Escape rooms have taken a big hit during the pandemic. But they’ve moved online, into Zoom calls and other video solutions, and that may save us all while we’re still locked in isolation.
These games are an example of the human need for play. Clever game developers are adapting escape rooms into online-only episodes that you can play with your friends while you’re talking in a Zoom meeting. Such entertainment is a lifeline during COVID-19. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of calls on Zoom or other meeting platforms, and this really hits the spot.
I played an online adventure called Agent Venture from the United Kingdom-based The Adventure Is Real. You participate in a Zoom call with up to four of your friends and go on a mission, assisting a secret agent as he tries to infiltrate the operations of the evil B.A.D. Corp. headquarters and foil the crimes of the wicked CEO, J. Bozo.
The contact on the ground, Agent Venture, is played by an actor, whose face you never see. They supply the drama and voices for multiple characters. Your group of four or five friends serves as the remote team, dubbed CRTL, to help get Agent Venture where he needs to go. And the agent doubles as the game’s coach in case your team gets stuck. It’s like the team that helps James Bond on his missions.
How it came to be
Agent Venture originated with Chris Sytlianou, a former accountant who wanted to build an escape room. He met an actor, Jason Phelps, who had done escape rooms before. They collaborated on the story. Sytlianou formed the company, The Adventure is Real, and became managing director. Their first escape room went online in London at the end of 2019. But the pandemic derailed their plans to spread out.
“We launched an immersive board game experience at the end of last year, sort of like Dungeons & Dragons as an escape room,” said Stylianou. “We hit momentum at the end of February. That was right around lockdown.”
They decided to move online. To get their first script up and running, the team gave themselves a deadline of two weeks.
“We put our physical experience on hiatus and created something new,” Stylianou said. “It was too had to do a sword and sorcery experience in Zoom. We had to design for the lockdown. We had to make it feel immersive for a group of friends sitting around on a computer. That’s where we got the idea of a spy team talking to each other through computers.”
At the outset, the game had “huge demand,” Stylianou said. The company can now do 40 or so sessions per week, with a number of actors and actresses contributing as guides. All of the performers have training in improvisation.
“We’re very much in uncharted territory and circumstances are changing all of the time,” Stylianou said. “We just want people to have something fun to play with people all over the country or the world.”
I’ve played two of the episodes now with my Facebook friends. Tammy McDonald served as our hacker both times. Chris Cataldi was our navigator. Mike Prasad was our researcher. And Ted Tagami and Stephen Ip alternated on different episodes as the communicator. I served as the head of the team, the coordinator, and was largely responsible for nothing.
When you sign up for a mission, you pay $17.86 (£14) a person for evenings or $12.76 (£10) a person for afternoons. You get an invitation to a Zoom session at a pre-scheduled time. The game lasts about 80 minutes, with 60 minutes of that time racing against the clock and the rest for tutorials.
Assembling your A-team
The mission is designed to be immersive, with a focus on audio communication. If you need to look at documents, the agent shares them with you via Google Drive. The visuals, like a map of the target area for the mission, are simple renditions of buildings or their surroundings. When you guide the agent into a building, he has to narrate what he sees to you. The navigator figures out where he is on the map and issues audio instructions to the agent on how to maneuver past obstacles or guards.
The navigator spends most of the game looking at the floor plans and guiding the agent. The hacker has to look at a set of puzzles that are in the Google Drive. McDonald had to solve the puzzles in order to break into B.A.D.’s servers, open security doors, and find secrets. Her interface was full of technical language whose sole purpose seemed to throw us all off while we needed to do something urgently. If you’re going to choose a hacker, you have to find someone good at sudoku or logic. This was not me.
The researcher was also inundated with a bunch of documents that seemed irrelevant until they were needed in the storyline. The researcher also had to sift through those docs to find something that could help us get past an obstacle, like finding a character that would cause the evil CEO to go berserk and give us an opening.
The communicator was in charge of calling via telephone or radio to social engineer the guards or employees into granting access to security protocols that stood in our way. As coordinator, I wasn’t really necessary. But I did make use of four computer screens to try to monitor what was happening with each member of the team so we could all solve problems together.
We had worked out our roles ahead of time, and Agent Venture gave us our relevant docs one at a time. We could all see each other on Zoom and share our screens when we needed to. But we could never see Jason, our agent. We only heard his voice coming from behind an image of a man in a mask. That added some mystery, and it enabled one actor to voice different characters.
“If we showed a physical actor, we needed to show them in some kind of background and change that around as they moved around,” Stylianou said. “We decided to rely on the actor for narration to tell our story.”
Our heist mission
The hardest part was scheduling a time that worked for all of us. We all managed to show up on time. And then we went into the first episode, The Heist. It took a good 10 minutes for Agent Venture to narrate the plot to us, describe our roles, and answer our questions.
I started out as the coordinator by helping our hacker to get the agent into the building. She had to sort through hyperlinks, find the right puzzle to solve, and then the agent would describe what happened after she solved one. He would say, for instance, that a door opened. We shared the docs, but it was clear that I had no idea how to solve it, and McDonald had to do it all herself.
While we were talking, the navigator and the researcher figured out the best path to get through reception on the ground floor. They had a list of approved names and other ways to finagle their way past security. The aim was to get to the top floor to the CEO’s office and steal something. Then we were supposed to make our way back down from the skyscraper and escape with the goods.
Prasad figured out how to get to the service elevators and take a fake delivery upstairs. The team had to instruct the agent where to go at every turn. The agent would tell us if a door was locked and needed to be hacked. Our communicator had to smooth talk employees into helping us.
We didn’t accomplish our first goal in 30 minutes, which was the deadline. Our agent got caught. But then we had to figure out how to save the agent’s life and help him escape. Our communications guy, Tagami, managed to spring a trap on the CEO. I had no idea he was going to do it, but it worked and it bought us precious time. I counted down the time as the team worked. We managed to escape with just 24 seconds left on the clock. We were exultant. The 80 minutes flew by, and I was tired after we were done. We got a chance to do a postmortem and then we took a Zoom picture to celebrate. The end experience felt like we had just finished a ride at Disneyland.
“We wanted to create something where people had to coordinate and do their part,” Stylianou said. “We wanted a team environment where the information is imperfect and people have to use their tools. You could also help each other so the team wasn’t held back by a weak link.”
Of course, I think I was the weak link as coordinator, but I felt like I didn’t have any strict responsibility, so I didn’t do so much damage as the leader. If I did anything good, it was to tell the team to work on multiple things at once and then pay attention to the time we had left. I was the taskmaster, and my advantage was having multiple monitors to soak in the big picture. But if your team doesn’t have a coordinator, you can still complete the game with just four people, Stylianou said.
When we were struggling, the actor stepped in and offered us some clues. But he never told us exactly what to do.
It would have helped us enormously to get all of our documents ahead of time. Instead, we got a couple of sentences describing our roles, and the actor shared the Google Drive with us as we joined the Zoom call. All of this information coming at the last minute was overwhelming. I asked Stylianou why they didn’t just give this to us ahead of time. The idea was that they wanted us to work under pressure and feel like we were always barely figuring out what we needed to do.
“We wanted the game to feel frantic,” Stylianou said. “The overwhelming amount of information imbues a level of panic and tension. We also wanted to create something that was log in and play.”
The first episode was originally half the length it was now. It was a half hour, and players thought that it was too short. So they extended the episode with more events that follow one of the dramatic moments.
“At that point, people enjoyed the length better,” Stylianou said.
Mission on Cyborg Island
The second episode is Cyborg Island. It’s also an 80-minute mission, and it takes place on B.A.D.’s island full of guards and cyber drones. Our team knew what to do this time, but all of the materials were different, and we had different challenges to overcome.
We had to make our way through a cargo area with guards and then break into a casino, make our way to the high-roller suites, and then break into a secret compound.
We had to maneuver Agent Venture across a grid. We relished our solution of dumping a truck full of rubbish an obstacle that helped us get on our way. I laughed when Ip, our new social engineer, extemporized by demanding his high-roller suite have green M&Ms.
It turned out that we needed a certain kind of puzzle solver to unlock a key part of the game. McDonald and I didn’t have this skill, but Cataldi had it. I won’t spoil what it was, but Cataldi solved that problem in a matter of seconds. I wouldn’t have solved that puzzle in a million years.
Sadly, we ran out of time on the second mission. We were sweaty and had fun, but the game defeated us that time.
Right now, Agent Venture is getting popular through word of mouth. It’s a small business now, but it’s growing. The team is adding a third mission soon in the Agent Venture series. Over time, the team can make the game more sophisticated or even more like a video game, where you can do a lot more on the computer than reading a doc in a Google Drive.
Overall, I thought it was so fun to sit back and see how people adjusted to their roles. It was a great teambuilding experience. It reminded me of Skillprint, a company that observes people playing games and discerns their personalities. Stylianou said it was gratifying to see this take off, especially since he was in a state of panic when the gravity of the pandemic sunk in.
“We had to decide if we pack everything up and wait until everything goes back to normal,” Stylianou said. “We decided to take a bit of a risk and try something new. We’ve tried to be resourceful, and our focus is on making it accessible.”