Laura Hall, designer of Portland's first escape room, crafts real-world puzzles that mix logic, storytelling and design.
As we spend more of our waking hours online, human beings are becoming more isolated, anxious and distracted. Laura Hall, founder of Portland’s first escape-room company, offers a real-world antidote.
Entering one of her escape rooms, she says, “is like the theater, crossing the threshold. Your brain changes. Your adrenaline goes up. You very quickly enter a ‘flow’ state.”
For the uninitiated: An escape room is an in-person version of an online puzzle game. A group of players are locked in a room, and they must piece together clues to solve the puzzle.
The venues have become popular activities for young people; they also attract companies seeking team-building activities for employees and are part of a nationwide resurgence in physical games, evidenced by steadily increasing sales at board game stores. (Board games were the No. 1 most funded item on Kickstarter in 2016.)
Laura Hall designs real-world puzzle games
A fixture on the indie game speaking circuit, Hall, a quirky creative type, is no Luddite.
The 32-year old enjoys video game design and is active in Portland’s small but thriving gaming community. (Eugene is Oregon’s true gaming epicenter.) But escape rooms are her top priority, and if all goes as planned, this summer she will launch a new venture: Meridian Adventure Co. and 60 Minutes to Escape, a Southeast Portland venue featuring four escape rooms and other types of physical gameplay.
“It puts you as a player in a position of power,” Hall says, paraphrasing the book PuzzleCraft as she describes the freedom unleashed by the escape-room experience.
“You have this huge mystery in front of you that you have to consume. You’re placing yourself into a painful situation and then you get to free yourself.”
Raised on classic detective novels — Sherlock Homes and Agatha Christie — Hall says she began designing puzzle, board and card games when she was a kid.
She fed her interest in narrative as an award-winning student journalist at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, and later formed a competitive puzzling team, a spinoff of bar trivia in which players compete to solve logic puzzles.
“You have this huge mystery in front of you that you have to consume," Hall says. "You’re placing yourself into a painful situation and then you get to free yourself.”
Her escape rooms are inspired in part by alternate reality games — blends of online gameplay and real-world experience ala Dungeons and Dragons — and unfold as a cross between a scavenger hunt, an IQ test and an improv play. Story is paramount.
“Everybody can put furniture in a room,” Hall says, speaking from her workspace in the collaborative open offices of Oregon Story Board, a digital storytelling nonprofit. “But not everybody can weave in an engaging narrative.”
Consider Spark of Resistance, an Orwellian dystopia she created for her first escape room, 60 Minutes to Escape (the venue is now closed). Players posed as freedom fighters impersonating a government official, then talked their way past a guard to enter a censor’s office.
Inside, participants scoured the room for secrets, matching up fingerprints and rifling through a bookcase filled with censored titles — Catcher in the Rye — that were banned by real-world governments.
"It's easy to use a body to create fear, but I want to do something different" —Laura Hall.
As the ills of online addiction garner more scrutiny, people are gravitating to in-person entertainment. Responding to the surge of interest, the game industry is diversifying — and taking advantage of new monetization opportunities.
In 2016 Hall, a former strategist at Wieden+Kennedy, founded Timberview Productions, a company that creates temporary escape rooms as team building events or product showcases. The Uncaged Experience, a pop-up room designed for Adidas, promoted the UltraBOOST sneaker line through puzzles that demanded speed and teamwork.
For many people, Hall says, the thought of being locked in a mysterious, dimly lit room with a timer evokes horror movies or haunted houses. But grisly imagery—violence, guns, bodies — is not in her playbook.
“It’s easy to use a body to create fear, but I want to do something different,” says Hall, whose affinity for narrative coherency filters into the matching vermillion of her desk lamp, stapler, notebook and spectacles. “It’s all through suggestion, invoking archetypal concepts.”
Hall at her desk inside Oregon Story Board
Not that she shies away from technology. Digital native players, she says, were stymied by the bookcase card catalog system in Spark of Resistance. So Hall plans to phase out the vintage system in future escape room stories. (Her own bookcase houses quirky bits from past projects—like a plaster bust whose eyes pointed toward clues.)
Hall is bringing physical games full circle too, by transferring their lessons to the digital realm.
Her latest presentation at the 2017 Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco offered insights on the connections between escape rooms and virtual reality games. (Hall also serves on the board of Portland Indie Game Squad, known affectionately as PIG Squad, a nonprofit that supports game development.)
“I view the ability to transport somebody in time and space as a gift, and I want to take care of them while I’m in that space.”
When the Meridian Adventure Co. project opens next summer, the city will be home to seven escape rooms in Portland. (Another popular spot is in the basement of Velo Cult, the bike shop.) These businesses join one of the city’s first game cafes, Game Knight Lounge, which opened last spring in Northeast Portland.
With her thought-provoking puzzles, Hall continues to push the genre — and in the process, perhaps, give people an alternative to virtual escape.
“You get to have a real moment of joy and excitement as it clicks into place,” she says. “I view the ability to transport somebody in time and space as a gift, and I want to take care of them while I’m in that space.”
A version of this article appears in the January 2018 issue of Oregon Business magazine.