

Interactive theater encompasses a variety of different theatrical productions. The genre exists in between traditional theater and experiential games, designed and orchestrated by the participants.

Escape games exist on this continuum of interactive theater.  They take place on a set that is designed and staged before they arrive. However, the players determine how their game unfolds. The best room escapes turn the players into the actors of their own adventures.

In escape rooms, as in all types of theater, the experience is a work of art.

Variation

Interactive theater experiences vary widely based on:

  • size of the audience
  • size of the cast
  • size of the set
  • rules of the set
  • adherence to a plot

The genre is still developing; there isn’t a right or wrong way to design these experiences.

Four tips to make the most of your interactive theater experience

1. Review the story ahead of time

The show usually tells a story. It can be an interpretation of a known work or an original creation. Because you are not in a seat experiencing the story linearly, or even experiencing every part of the story, refresh yourself on the story before you arrive at the theater.

That said, you can usually enjoy your experience even if you have no understanding that there even is a story unfolding around you.

2. Participate

Your experience depends on you. Accept every interaction you are offered. Explore every option available to you. Manipulate the set. Do things. Seek out interactions with the cast and the other audience members. Play your role in crafting your positive experience.

Smiling and making eye contact with cast members will encourage them to interact with you.

Image via Then She Fell
Image via Then She Fell

3. Get Lucky

There is a lot of luck involved in having a good time, especially in shows with larger audiences. Sometimes you need to be the one selected to participate and the selection is out of your control. Realize that luck will play a huge role in your experience and cross your fingers.

4. Bring a friend, but go at it alone

Attend the show with others. A couple or a small group works best.

Then leave your companions and find your own experiences. Don’t feel responsible for anyone else’s fun.

Discuss the show with your companions after it ends. In all likelihood, each member of your party will tell a different story, some more positive than others (based on their participation and their luck). Synthesize the show together.

Room Escapes Interacting with Interactive Theater

Yes, it’s happening. This genre combines escape-room style puzzles with intensified character development as well as actor interaction. This collaboration will help both industries grow.

Interactive Theater in NYC

Sleep No More

Based on Macbeth, this enormous interactive theater is the best known one in New York. The set is incredible, cast is great, and whole experience is dark and sexy.

Just make sure you wear comfortable shoes and show up ready to chase the show’s fit cast members down corridors and up multiple flights of stairs.

Then She Fell

Our favorite interactive theater experience is based on Through the Looking Glass. It has a small audience and cast. You’ll have more than a few one-on-one interactions with the actors.

I cannot understate the intimacy and beauty of Then She Fell.

Queen of the Night

Queen of the Night is a loose retelling of The Magic Flute. The story really doesn’t matter here, as this show is part Cirque du Soleil-style circus, part burlesque show, and part banquet.

Image via Queen of the Night
Image via Queen of the Night