There’s part of a Victorian mansion hidden inside a certain warehouse a few blocks east of the Willamette. Go through a utilitarian foyer that smells like unvarnished wood and painted brick past an industrial elevator, a desk, and a filing cabinet, and you’ll find yourself in a well-appointed wallpapered room full of mid-century curios and oil paintings. A digital timer on the wall flickers on. A video begins to play. After that... well, after that, things get tricky.
This is how Resident Evil Escape Experience begins. The latest such room to pop up in Portland, it’s part of an interactive storytelling medium that’s been growing in popularity over the last few years. Escape rooms borrow equally from video games, installation art, and theater, with the end result a sort of environmental puzzle you work through as a timer slowly ticks down. What makes them difficult to discuss in detail is that once you’re inside, half the challenge is discovering what’s a puzzle and what isn’t. It’s up to you and your friends to discern what might be a very chair-like problem that needs to be solved, and what’s just, you know, a chair.
The Resident Evil room is presented by the video game publisher Capcom in conjunction with the recently released Resident Evil 7, and was originally installed in an LA gallery hosted by iam8bit, a trendy pop culture production company that specializes in game-related ephemera. But the room’s designer is Portland-based escape room impresario Laura E. Hall. Hall has previously created rooms for the Portland Art Museum and the Alamo Drafthouse, as well as Spark of Resistance, a prize-winning escape room that operates out of the same drafty warehouse as the Resident Evil game. The warehouse has a name: 60 Minutes to Escape.
I sat down with Hall in a room filled with Rolodexes and other Cold War-era props and discussed the principles behind interactive spaces like these. “The thing I always strive to do in an escape room design is to make it diegetic, make it make sense for whoever was inhabiting the space,” she says. “I want people to feel transported when they’re entering into that space, and I don’t want anything they encounter to ever break that spell.”
The mechanical challenges range from very simple considerations—“Every single thing in there is going to be touched, and probably broken,” Hall notes wearily—to the complex sorts of pathing problems you might encounter in video game design. “People need to move through the space in a particular order. There needs to be a set of information that’s gated at certain steps, to prevent people from doing it too quickly,” Hall explains. “[It] should be inherent in its design how [everything is] meant to be used. It shouldn’t be a thing where you pick up an object and you have no idea how it connects.”
Beyond the obvious puzzle elements, it was the sense of being part of a play (or in this case, a survival horror game) that I found most striking. “You’re asking people to step into a character role, even if you don’t necessarily articulate a specific character,” Hall explains. “It’s dim; you’ve crossed the threshold to enter into that world, which is a concept in theater. You see the clock start and your adrenaline sort of takes over. Your focus narrows. There’s a lot of stuff that people don’t notice because they’ve entered into that flow state. And so within that physical state, people behave basically in the same way. So you can anticipate how you might need to direct their attention.”