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In a Murdoch Mysteries-themed puzzle game, a surrogate with a first-person camera guided us through the escape room at the historic Toronto castle
Since 2016, Casa Loma has been home to one of the most unique escape room experiences in Toronto. It’s one thing to solve a series of puzzles with your friends in a set tricked out with clues, but it’s another to do so in a historic castle.
The escape room industry was booming in Toronto before COVID hit, but the pandemic added an unwanted edge to the prospect of being stuck in a confined room with a group of people for an hour.
Secret City Adventures found a way to adapt its Casa Loma escape rooms to the virtual world: they hired a live remote actor to be your surrogate.
In Station M and Murdoch Mysteries: The Secret Of Station House No. 4, a live actor is outfitted with a first-person camera rig and acts as your eyes as you explore the room. There’s also one called the Gold Getaway, which that instead uses a 360-degree camera to allow bigger groups (up to 200 people).
Here’s what the experience was like.
Lured by the strange and ultra-Canadian prospect of playing a surrogate-led escape room at Casa Loma based on the CBC period detective show Murdoch Mysteries (despite the fact that none of us had ever seen Murdoch Mysteries), me and my partner gathered the same friends in New Orleans that we escape roomed with last time and met up on Google Meet.
A host named Antony Hall gave us a quick rundown of how this would all work and then introduced us to our surrogate: an actor named Adrian Beattie playing a constable in a station house in 1890. He introduced us as fellow constables, aiming to solve the mystery of finding the missing detective William Murdoch (and also catching a serial killer who likes murdering people in historic Toronto locations).
The constable was wearing what seemed like a GoPro camera, giving us a first-person view of the room. He was essentially acting as our eyes and hands. Though it was set in the past, it felt like entering a strange future, or at least a first-person shooter or a scene from Arrested Development or the movie Her.
We were entering into a sort of improv game, where we’d control him by asking him “Constable, what’s that on the right?” or asking him to open a drawer or reach for something with a long stick. As we found clues (often letters from various characters that needed to be decoded with systems found in other clues), he’d add them to our inventory, which meant we could click and read them at our leisure without making the poor actor stare at a sheet of paper for us.
It’s an impressively built immersive theatre set, with various nooks and crannies to look in. There’s an old map that you look at with a magnifying glass (or at least the constable does), hidden extra rooms that are opened with hidden mechanisms, even little jails. I don’t know if it was obvious we were in Casa Loma, but it did feel like being transported.
This Murdoch room is the most recent one to go digital, but it did exist in a different in-person form pre-COVID. In that version, there were multiple actors and more IOT (“internet of things”) technology, with more objects fitted with sensors to trigger other things to open and other bells and whistles. Ironically, it might have been more sophisticated technologically than the virtual version.
But the extra constraints help strengthen the experience, says Tina Keenan, co-founder and principal of Secret City Adventures.
“We had to simplify things based on it being one person in the room and figure out which puzzles are appropriate for the medium,” she says. “We had to use the constraints and really be as thoughtful as possible.”
Like so many other businesses, they’ve had to scale down. Keenan says before COVID they had a staff of about 80 people (including another escape game at Black Creek Pioneer Village), and now there’s a staff of about 15. The hosts and actors rotate across the three games. There are also weekly puzzle and trivia nights, which are new during the pandemic. Keenan says it’s created a dedicated community of regulars, and they might keep doing those at a bar once things are able to open again.
The Casa Loma escape room games used to cost between $36 and $42 before COVID. Now the remote-actor games are $25 per person. The one with the 360-degree photos is $15.
To me, the most impressive part was our surrogate. It can’t be an easy job. He has to stay in character as the constable, take direction from a series of confuse puzzle-solvers talking over each other in a video call, play dumb about how much he knows and give hints without giving it away. As time ran out, he subtly gave us clues, acting frustrated enough to “accidentally” move his gaze to exactly what we were looking for.
Like a good improv actor, he was an expert in the art of “yes, and…” playing along when we told him he needed a better filing system for clues scattered around the room or when, frustrated as time was running out, we asked him to smash things. When we accidentally brought up Photoshop, he stayed period-specific, acting impressed that we had access to a photography shop. When someone brought up the internet, he explained it away as a series of woven wires.
There’s a one-hour time limit, and every 10 minutes the constable would get a call from his boss telling us how much time we had left. We definitely felt the urgency, by the end scrambling and yelling overlapping instructions. We didn’t come close to finishing the puzzle in time, somehow stuck on a BEDMAS equation when time ran out. Our constable still took us through the steps we would have had to take to finish the game. He told us we could have done it in five minutes, but he was definitely being charitable.
The Murdoch game is the most difficult one they have, and Keenan says the “escape rate” is somewhere around 20-25 per cent. It doesn’t help that it takes a bit of time to figure out how to navigate the room, what we’re looking for and how to access it. Even if you’ve done a lot of escape rooms, this is a whole new milieu.
A year into the pandemic, we’re all feeling the Zoom fatigue, but it helps to have a task or shared goal, an activity to do together that isn’t just talking awkwardly at your webcam. This definitely fits the bill.
There actually was a brief period in the summer when things started to open up and Secret City did let some groups back into the Casa Loma to play the game in person (with all sorts of plexiglass, cleaning and social distancing rules), and they may again. It’s actually well suited to small bubbled groups doing things only with each other. For the meantime, though, they’re leaning into the virtual world.
“We have an awesome creative team, and creating constraints is actually part of the design process,” says Keenan. “COVID made us problem solve and do things in this box. That’s a big lesson for us. As challenging as it can be, it’s also a great opportunity to be creative.”