The Reality X
I hate writing bad reviews. I want all experiences to be amazing, so I can tell the world about them. A lot of work goes into the new immersive entertainment offerings, and I genuinely appreciate it. Sometimes, though, even with good intentions and a winning concept, the end result falls flat. Offering perhaps the greatest disparity between what COULD be, and what actually IS, The Reality X is the latest, but not greatest, immersive escape experience.
The Reality Concept
The Reality X (short for Experience) has a fantastic premise that mixes a real location, escape room elements, and competition for a cash prize. This blend of familiar pieces becomes a novel concept promising a more intense experience than a traditional escape room. They are currently running a horror experience called Welcome Home, with 2 different experiences promised in the future. From their website:
Live in a live horror movie, inspired by movies such as: The Strangers and You’re Next, as you have find [sic] yourself at a family gathering, for once all is going well until the night takes a dramatic turn. Choose 1 of 6 different fully immersive horror themed routes. Hide, search and solve puzzles to find what the intruders want and escape alive on a huge ranch. The twist? If an intruder catches you, they will place you in a different location; locked away and you must escape before continuing your journey to be the sole winner of $250!
There’s a lot to like here. 6 different paths offer a range of horror themes and replayability if you go back. Hiding from intruders on a ranch offers a physical aspect that I have long thought lacking in the escape genre. And $250 to the winner? Wow! Time to prove you’re as good as you think you are. If I was rating Reality X on concept alone, it would get a 9/10. The only reason it wouldn’t be a 10 is because horror is not my favorite genre, but I admit it suits the location perfectly.
Friday night, I piled into a car with 3 other people for the long drive to Reality X. It’s over an hour north of Burbank, so it will be nearly 2 hours for some people. The distance is almost justified when you arrive to the large estate, creeping along a dirt road in honest-to-goodness wilderness. Pulling into the compound at night with pine trees and a mansion is gorgeous. It’s just a bummer they couldn’t find a suitable location closer to the city. They do have a 2nd location for Welcome Home. I don’t know what it looks like, but it’s nearly as far away as this one.
We waited near the cars as instructed, until a rude (in-character) butler approached us and led us to the house. Seated in a dining room, we were met by our host, a supposed “cousin” who was looking to choose an heir. We were served snacks and told to select from a menu of different horror tracks. After they collected the menus to determine assignments, there was a theatrical interlude with the host talking to us individually and encouraging discussion. The actor was suitably creepy, but there were long lulls. I guess it took a while to sort us all onto tracks that we wanted while still making them evenly distributed. I appreciate wanting to fulfill everyone’s requests, but this section dragged.
Shortly after we got our (secret) tracks, the host gave a few rules. Most notably, that his “friends” would be joining us, and we had to do what they said. If you didn’t want to…then don’t let them find you. Very ominous. Then we all revealed our assigned tracks, and the host disappeared. We were on our own. Everyone was first told where to find a journal for their track. Except we hadn’t been able to explore previously, so finding the laundry room, for instance, involved quite a bit of searching. This was pretty fun, as the house is huge and has a bizarre floorplan, so running around the house was a good way to get the lay of the land.
Shortly after finding the journals, someone told me there were people with masks outside. Ahh, the “friends” have arrived! We knew to stay away from them if possible. But if they were outside, and our journal gives us a clue to go outside…what are we to do? Planning how to sneak past the masked intruders was probably the most fun part of the event. They started coming into the house, leaving a clear path outside, IF you could sneak by them in the first place! I succeeded in hiding from one who was literally hiding in the SAME ROOM as me until they left to nab another competitor. When they did, I went the opposite direction feeling an adrenaline rush as I took off towards the driveway, following my journal’s first clue.
I got to the end of the driveway and did not see the item I was expecting to be there. Shortly after that I was captured, marched around with a bag over my head and left in the bushes. No problem, just a slight delay. Having not found my item at the driveway, I went back into the house. I explored all the rooms, dodging intruders, hiding behind furniture and exchanging furtive glances with other competitors. It was fun, a giant game of hide and seek, but I wasn’t making any progress. I found the other person with the same track as me. He hadn’t made any progress either. I found my friend who was on a different track. She’d made very little progress.
I searched the house and found my Step 2–but I still hadn’t found Step 1. I decided to return to where I started in case I missed it. This time I found the item and raced to Step 2. Step 3 then required me to go back outside. I got caught again–my third time. (The second time I was chained to a tree and solved a simple puzzle to escape.) This time, I was led to the farthest corner of the yard and chained to a fence with 2 other people. There was a puzzle on the chain. The 3 of us worked on it for quite a while, coming up with some very clever answers. None were correct. We were utterly stuck, so the other 2 simple wriggled their feet out of the chain. Cheating was a better option than sitting in the dirt staring at an impossible puzzle. They felt bad for leaving, but I encouraged them to go have fun. Our captor returned, and I very clearly said we were stuck and not having fun. He remained silent, as he had the entire night, re-positioned the 2 other players, and walked away. Hoping he had placed them near a clue, they looked around, but there was only one artifact that we had already thoroughly examined. With no further aid, they left to continue their track. I just asked them if they ran into any more masked intruders to tell them I was still stuck in the corner.
For the next 5-10 minutes, I sat in the dark, on the dirt, with nobody around, staring at a chain. I tried forcing the chain over my ankle, but it was too tight. I fruitlessly yelled into the dark when I saw flashlights. One other player stopped by briefly but couldn’t help, so she continued on her way. The dominant thought running through my head: If I had paid full price for this, I would be LIVID. After far too long, one of the other masked intruders scurried up to me saying she heard I was having some trouble. She gave me the combination to get out (without explaining the puzzle, which was also frustrating).
I raced back to the house for Step 3 and saw the other person on my track. He handed me a book he found and said he was pretty bored, so he was just going to to wait in the car until it was over. Shortly after this, time was called and the game was over. Nobody had won. I had not even finished Step 3 of my Journal, which had at least 6 Steps–I didn’t get an accurate count. To recap: Of the 2 people doing my track, I had been hopelessly locked in the yard for at least 15 minutes doing nothing, and finished less than half of my Steps. The other guy made less progress than I had, and decided he’d rather SIT IN HIS CAR than finish it out.
Did we just get a bad track? I listened to the conversations after it ended. There was a lot of excitement but just as much frustration. People couldn’t solve puzzles, were unsure of the rules, and often had components missing. One of the drawbacks of having 2 people on the each track is that if someone doesn’t follow the rules and they take the wrong item, it can mess up the other team entirely. The organizer tried to color code everything so you knew what to take, but the system was not as clear as it should have been and was inadequately explained in the rules briefing. Remember that lull in the theatrical piece, while they were sorting out the tracks? That’s exactly where they should have done an in-depth rules explanation! I think they didn’t want to break character, but when the alternative is breaking the game, there is really no choice: you have to explain the rules better.
Even the best rules explanation can’t stop people from ignoring instructions though. When the guy on my track handed me the book, he also handed me an iPad. Our journals had an entire page dedicated to telling us to leave the iPad where it was. That’s the only thing on the page! The guy still picked it up and brought it outside with him. If I had made any further progress on my path, I would have been 100% stuck because he decided to take something he was told not to take. I overheard 2 other groups say this also happened to them–their materials were taken by the wrong person, so there was a dead end when they reached that part in their journal.
On the long ride home, we discussed our various perspectives. We all had similar issues, although nobody had been locked up alone for as long as me. But confusing instructions, too-difficult puzzles, and other teams causing interference were recurring problems. One person thought maybe Reality X made it extra hard so the odds of someone winning the $250 prize were lower. Speaking of which, this was another thing that surprised us. The website makes it seem like there is a winner every game. That is absolutely not the case. If nobody solves their full track, nobody wins the money. We unanimously agreed we’d rather have a fun night and win nothing, then a frustrating night with the chance of a prize.
To fix the instructions, they should just dedicate more time to them, even if it is out of character for the story. The challenges should be easier. Step 1 of my track is a perfect example. I figured out where to go immediately and ran there, but didn’t see the item. Assuming I did something wrong, I spent the next 45 minutes looking in other places, only to eventually come back to the original place and look harder before finding it. That extra layer of difficulty takes away from the fun. The tracks are challenging enough that players shouldn’t spend 45 minutes on the first step.
There should be better safeguards to prevent people from taking things they aren’t supposed to take, and clearer separation to minimize the chances of people doing that. Above all, there should be some kind of help system. Leaving a customer locked up and sitting on the dirt for 15 minutes, unable to play the game, is unacceptable. Looking for 45 minutes for the very first item in your journal is unacceptable. I tried everything I could think of to get hints, but it’s clear that there Reality X has no hint system. I asked other players for help. I asked the actors in character, playing along as a victim. I asked as a stuck puzzler. I asked as a disgruntled customer. There is no lifeline if you get stuck except the one time I was eventually freed from my lock. I’d love to hear how that happened–if the game master realized how stupid it was to leave customers locked up with nothing to do, or if my pleas eventually reached someone. Each time you’re caught should be a 5-minute penalty, maximum. If you can solve the puzzle to escape sooner, great, you’re out. But if you can’t solve it, nobody should ever spend more than 5 minutes locked with nothing to do.
Someone did win one of the games on Saturday. So it’s possible. If you’re an expert puzzler who won’t ever get stuck and will be so far ahead that you don’t need to worry about other teams taking important information out of play…then I wholeheartedly recommend Reality X! If you’re a regular person though, the current iteration of Reality X is mostly the most expensive game of Hide and Seek you’ll ever play.
The Reality X is running Welcome Home two more weekends in October–the 5th through 7th and 26th through 28th. More information and tickets are available at their website here. Tickets are $89 and there are 2 showtimes per night.