Coronavirus Shut Down Popular Escape Rooms. Now The Industry Is Going Virtual

Inside an Escape Room L.A. Zoom, faces of extreme focus while we had an outer-space adventure. (Mike Roe)

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Here's the closest I've been to an outside-the-home adventure in months:

I'm in a virtual escape room Escape From Planet X.

I volunteer to get off the ship, to search the planet for fuel. But when I got back, the door was locked — and no one could hear me.

To be honest, it felt a little more true to our current existence than escaping from it.

But I had fun.

Here's a look at how escape rooms have gone virtual during stay-at-home orders:

Little green men peek into your ship during Escape From Planet X. (Courtesy Escape Room L.A.)

Los Angeles's escape rooms are shut down right now, and it's unclear when they'll be able to open back up — especially with the tight passages and constant touching of different puzzles as you try to find your way out.

Basically all conditions ripe for spreading a virus.

So escape room creators have been going virtual. Escape From Planet X comes from Escape Room L.A., one of two virtual rooms they've started, with plans for more on the way.

"I think it feels very much like doing an escape room, the overall experience," Escape Room L.A. Creative Director John Hennessy told LAist.


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The games are run on Zoom — you and up to five of your friends join for $15 per person, with up to 60 minutes to escape. While trying one ourselves, our group made it out in 45 minutes.

A game host leads you through the world, sharing her screen and acting as your guide. You get to see a map and close-ups of different rooms you visit, objects you see, and puzzles you need to solve.

It reflects ingenuity born out of, well, desperation as many businesses that rely on in-person experience scramble to reinvent. Prior to the pandemic, there were more than 2,300 escape rooms nationwide, according to Room Escape Artist, a site that covers the industry. An industry report last year found that the average room was making about $315,000 in revenue a year.

Then came COVID-19.

Escape Room L.A. had to lay off their staff when the coronavirus stay-at-home order was issued — including Hennessy himself.

"I don't know if it was denial on my part — we just kind of thought we would get through it," Hennessy said. "I took probably about a week where I was just in shock a little bit — I didn't do anything, I just hung out at my house."

His restlessness got to him, and he started hearing that other escape rooms were doing live streaming games. He didn't think it would work to have someone with a GoPro on their head going around an actual room, but then he realized he could use Zoom's screen-sharing function to create a whole new experience.

These virtual games have allowed Escape Room L.A. to bring seven staff members back as game hosts — and the one other staff member who had been full-time previously has found another gig, according to Hennessy.

"We're at a point now where we need to find more staff to do the games," Hennessy said.

Brian Corbitt of 60out Escape Rooms said the same, with the big impediment to opening up more game slots right now just being hiring more actors.

The main difference with a physical escape room, Hennessy said, is that splitting up as you often do in traditional rooms isn't as easy. So, you're all looking at the same puzzles at the same time, working together to solve them.

A MORE ADULT EXPERIENCE

The first virtual game from 60out Escape Rooms is an adaptation of their in-person Miss Jezebel experience. The game lets you control a live actor who serves as your in-person avatar over Zoom. You get to tell the actor what to do and what to say while he's undercover investigating black widow Miss Jezebel in what 60out describes as a "raunchy adventure."

And at a remove, you're able to do quite a bit to embarrass the actor you're controlling, Corbitt said.

"We had to add some interactions that would be a lot more fun than just watching through the screen," Corbitt said.

Corbitt was inspired by the Rocky Horror Picture Show, creating a bawdy horror comedy. He originally wrote the game for April Fool's Day three years ago.

"I just want to create a room where we just screw with people," Corbitt said.

He'd been tiring of the similar themes that escape rooms were going to over and over again.

"Back then, all the themes were you're in a lab, or you're defusing a bomb, or it has zombies, or you're in an Egyptian tomb," Corbitt said.

In Miss Jezebel, players have to essentially improv their way through the escape room/interactive show.

He also promises that, given the current circumstances, things aren't going to be too hard. The game is on "easy mode," Corbitt said, and they're aiming for 100 percent of players to escape. But there's plenty to do, with most players still escaping with five minutes or less remaining in their 60-minute time limit.

MORE VIRTUAL GAMES

A navigation system in Escape From Planet X. (Courtesy Escape Room L.A.)

Escape room designers agree that these online games have been popular beyond their expectations. They keep trying to add more times, and many of those times keep selling out.

"This actually might be more than just a long-term solution — I think this may actually revolutionize the industry," Corbitt said.

While most of the players remain locals, Hennessy said, going online has opened them up to players finding them from around the world.

"We've had people so far from as far away as Rome and the Philippines," Hennessy said.

Corbitt said that 60out is looking to add times that are easier for European and East Coast players. They're such a hit that he said "it wouldn't make sense" not to keep doing them, even when the physical location is open again.

Escape Room L.A.'s started doing promotions on Facebook, helping to draw in people from around the country and beyond. (Though not from outer worlds like in our game — yet.)

Hennessy is also looking at developing some of these virtual escape rooms into mobile apps, letting you enjoy an escape room experience on the go, any time you want.

CREATING NEW VIRTUAL EXPERIENCES

Escape Room L.A.'s current games are more traditional adventure, but Hennessy is hard at work developing a creepy Victorian game, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. They also have a Mayan pyramid-based game. While it's a completely different experience than their physical Lost Pyramid game, Hennessy said that players were less interested in something similar to a current room, so they're going in a different direction for future online games.

Corbitt declined to discuss upcoming games being developed by 60out, but they've announced a circus-themed game set to be released by the end of the month, as well as a downloadable mystery game for kids coming soon.

REOPENING PHYSICAL ESCAPE ROOMS

Our victory faces post-escape. (Mike Roe)

When we interviewed Hennessy, he said his team had a meeting scheduled to talk about how they might be able to start bringing physical games back, once they're allowed to.

"We're going to start working on putting together some kind of system, and procedures — not only for our participants, for the people who work there, so everyone feels safe and comfortable," Hennessy said.

He expects the rest of this year to be hard for escape rooms, along with entertainment in general.

"I mean, people are not going to want to do something fun that's going to feel like they're in a medical ward," Hennessy said.

Corbitt's more hopeful about in-person gaming — he feels escape rooms are in a unique position relative to other entertainment venues like theaters, arcades, or bowling alleys.

"We actually have the potential to really have isolated entertainment," Corbitt said.

His vision: groups of players come in, and games are staggered and sanitized. That way, you only come in with family and friends, and don't have to interact with strangers.

"If escape rooms do not adapt, they will not survive. But the potential of surviving is far greater than it was before," Corbitt said.

He also thinks that virtual rooms will push everyone to be better and more creative. And that the experience is something video game creators can't copy yet, thanks to that added human element — both with the performers, and the level of interaction with your own friends.

As with many other areas of our world right now, Hennessy said that the future of escape rooms depends on the future of the virus.

"If things take a turn for the worse, then we might not be opening in the near future at all," Hennessy said.

You can sign up for virtual escape rooms from 60out and Escape Room L.A. online now. You can also watch Celebrity Escape Room on NBC Thursday night — 60out partnered with NBC to create a celebrity escape experience that's part of Red Nose Day, raising money for charity.