Escape rooms turned up a notch with theatrics

NEW YORK (AP) — You meet in a nondescript reception room in a midtown Manhattan skyscraper. You're handed a form on a clipboard. Then the receptionist slips away and the doors lock — and all hell breaks loose.

Within an hour, you and your group will have searched for clues in drawers and bookcases to get free, crawled through a ventilation shaft and encountered a woman dangling from a meat hook.

"Paradiso: Chapter 1" fuses the traditional escape room game with theatrical elements like actors and high-tech production values.

"Paradiso" is one of several shows pushing the boundaries of what escape rooms can become, turning the fast-growing games into a richer, theatrical experience.

"It seemed like there was an opportunity for escape rooms to go to the next level," said Michael Counts, the creator and one of the early pioneers of immersive theater. "For us, it was creating a deeper narrative, something that was expansive."

Escape rooms were invented in Japan. They first appeared in the U.S. in 2014. There are now some 4,850 escape rooms in 84 countries and in every U.S. state, according to the online Escape Room Directory.

"Maybe 'escape game' is a very limited word to use," said John Hennessy, one of the first to embrace the trend in the U.S. "I think we're going to have to start calling them something different."

Hennessy, who organized races and scavenger hunts around southern California, now runs four escape rooms, including ones set in a medieval alchemist's lab and a film-noir style Hollywood mystery.

"People spend their days pretty much staring at a screen — a monitor or a telephone, or whatever. This is very different from that. You're faced with problems that you have to solve by talking to each other and working with other people," he said.

Counts teamed up with producer Jennifer Worthington, a former executive with filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer, to create "Paradiso."

To go deeper and scarier, they hired Broadway and immersive theater veterans — including lighting designer Ryan O'Gara from "Hamilton," video and special effects wizard Caleb Sharp from "The Walking Dead Experience" and set designer Katie Fleming of "Sleep No More."

Ten guests at a time begin in the reception of the Virgil Corp., a nefarious Halliburton-like contractor. The cost is $60, more than double the price of most regular escape rooms, but the experience is virtually cinematic.

The game is a noisy, chaotic, adrenalin-pumping scramble through four rooms. Doorknobs must be yanked in the darkness, peepholes in doors show scary figures, video screens flash messages, and there are holographic helicopters and corpses split in half — all to a doom-inducing soundscape.

"You're sort of dropped into an action movie," said Worthington. "Who doesn't want to be in the middle of a James Bond movie?"

In Orlando, Florida, Dave Maynard and his team at Digital Escape Velocity have added multi-touch screens, projectors, mobile devices and robotics.

"We have gone completely off the deep end when it comes to throwing really high-tech stuff at it," Maynard said.

Maynard and his four teammates — all veterans of Lockheed Martin's research and development lab — just opened their first room, a deep space adventure set in 2225 that's customizable with the touch of a button.

Six players at a time start in the battle-scarred engineering room of an alien ship and figure out how to power up the spacecraft and get to the observation deck and later the bridge. Wristbands offer players status updates, lights and engine sounds are synched up, video clues are sent depending on need and metrics are kept for a high scoreboard.

"We innovate by really looking at how do we take the best of one thing and the best of another thing, put it together and make something that no one's ever seen before," said Maynard.