Can you have a Resident Evil spinoff… without zombies?
Escape rooms are popping up all over the place. The trend, where people pay money to be locked in a room and find a way out using only their wits and teamwork, has started to pick up big brands, with companies like Nintendo and Capcom making room escapes off of their franchises. Initially built last year in Los Angeles, the Resident Evil Escape Experience has been touring across the country this spring and will be in New York City through May. I caught it in San Francisco.
“Our main goal in putting together the Resident Evil Escape Experience involved creating a series of rooms that not only stayed true to the series’ horrifying roots, but also celebrated important franchise titles.” So said Tim Turi, Capcom’s associate brand manager, in an email interview with Playboy.com.
Capcom worked with iam8bit to bring the room together. And after a run in Los Angeles last year, the team had to bring the experience to different locations across the country. This meant tweaking the experience for different locales, something that iam8bit co-owner Amanda White said was a “fun challenge.”
“What’s been much of the fun for us is the psychology of escape room design,” Jon M. Gibson, co-owner of iam8bit, told us. “We collaborated extensively with a lovely game designer named Laura Hall to create a tense yet balanced experience. The reality is, you can playtest all you want, but the game design for an escape room is ever-evolving; it never stops. You need to be reactive, observing the interactions of every group that runs through the experience. From there, you glean priceless feedback.”
The starting room was dimly lit. An old-fashioned typewriter sat on a table in front of us as we were greeted by a recording welcoming us to “Umbrella training.” With 45 minutes on the clock, my group had to figure out how to escape the room. And so it began.
As with most room escapes, the Resident Evil experience throws players in a room and tasks them with solving puzzles. Puzzles for this included arranging cardboard boxes to spell out a combination, counting details on wall decor and even using an in-game cell phone (one of the better touches).
But the problem with the Resident Evil room? It failed to successfully combine the Resident Evil brand with a solid room escape. It wasn’t just the fact that it didn’t have zombies, though leaving out something so crucial to the DNA of the series is a baffling omission. It did capture the locations from the series, but it didn’t really capture the tone of the series: Resident Evil is survival horror (at least, good Resident Evil is). Given that this was Resident Evil, it’s a bit weird to say that the room escape wasn’t ever really scary, though one room will probably make some people a bit squeamish. The somewhat smaller than normal rooms did give a more trapped feeling than some other room escapes, but this isn’t something that’s going to keep people up at night.
The ties to the series felt pretty surface level. You were inside locations from various Resident Evil titles, but it never really used said themes in interesting ways. OK, so I’m in the police station of Raccoon City? Here’s Jill’s badge…now what? The theme felt more like an overlay than something fully integrated into the experience.
That’s not to say it didn’t try. There was one set of auditory moments that referenced one of the franchise’s scarier moments—one that involves a certain handheld tool favored by lumberjacks, among others—but it didn’t really work. There was an initial jolt, but it ended up fading and mostly falling flat as a repeated call back that needed much more explaining to land fully. It did create some sense of urgency, but one that leaned too heavily on the player’s imagination and was ultimately unrewarded.
The room escape also felt easy (one bit was pretty much given away by the promo), and the instructor was too liberal with the hints as he goaded us along. Too much guidance in such rooms can be its own problem. After all, getting stuck in room escapes is not a bad thing.
Mind you, there were some nice touches. In a corner of one of the rooms, there were shelves bearing bottles lined with dust. That’s a pretty neat extra detail, but also one that many are probably going to miss, and doesn’t make up for missing some of the larger beats such a room should hit. I also liked how the final puzzle culminated in some back-tracking, even if the whole thing was fairly anticlimatic. (By the way, we did make it out in time.)
All in all, the Resident Evil Escape Experience was a disappointment. Merging room escapes with existing properties can be a challenge, but designers need to focus on making something that really depends on the brand—not just in set design, but also in terms of the puzzles—and create challenges that really need that tie-in and are unique to that experience. What types of things can only a Resident Evil-themed room do? I don’t think this experience answered that question, and you could easily remove the theme here without impacting much. With so many other really interesting and awesome escapes out there—I’ve had ones with actual passages behind moving fireplaces, for crying out loud—this one just didn’t hold up.
And seriously—no zombies?
Join us as we visit Capcom HQ in Japan to learn about Resident Evil 7 here.