New in Escape Rooms: Drive-In Adventure

Entry banner for the drive-in escape adventure.

Challenge Inspires Innovation 

I recently completed a series on escape room innovations. Now I’ve come across an interesting example of how the challenges of 2020 continue to inspire new escape game design.

When he decided to close his indoor games because of COVID-19 case numbers in Michigan, Patton Doyle, Owner and Designer at Decode Escape Rooms, created games that could be played from outside of his facility. This included a new drive-in adventure – complete with lighting, sound and effects – that players experience from their cars.

Decode Escape Rooms currently operates in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan, with a Detroit location coming soon. Their Ypsilanti game The Aurora Society (currently temporarily closed due to COVID) won a Golden Lock Award in 2019. Their new drive-in adventure takes place at the Ann Arbor location.

Patton recently told me more about this new game format.

Can you describe your new drive-in game?

Doyle: The Doc is testing his new teleportation device, but something has gone wrong and he needs your help! Guests park their vehicles behind our building and work together using two smartphones to save the day. The main display is projected onto the back of our building, sound is piped in via the car radio, and the guests’ actions trigger lights, sound, and other special effects around their vehicle as they play.

Projection of an escape room like environment. Includes a door and a mysterious technological contraption.
Drive-in projection

Is it appointment-based and ticketed like a traditional escape room?

Doyle: The game is by reservation so that groups don’t overlap. Access to the game and resetting is handled automatically so that guests don’t have to interact with anyone during their experience. The game is managed entirely remotely via cameras, a web interface, and a phone number for help. Hints are also provided within the game interface.

What are the hardware and software you use to operate the game?

Doyle: We’ve used our own control software for all of our games for the last several years. To adapt it for this game, we added the ability to trigger events from the open internet. It’s free and open source software, so anyone is welcome to try it out. They can reach out to me (patton@DecodeDetroit.com) if they need help setting it up.

The online interface is written using standard web tools (html, javascript, css) and hosted with Firebase. The free tier of Firebase is so generous that we haven’t had to pay anything for it (yet).

For hardware, we used a projector and radio transmitter, a couple of smoke machines, and various DMX lights and light controls. The projection-mapping was all done in Blender (also free and open source software).

A parked car surrounded by lights and artificial fog.
Drive-in effects

Where did the idea come from?

Doyle: The idea is an evolution of the outdoor game we ran this summer. That game, Around the World in 30 Minutes, required guests to complete a sequence of travel challenges in the large picture windows in front of our building using their smartphones. Our drive-in game took some of the same ideas and added more elaborate special effects, greater teamwork (guests collaborate across two devices), and, of course, a vehicle to keep them warm (since we’re located in Michigan). 😊

Two people on their phones in front of a window display.
Around the World in 30 Minutes

What hardware and software do the players need?

Doyle: Guests only need a smartphone and a vehicle with a functioning radio. The entire game is browser-based, so guests don’t need to download an app or bring any special tools or devices with them.

What is the length of the game?

Doyle: Guests have 90 minutes to play, but the typical game takes about an hour. We’ve found that unlike a traditional escape room, guests are much more likely to begin their game late, so we want to make sure they have plenty of time to finish.

How is the drive-in game affected by weather? Rain or snow or extreme cold?

Doyle: The game is open in any mild weather (rain, snow, cold, etc.), but we plan to close it during blizzards and other extreme weather events for safety. Guests can reschedule their reservation anytime without fees or penalties, so if they decide it is too cold or the roads are too slippery, they can pick a different date to play.

How has it been received so far?

Doyle: The response has been fantastic. The guests I’ve spoken with all asked when we were coming out with another similar game. Even though the game is an unfamiliar format, people are willing to give it a try, and it exceeds their best expectations.

Is there a post-Covid future for this game or others like it?

Doyle: We hope to keep this game open throughout 2021. With summer nights in Michigan, we’ll have to make some changes, as it doesn’t get dark until 10pm. But I’m a big believer in the potential of games that break the standard escape room format. We’re always working to expand our offerings into new formats, whether that’s a scavenger hunt where puzzles are hidden inside local businesses, a short, replayable game that requires guests to learn each time they play, or a new outdoor game that takes guests out into the community.

A packed bookshelf with a framed Decode logo attached to the side.
Scavenger Hunt

Conclusion

The escape game format has undergone some tremendous changes over the past year. New styles and ideas are popping up all the time as everyone tries to adapt to changing conditions and business rules. 

There is something fun about driving to an escape game, instructions coming over the radio, and experiencing lights, smoke, and sounds all around the car. It is an immersive, real-world adventure, very different from a game played through a laptop screen.

This is an idea that really leaves an impression with me. I hope to learn about more companies leaving the traditional comfort zone and offering customers the chance to play something different.

Detroit Michigan: Room Escape Recommendations

Latest update: November 16, 2019

We really enjoyed the escape rooms in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan.

When we visited in August of 2019 we found a market on the rise… and it was truly exciting to behold. We’re looking forward to seeing where Detroit is heading.

Stylized image of the Detroit skyline.

Market Standouts

  1. The Aurora Society, Decode Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti
  2. Infirmary, Michigan Escape Room, Clinton Township
  3. The Houdini Trap, The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms, Ferndale
  4. The Minerva Project, Decode Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor

Games we haven’t played but wish we had:

  • Comic Excape, Excape Games, Livonia
  • Minerva’s Escape, Decode Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor
  • Michigan Escape Room – in general – we wish we’d had time to play more with them

Set & Scenery Driven

Puzzle Centric

Tech Heavy

Newbie Friendly

You are always welcome to contact us if this recommendation list doesn’t answer your specific questions.

Decode Ann Arbor – The Minerva Project [Review]

SASS

Location:  Ann Arbor, Michigan

Date Played:  August 3, 2019

Team size: 3-15; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The Minerva Project was a brilliant game, especially considering that it’s been around for a few years. Decode Ann Arbor packed in a complete narrative (with good structure), strong puzzles, and appropriate technology. They built it all around an engaging and entertaining character in the form of the AI, Minerva.

In-game: A view of a 3D map of Detroit that is spun out of order.

A few elements of this game felt dated and stale. During our play-through there were components that were out of play because they were coming soon (which was disappointing). That said, this was a delightful game.

This game was one of our rare losses. I can confidently say that it was 100% our fault. We foolishly discarded an unused clue in a silly place.

There was a lot to love in The Minerva Project. If you’re in the area, we strongly recommend it. It isn’t as impressive as Decode’s latest game, The Aurora Society, but it’s well worth the time and money. If we had more time we would have eagerly played the second Minerva game as well.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Sci-fi fans
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Good storytelling
  • Plenty of well-designed puzzles

Story

We entered a research lab and met an adolescent artificial intelligence named Minerva. This sassy computer wanted to learn from us through a series of puzzley experiments.

In-game: a "MINERVA Project Access Badge" held up to a scanning station.

Setting

Like Decode Ann Arbor’s other facility in Ypsilanti (I love that name), this location was fully themed: in this instance, around the artificial intelligence experiments of the Minerva Project.

The experience began in the lobby as our in-character gamemaster introduced us to the AI that would oversee our experiment and learn from us. This setup was smart because it justified us entering a fairly traditional and aesthetically unremarkable escape room.

In-game: wide shot of the puzzle room with three set pieces in view.

Now just because the game began in a traditional setting does not mean that things remained old school. This is one of those instances where I’d love to say more, but the experience would be harmed if I did so.

Gameplay

Decode Ann Arbor’s The Minerva Project was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, making connections, and puzzling.

In-game: Scanning and input station 1.

Analysis

βž• Minerva was the star of this escape room. Decode Ann Arbor developed a voice for this sassy AI, which remained integral to the experience from the first moments through the conclusion.

βž• The staff at Decode Ann Arbor interacted with Minerva skillfully, developing the narrative.

In-game: Closeup of a "Puzzle Room Door Lock" status indicator.

βž• The story had a beginning, middle, and end (win or lose). We especially enjoyed “the turn” which will likely surprise most teams.

βž• With Minerva, there were additional dynamics to navigate in the game world, beyond solving puzzles. When we had the opportunity to make a choice; it felt meaningful.

βž• The puzzles were varied and usually interactive. They were largely tangible, with buttony buttons and the like.

In-game: closeup of a 10 digit mechanical numberpad with green buttons.

βž– While many of the puzzles were interactive, we also encountered a few too many paper components. Sometimes these involved substantial reading, which we found frustrating… and one of these puzzles recurred in a much more elegant form in Decode Detroit’s more recent game, The Aurora Society.

βž• We enjoyed the local nod to Detroit’s music. Also, the music was great.

βž•/βž– We interacted with puzzle stations through keypads. The UI on some stations was intuitive. On others, we wasted a lot of time not understanding how to properly work the mechanism, or how it interacted with a puzzle. We were thrown off by the inconsistency between devices that looked the same, but behaved differently.

βž•/βž– Decode Ann Arbor was actively improving upon The Minerva Project. We encountered entire props and puzzles labeled “in development.” These were in the gamespace, but had no bearing on our gameplay. We respect Decode Ann Arbor for iterating; too few companies commit to upgrading in this way. Also, because the game was set in a research lab, they could justify devices that were in development. That said, these props took us out of the game, as we had to stop and comprehend “not in play.” Additionally, this created a weird sense of FOMO; they looked pretty cool. So, later players are just going to have cooler toys to play with.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with Decode Ann Arbor’s The Minerva Project, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Decode Ann Arbor comped our tickets for this game.

Excape Games – Abandoned Ship [Review]

Escape the Kraken

Location:  Livonia, Michigan

Date Played:  August 3, 2019

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Every once in a while we happen upon a company a few months too early. Seeing what Excape Games has in the works, I am pretty sure that they are in the process of transforming themselves from a solid escape room company into a real force in their region.

Check out Abandoned Ship if you’re in the area because it’s a fun, traditional game with some great elements, but keep an eye out for their new projects. It feels like Excape Games is on the brink of something special.

In-game: An interesting room with octopus tenticles reaching in through porthole windows.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Strong puzzles
  • It builds up well

Story

Our research expedition had successfully rediscovered the lost submarine, the S.S. Odyssey. As we boarded it and attempted to surface the boat, it sustained damage. We had to work under pressure to bring the submarine back to sea level, saving it and ourselves.

In-game: a large steampunk gun mounted to the wall.

Setting

Abandoned Ship opened in a bland silver and gray room. It wasn’t the greatest first impression. Excape Games made it clear to us that they had near-future plans to greatly improve this space and I believe them.

In-game: A plain, silver walled room, with an interesting riveted door and a large white panel labeled "First Aid"

With each subsequent space, the Abandoned Ship became more beautiful and compelling. The overwhelming majority of the experience took place in these exciting locations.

In-game: a weathered space with tubes and controls.

Gameplay

Excape Games’ Abandoned Ship was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, making connections, and puzzling.

In-game: crank siren hint system.
This was a great way to call for a hint.

Analysis

βž• Abandoned Ship had an interesting assembly puzzle. This sequence had subtle cluing that worked impeccably. It was brilliant.

βž– In other places, there was opportunity to mind the details: a mount here, consistency in cluing there.

βž• The puzzles generally flowed well and delivered satisfying solves. 

βž–Β While most of the game was well clued, we found one needlessly unclued search puzzle to be a frustrating time sink. Additionally, there were too many clues written on laminated paper that could have been more fully integrated into the set and the world.

βž• The set design ramped up over the course of the game. With each new space we entered, the gamespace was more intriguing. We always enjoy a good steampunk aesthetic.

βž–Β The first room looked sparse. While this didn’t detract from the gameplay, the initial scene was jarringly under designed.

βž• We always appreciate an unusual door. This vessel didn’t disappoint.

βž•/βž– Abandoned Ship had a really cool final set, but it lacked an impactful finale.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with Excape Games’ Abandoned Ship, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Excape Games comped our tickets for this game.

The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms – The Houdini Trap [Review]

A trap Houdini never escaped

Location:  Ferndale, Michigan

Date Played:  August 3, 2019

Team size: up to 10; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $20 per player Sunday – Thursday; $24 per player Friday – Saturday

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The Houdini Trap told a unique story in an unusual and beautiful space. The puzzles and props were solid and engaging.

In-game: Glowing red lights against an art deco wall about the exit door.

There were a few nooks that felt underdeveloped, and a handful of puzzles that could have benefited from additional refinement.

Nevertheless, this was a truly delightful game. If you’re in the area, check out The Houdini Trap; it was doing some magical things.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • An elegant set
  • Good thematic puzzles
  • Fifth Wall is a fully themed escape room establishment
  • An interesting take on the Houdini escape room genre
  • The story pulls from Houdini and Detroit history

Story

We entered a trap designed specifically for Harry Houdini by a mysterious individual. Sadly, history’s most famous escape artist passed away in Detroit’s Grace Hospital before he’d had a chance to take on the seemingly impossible challenge room.

Almost a century later, The Houdini Trap was rediscovered and we were given the opportunity to explore the room that Harry Houdini had never escaped.

In-game: a poster advertising Houdini's "The Grim Game."

Setting

The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms’ facility was fully themed around a secret society. (This made it 1 of 3 fully themed facilities that we found outside of Detroit).

The Houdini Trap was a pretty space. Honestly, I don’t think my photos fully captured it.

The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms built the space with an art deco aesthetic that had a slight otherworldly vibe.

Many of the interactions and props were built from metal and were incredibly solid.

In-game: Closeup of a gearbox.

Gameplay

The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms’ The Houdini Trap was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, making connections, and puzzling.

In-game: Wide angle shot of the room, a water torture chamber in the middle of it.

Analysis

βž• The Houdini Trap was designed in an art deco style. We were immediately captivated by the details in the design.

In-game: A beautiful and ornate art deco wall.

βž• The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms introduced The Houdini Trap with an entertaining video with great art. It kept our attention despite being a tad lengthy.

βž• The puzzles were solid, but the set-based interactions were phenomenal. As beautiful as the set was to inhabit, it was that much more exciting to manipulate.

In-game: Closeup of a control panel with a few dials.

βž•/ βž– One interaction in particular worked as an in-game metaphor for the larger theme. It was unique, conceptually and physically. That said, the interaction needed additional refinement, in both cluing and mechanism.

βž–Β We were bogged down by substantial reading in The Houdini Trap. Much of the story was told rather than felt. Reading included printed materials, laminated paper, and a journal that, while not quite a runbook, sometimes behaved a bit like one. We also encountered a handwritten clue that caused confusion.

In-game: A water torture chamber hanging from the ceiling.

βž– The audio could be hard to understand, which was frustrating, as it was crucial to one segment.

βž• Although The Houdini Trap flowed linearly, The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms gated (and labeled) puzzles such that large teams could get a jump on later puzzles early without wasting time or breaking sequence.

βž–Β One nook of this otherwise impeccable space was left underdesigned, which was disappointing.

βž•Β We adored the timekeeping mechanism in The Houdini Trap. As time rolled forward, intensity mounted. We appreciated that the game displayed our progress as well as the time.

In-game: A tube that carries balls representing the timer.
The game timer: Every 10 minutes a ball fell through this contraption.

Tips For Visiting

  • They have a parking lot.

Book your hour with The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms’ The Houdini Trap, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms provided media discounted tickets for this game.