I stand in front of a storefront–black canvas covers all the windows and a poster of Zoe hangs before me, taunting me. My group huddles close as the wind howls. The door opens and we are instructed to close our eyes as we enter. I comply and follow the person in front of me through the door. I take small steps, unsure of my footing and bump into the person in front of me as we stop. I open my eyes–but I still can’t see. I look around but see nothing but black. I start to worry–until I notice a small light in the corner: a candle. I move towards it and pick it up. Is this the only light we’ll have to solve the puzzles? I don’t have time to answer as something in the dark moves.
Zoe, a new escape room from Escapade Games in Fullerton, is by far the scariest and most immersive escape room I’ve experienced. Julia Ostrovskaya, co-creator of Zoe, explains, “Our philosophy was to make it emotional. You can come and solve puzzles, and you won’t remember, but if you are scared, you will remember the experience.” Zoe tells the story of a little girl trapped in a house of horrors–and you are trapped in the house with her, but whether she will assist you or hurt you is for you to determine. The puzzles are clever, well-integrated into the story, and are mechanically very innovative. The set design was excellent; the multiple rooms each had distinct themes, each evoking archetypal horror movie scenes, and each with music to further its mood. And the lighting, or more specifically, the lack of lighting at certain key times was a true highlight. Just when you need light most is when it was the most unreliable, sometimes leaving just enough for you to realize you’re not alone.
Oh, yes — did I mention that you will be touched? Contact is sparing and nonviolent, but very, very effective. Sometimes it will even result in clues, but you will still probably scream. Go ahead; there’s no shame; and the rest of your group probably has too. The other co-creator, Kirill Ostrovskiy, agrees: “screaming a lot in my opinion is one of the best forms of stress relief.” There are definitely some claustrophobic moments, and some crawling is required. Also, there is at least one point where you think, “Do I really want to put my hand in there?” One other thing came as a shock: in order to finish, we had to make a difficult choice. Without going into detail, let’s just say that this escape room really makes you know where you stand with your friends…
Little Zoe provides clues from time to time, so listen carefully if she speaks up. The clues are cryptic, and can be hard to make out, but the delivery only adds to the creepy ambience. Groups can be from two to six people. Since at times there is just one small light source making a small puddle of light in a large, dark, scary room, larger groups don’t have a great advantage over smaller ones, since only two or three people can actually work on puzzles at those times. However, whereas in some escape rooms the people not actively working on puzzles might be bored, here the unfortunates without the light will instead have plenty to occupy their minds. Things like, “Wow, this music’s creepy,” or “What’s that in the corner that I can’t quite make out?” or “Are those footsteps coming up behind me?”
Finally, they have a new experiment they are trying. If you return for a second time to Zoe with your friends, you can arrange to be kidnapped during an early scene–and you may emerge in a later scene ready to cause terror for your friends. This is a perfect surprise for those who love scaring your friends. Escapade is also working on a second room, “The Last Experiment,” which they hope to have ready by June. In the meantime, Zoe should keep horror fans and escape room enthusiasts alike happy — and terrified.