Once Upon A Time…is not a phrase you hear often in reviews. Maybe it should be! That’s the goal of Tommy Wallach, the writer of the Lab Rat escape room. Yes, the writer (vs. designer, creator, etc.). He believes that strong stories are what will carry escape rooms into the future instead of becoming a short-lived fad. This was the first of two different creators in a row telling us that their focus was story, so this way of thinking is catching on.
Even one attempt to recount an escape to a friend will show the merits of putting story first. Recounting a generically-themed room will invariably sound dry, maybe even to yourself. “First we had to get out of the library, so we counted the number of green, red, and blue books. That gave us the combination to a locked drawer, which had a blacklight in it. We used that to read the titles of those books, and…” By that point your audience is likely confused and not really understanding why you thought this was fun in the first place. Even worse (to me), your recap is nothing but describing the room’s puzzles!
Hatch Escapes wants to be different. They want to linger in your memory as an adventure you had, not just some puzzles you solved. After all, says Wallach, “The fun is in the roleplaying…in living the movie.” To drive that home, Hatch Escapes is most interested in Narrative, Theatrical Production Values, and Humor.
Let’s see how they did on their goals. The story of Lab Rat is a good one–human sized rats are doing experiments on rat-sized humans (us). Any other room would stop there, as the concept is already solid. Lab Rat goes further with full video of the giant Dr. Ratkenstein telling us if we don’t escape, his experiment will fail and he’ll be denied funding for his dissertation. The video is very fun, and that’s not all! Dr. Ratkenstein is a recurring character and his scenes up the ante with regards to stakes. There is also communication with previous groups of test humans, as well as a final filmed scene to wrap up the plot. We escaped, but I’d bet there is an alternate scene filmed for groups that don’t make it out. From a player’s point of view, I greatly appreciated that the timer stops during these scenes. They know that most people won’t want to lose precious time, so they make the character scenes separate from game time, letting everyone enjoy them without worrying about other things.
Theatrical Production Values
Has jaw-dropping ever been used literally? Maybe in Lab Rat. The room is beautiful, fun, and thematic as hell. There was a chorus of “Wow”s and delighted laughs, as we looked around our cage, surrounded by oversized artifacts of our rat overlords. Most prominent was the giant water bottle, just like the one in your friend’s hamster cage when you were a kid. Outside of the cage were pencils, a Rubik’s Cube, books, and more, all super-sized to reinforce the scale. Other than the quality of the set, the innovation should be commended as well. The set pieces included the cage itself, with a puzzle built INTO it, along with a great overhead feature that had us literally scurrying from room to room like rats to follow along. There were other very cool features that added wonderful variety. Plus, Lab Rat is simply huge. Hatch Escapes owns the entire building, and that affords them the ability to design for a bigger scale than other places. Running from point to point adds a physical adrenaline boost that small rooms can’t provide.
Three for three. Beyond the obvious humor inherent in the setting, and the amusing story scenes that play out on video, another source of humor is all around you. The walls are covered with rodent-ified versions of famous cultural icons. Video games, books, musicians, slogans, and more are all given a twist to fit the theme of giant rats ruling the world. Since the room is so big, there is lots of space for these type of jokey recreations. There are also plenty of fun situations, which may not be humorous in the same way, but I got a real kick out of the situations our group was put in. Particularly one point that had 4 of us all staring at the same object, shouting “Yes!” or “No!” over and over until we all agreed. The room was simply fun to be in, and the overt humor set the tone for the more subtle humor throughout.
You can’t spell ART without RAT
Quoting Tommy again, “we honestly believe escape rooms are not just a fun fad, but a new artistic medium, bridging the gap between immersive theater and interactive entertainment. Our eventual goal is to make rooms that are actually thought-provoking, perhaps even emotionally affecting. If nothing else, we want people to walk out amazed, not simply entertained.”
What a great goal to have! Blurring and blending the lines between these two forms of entertainment will hopefully bring in an audience that may not have otherwise been interested in a first generation escape room. I particularly like the thought of this entertainment as a new art form. It lends (deserved) legitimacy to these creations and gives me hope that the medium will continue for a long time. I’ve done some great rooms, but Hatch Escapes has me most eager for their next offering. Lab Rat is in my top 3 ever, and I expect the next room to be even better. I encourage anyone with a passing interest to go check out Lab Rat, and it’s a perfect room to take your friends who may have been on the fence until now. The only problem is that it’s so good they will be spoiled for most other rooms!
Hatch Escapes is located at 1919 3rd Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, 90018. They are open every day except Monday, with slots as late as 11:30 pm. More information is available at their website here.