You Can't Usually Play An Escape Room More Than Once, But This LA Game Wants To Solve That
The idea of being locked in a room and forced to escape has somehow become a popular recreational activity — and not just part of the Saw movies — but most escape rooms come with a drawback: once you've solved all the puzzles, there's no challenge in playing it again. Many rooms actually ban players from coming back after going through once.
An upcoming L.A. escape room, opening next spring, is trying to solve that problem. It's called The Ladder, and it's created by Hatch Escapes — the same team that created the popular, well-reviewed escape room Lab Rat.
"We're solving a problem that people didn't necessarily see as a problem," Hatch co-owner Tommy Wallach said. "For a theater thing, you try to get the people to come see it once. That's the vast, vast, vast majority of your crowd."
WHAT MAKES THE LADDER REPLAYABLE?
The Ladder turns corporate culture into a game. You work your way up the corporate ladder at vitamin company (with a secret shady agenda) Nutricorp from the 1950s through 1990s, with different rooms representing each decade.
It's built around choices, adding video game-like elements to the game. There are two tracks you can follow as you play the game: one focused on solving the puzzles, and one focused on high scores on games in each decade.
You pick a character to play through, choose whether to get married and have a family, choose whether you want a secretary — all options that add to a branching narrative, letting the game move in different directions.
One of the biggest choices you make is whether to play ethically or not. Those choices have ramifications.
"Basically, the more ethically you play it, the game becomes harder," Wallach said, "and the more unethically you play it, the game becomes easier. Commentary!"
THE PUZZLE TRACK
Instead of the traditional format of escaping a room, the Ladder gives you 10 to 12 minutes in each decade. You have some highly difficult puzzles to solve, but A) no hints are provided and B) they're... optional?
Yes, they're optional, because you move on to the next decade when your time is up — solved puzzles or not. But your success in solving those tricky puzzles contributes to the ending you get.
THE GAMEPLAY TRACK
The other track to play through is a series of puzzle-like games that you're scored on. The games are "effectively infinite," according to Wallach — any group less than the maximum size of 12 will struggle to get through even one of the games, and you face three of them.
Wallach promises that there is so much content that, if you come back, you'll see new stuff — and that there's so much, you probably won't remember everything you saw the last time.
You also don't necessarily need to max out your score — if you get a high enough score, your company succeeds.
There are 10 different endings, based on the choices you make and the scores you achieve. There's even a bonus room to which they stress it is highly unlikely you'll be able to earn access on your first time through. Sorry, holding up a boombox outside playing "In Your Eyes" won't gain you access. (Well, maybe they'll think that's cool and let you in, who knows.)
Which of those endings you get is largely based on three factors, according to Wallach:
- Whether your score is high enough for your company to succeed
- Whether you solve those puzzles
- Whether you play ethically or unethically
But if this all sounds overwhelming, don't worry — they agree. That's why they plan to give codes to you when you finish the game to help make your return visit a little bit easier, and to make sure you get to see more stuff.
"I don't want anyone to feel that the game is extorting them to come back — that's bad," Wallach said. "I'd much sooner everybody see everything one time than that anybody feel like this is a ripoff: 'I came back and I didn't see anything new.'"
WHY YOU'D WANT TO COME BACK
They want to make sure everyone has a satisfying first experience, according to Wallach, because they know frustrated customers aren't going to be return customers.
Everyone gets a full ending, and they're all basically happy endings, Wallach said. He imagines people coming back over the course of several years, going for a new ending they haven't seen before.
He imagines a few different scenarios for different runs through The Ladder.
- The first time through, you don't solve all the puzzles and your company doesn't succeed — but, as noted, you still get an enjoyable ending.
- You come back, solve all those puzzles, and get access to the bonus room. Your company still doesn't succeed because you weren't focused on getting high scores in the scored games. But now that you know how to solve all the puzzles, maybe you'll come back a year later or with different people, Wallach said.
- The third time through, you solve all the puzzles, get high scores, and play ethically — and you unlock what he calls the "super ending."
SO WHAT EXACTLY ARE YOU DOING?
There are four rooms in the Ladder. In the 1950s, you're working in the mail room. The room itself is in black and white, and your tasks include sorting letters and packages, and even working with pneumatic tubes.
In the 1960s, you're entering a Mad Men/Marvelous Mrs. Maisel-type world and working in the secretarial pool. You work with a phone switchboard, make coffee, and have to do some filing. (But, like, fun filing, according to Wallach.)
Enter the 1970s and you're in middle management, which means golf, martini lunches, and a little bit of HR work at your desk.
For the 1980s, you're in "research and development," which Wallach said basically includes IT tasks and other technical stuff. But, he added, it ultimately comes down to playing really traditional games in a tech environment.
Finally, the 1990s see you in the corner office. This room brings together everything you've been doing so far, overseeing it all in an office setup that Wallach compared to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Even as a team you play collectively as one person, so they had to mess with what exactly a CEO's office would be in the game to make sure everyone has something to do.
PUTTING THE STORY FIRST
The Ladder producer Arvind Ethan David also produced Broadway's Alanis Morissette jukebox musical Jagged Little Pill. The thing that has him excited about working with Hatch Escapes is the care he saw that they have for narrative.
"By adding a narrative, then there is a richness to a narrative — you can repeat. You can re-read a good book, you can re-watch a good movie, even if only a small percentage of people choose to," David said.
Escape rooms traditionally haven't put story first, according to David and Wallach. But great story adds to that replay potential, David said.
"The idea of either having a great story that you would never want to experience twice, or a great game that you wouldn't want to play twice, just seems insane," David said.
He's hoping that experiences like the Ladder will be compared to other stories and games, not just other escape rooms.
STORIES NEED CHARACTERS
Part of that story also includes filmed segments with actors.
"I personally get uncomfortable with actual live actors in a room," Wallach said.
But you need characters for a good story, and this, he said, is where some other escape rooms don't pay the same level of attention to good storytelling.
"Having the employee of the escape room tell you a monologue as you're walking in — that's not a character," Wallach said.
Story is what makes a game memorable, David said.
"Often [a game without a strong story] just fades from your mind, like dew on a sunny day," David said. "I played Lab Rat about a year ago, and for the first time, I found myself talking about the story. And it was funny, and it was funny in a way that also reminded me of my own work."
That's how David got involved with Hatch Escapes — he reached out to ask if the game was influenced by sci-fi comedy writer Douglas Adams.
They've cast some bigger names than you might expect for an escape room experience. It includes Jordan Belfi, who played a recurring role on Entourage; Tony Revolori, who played Flash Thompson in the recent Spider-Man movies and appeared in the Grand Budapest Hotel; and Zelda Williams, who played a recurring character on Nickelodeon's The Legend of Korra and who's also Robin Williams' daughter.
Williams has been a fan of Lab Rat, playing through the game multiple times. All three of the actors played through Lab Rat, according to Davis, and responded the storytelling in the game.
WHEN ESCAPE ROOMS AREN'T REALLY ESCAPE ROOMS
The term "escape room" doesn't really describe what this room, or a lot of rooms now, really are, according to Wallach.
"We're saddled with a lot of stupid names for media," Wallach said.
He compared it to movies being called "movies" because they were once compared to still photography.
"We got saddled with this name 'escape room,' and it's particularly pernicious because people are claustrophobic — they don't like the idea of being chased, or being scared. And the term 'escape' implies that you're trapped," Wallach said.
They're hoping to shift people's perceptions, even though they think it's too late to change the term for the medium, according to Wallach.
They want to reach out and bring in people who like theater, indie movies, computer games — not just escape room game fans, according to David.
"How can we bring those people into this broadening church that we're trying to build?" David said.
He argued that The Ladder could be the most ambitious room in North America — but that they want to do something even bigger next, so stay tuned. They wouldn't give many details but said their next experience may include magic and puppets, which we are totally here for.
TAKE A BREATH
When you're playing, Wallach wants you to take a minute and just enjoy the story.
"People are so primed to be frenetically attempting to solve puzzles, desperately, that getting them to stop for even five seconds to listen to an audio cue, or watch a video, is exceptionally hard," Wallach said.
Hatch's games are a different type of thing, Wallach said — so enjoy the experience.
They're currently running a Kickstarter for The Ladder, but they've already hit their funding goal. They also noted that the game's budget is significantly higher than the amount they were aiming for on Kickstarter, but that the game is happening no matter what — they've been working on the design for more than a year and have been building it for about six months with a full-time staff of 11 people, from programmers and electricians to prop builders and painters.
Kickstarter is the chance for fans to basically pre-order tickets. You can do so through Thursday, Nov. 21. And the plan is for The Ladder to open in April, with previews/beta testing beginning in March.