Our avatar stands surrounded by white rooms, not knowing which might hold a clue for how to escape. Portraits of a family long dead smile from behind cracked, faded glass. The tinkling of a child’s laughter echoes through the hallway, but no one else is there but our avatar. The hair on the back of my neck stands on end, but we must explore the manor. Then, the knocking begins, rapidly and from all directions. Someone or something from beyond the grave is trying to communicate. virtual haunted
District 3 Escape Rooms’ Virtual Haunted brings their subtly spooky in-person escape room to a virtual audience via Zoom. Based in Regina, SK, like Mystery Mansion’s Night Terrors, Virtual Haunted gives teams of 2-8 players 60 minutes to solve the mystery of an eerie mansion; and with a 34% success rate, it’s not an easy task. In fact, Team Haunting escaped with only 1:27 minutes left. District 3 keeps a leader board of successful teams, and bases success on a score system; teams are allowed two free hints, after which points are deducted for clues. This leader board system provides a challenge for experienced players, but can also be ignored for teams wanting more leisurely game-play.
Virtual Haunted finds teams arriving at a mansion that they will be assuming the role of Caretaker for over the duration of the Winter. The house, however, is not as uninhabited as one might think, and the secrets of a ghostly family are just waiting to be unearthed. Other than the team’s avatar who interacts with the physical room, there are no live actors, only audio clips that help further the narrative and provide clues to puzzles. Yet, audiences will get to know the four residents of the home well and witness some effects of their otherworldly presence.
Virtual Haunted includes some spooky moments (physical and sound effects) and minimally “bloody” props, but is less focused on horror; it contains no jump-scares or over-the-top gore. While the title “Haunted” alludes to a scary escape room experience, District 3 chose to go a slower, more subtle route to their horror in order to better accommodate those who are unsure of the genre. The ambiance and surprising physical effects, along with some props, are where the eeriness lies. Blood-stained objects, slowly-dimming lights, voices from “beyond,” flickering candles, and ominous music creep up on players, successfully creating a sense of foreboding and highlighting the idea of a ticking clock without going fully into horrifying territory.
On Set Decoration
Virtual Haunted takes place in a stunning two-story manor, but players only get to experience a section of the location. This in itself isn’t a negative; numerous puzzles and clues referenced the second story and our avatar often looked up while giving us time to work on puzzles. While this floor may come into play in the prequel experience or future iterations, we would have loved to see the room expand into new areas of the home. Yet, what we did see of the home could have used a bit more character and personality. The room is set up much akin to Cross Roads Escape Games’ Hex Room, with a center room and multiple offshoots from there. Each of these rooms is assumed to belong to one of the members of the family, providing a small glimpse into their character. However, the rooms all felt like a small closet, and not a full bedroom or playroom. Minimal props and decorations hinted at the character they belonged to and fed into the puzzles, but they didn’t seem to fully reflect the personality of the character. A little wallpaper, paint, or art for the walls could go a long way in elevating the appearance of these similar-looking rooms.
On Puzzles and Technology
Virtual Haunted provides many fun and challenging puzzles for new players and experts alike. Roughly half of the room consists of combination locks and/or keys, while interesting technology provides some spooky surprises. A handful of physical effects, such as ghostly movement, offers slight jolts of adrenaline but these moments are few and far between. One unique puzzle that especially stood out was when ghostly portraits asked the team specific questions about the room, rapid-fire; a fun way to increase player interaction with the room and connect them to the narrative.
District 3 uses Zoom for the main visual game-play and a second site for teams’ inventory. Due to low connectivity, the Zoom video during our game was spotty – both aurally and visually – which made hearing and/or seeing certain clues difficult, and sometimes led to awkward lulls in game-play during times when everyone had to catch up to each other. However, the secondary inventory site had no connection issues. District 3 could benefit from putting all their clues onto the inventory site, especially if low connectivity issues continue to occur, to make sure all players can hear and see everything they need for the room.
Virtual Haunted was a surprisingly challenging room compared to many of the others Haunting has played. This is in part due to some clever puzzles, and partly due to some nuances that did not convey well over a remote Zoom call. Often, puzzles required detailed attention to a specific instruction in order to solve – what made sense once a puzzle was solved could have been interpreted several different ways before. While we solved all of the puzzles in the end, several clues would have been far easier and intuitive in person. For example, some puzzles required listening to a clue, which was difficult to hear remotely. We counted incorrectly due to spotty service; in person, this puzzle would have been easy. Uploading these audio clues to the inventory system (like some other puzzles) would have solved this issue, rather than relying on our connection.
Further, as the room was designed for in-person play, there were one or two puzzles that simply did not translate remotely. For one specific “hand-on” puzzle, the solution seemed clear on what to do, but how to do it proved difficult. We had our avatar try multiple different solutions, each not working – and then we even used a hint, which only reiterated what we believed to be the answer from the start. Ultimately, the solution proved to be one that would have been incredibly simple and straightforward in person, but remotely seemed very intuitive and almost impossible. Additionally, the solution added an element to solve the puzzle that did not make sense narratively.
Unlike virtual rooms like Hourglass Escapes’ Evil Dead 2 and Emergency Exit’s Virtual Exorcist, the avatar in Virtual Haunted doesn’t take on a character of their own. Perhaps intentionally left a somewhat blank slate, the avatar allows players to focus solely on the narrative and puzzles; the avatar is a set of hands on the journey. However, there were occasions during which our avatar (David Ma) amused himself with certain props as our team discussed and re-listened to clues, providing some lightheartedness for waiting players.
While there are no live actors in Virtual Haunted (only the presence of the avatar/Game Master), the voice acting in the audio clips is sufficiently eerie and helps players connect to the room. The father’s booming baritone commands the room and has players instinctively on their best behavior; the mother’s lilting voice is both comforting and off-putting, she has secrets to hide; and the children’s disembodied laughter and warnings definitely unsettle in the ghostly context.
Overall, Virtual Haunted is an ideal room for casual players who want a slightly mysterious escape room experience, or teams wanting to try out an unfamiliar genre. Virtual Haunted is likely more successful in person, as some aspects don’t fully translate into a virtual experience. However, several little tweaks to select puzzles, and simply adding all of the clues to the inventory site, can go a long way to making Virtual Haunted an even better, spooky time. What District 3 has done is laid the successful groundwork for an in-person-to-virtual room; but now they have to dive in fully.
To learn more about District 3 or book one of their rooms, you can visit their website here. You can also follow them on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram for news and other updates. Check out our Event Guide for more escape rooms and immersive entertainment throughout the year.
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