The Advent of VR (No Escape)

Originally conceived as video games, escape rooms only came into mainstream awareness when designers started making real-life versions.  Now the activity is coming full circle, with advances in virtual reality opening the door to new types of video games that work to combine the best of what both real world and video games do best.  It’s a really interesting space to explore, and the people at No Escape in Buffalo Grove & Aurora IL are at the forefront of testing these new digital frontiers. I visited both locations and tried multiple experiences with their different VR rigs, and I was very impressed.

It’s hard to imagine what a VR escape room might be like before you do one.  I was originally skeptical to dive back into the world of escape room video games, given how many free web and app escape room games there are.  And for about the same price as one escape room visit for one person, you can grab a copy of any of the games in the “9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors” series of video games which combines a surreal, complex narrative with many hours of escape room puzzles.  But after trying one VR room, I came to the following conclusion: VR escape rooms are a completely different experience than either physical escape rooms or mobile, web, and console video games, and it’s a must-try experience for anyone with a sense of adventure.  After trying one of them, my cousin Andy, an escape room enthusiast in his own right, spent the next 30 minutes on his phone looking for where and how he could play another.

I first tried a VR game at No Escape’s Buffalo Grove location – the Space Station Tiberia game.  The first thing that stood out to me was that you get to move around. I always imagined VR games based on the $5 amusement rides you see at shopping malls- a trendy egg shaped chair you sit in while you turn your head looking for the next clue.  So the first thing that caught me off guard was that you get to move freely around the space, exploring high, low, and everything in between.

The second thing that jumped out at me was the interactivity of the space.  Though the objects you pick up don’t have any real weight to them, the space is still surprisingly interactive, and players might spontaneously be drawn to play with some of the items and tools irrelevant to the puzzle just to see how they react.  I personally was guilty of heaving some random objects into deep space to watch how they flew, to the chagrin of my team when we later learned those objects were helpful to our mission.

And the final thing that stands out to me in the VR escape rooms is the different kind of challenges it unlocks.  In a real escape room, you might have to “duel” a wizard or knight by poking them in the right spot in the right order.  VR rooms shine in this kind of area, and you can find yourself in a veritable fight against a virtual opponent.

The virtual space does a decent job selling you on the reality of it.  There are two different styles of equipment at No Escape, which means there are two types of games- one isolated to one room you can freely roam wall to wall, and another that gives you much larger arenas with the caveat that you need to warp around any distance beyond a few feet.  Both variations are worth experiencing (No Escape has built one-of-a-kind rigs to ensure the most comfortable experience for each). After about 5 minutes in each, you’ll forget that the virtual environment isn’t your reality.

In my opinion, VR rooms are a great complement to physical escape rooms, not a substitute.  A traditional escape room is never going to involve a death-defying climb up the side of a ruined building.  A VR escape room is never going to bring the awe and joy when you realize the clever way the builders brought a design to life.  I don’t think VR rooms will fully replace physical rooms, but I do believe they’re going to grow in the public focus, especially as the technology continues to develop past its already mindblowing capability.  It’s also possible that augmented reality will open doors for combining the best elements of both physical escape rooms and VR games – only time will tell.

In the meantime, I’m thrilled that No Escape is continuing to bring a larger and larger slate of VR games to the area to complement their already impressive and evolving set of physical escape rooms.  Though I’m not opposed to traveling to see something new and cool, it’s still a blessing to have an industry pioneer only minutes from home!

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