Portland's Escape Room Mastermind

A Portland-based designer is the brains behind some of the world’s best escape rooms

WORDS Leigh Kunkel
October 2019
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Laura E. Hall has always been the kind of person to wonder what existed behind locked doors. She was naturally drawn to puzzle books as a kid and then to mystery novels as a teen. But the advent of the internet led her to alternate-reality games (ARGs), multiplayer interactive online worlds requiring players to solve a puzzle or complete a narrative. Now 34, Hall has turned her curiosity into a career, becoming one of the world’s leading designers of immersive experiences and escape rooms.

“I’ve been interested in mysteries ever since I was a kid,” says the Portland, Oregon-based designer.

“Escape rooms appeal to people who are hoping to have the sensation—not the belief—that magic is real, at least a little bit.”

Escape rooms are real-world challenges using puzzles and players’ cooperation to tell a story. Participants are given an adrenaline-rousing situation, such as an imminent zombie attack, and clues to problems that must be solved in a specific sequence within the allotted time. Rooms blend technology (electromagnets that can open and close doors, video installations with hidden messages) and more traditional puzzles (combination locks, word games).

Five years ago, Hall and her longtime ARG friends debuted their first escape room, which was set in a dystopian propaganda office with a missing agent. She cofounded Portland’s first escape-room company, the award-winning 60 Minutes to Escape, as well as an immersive-experience consulting company, Timberview Productions.

To keep things fresh, Hall draws from a vast array of inspiration. For London’s Now Play This games festival in 2017, she created an experience requiring participants to comb through the ephemera of guests’ pockets in a paranormal hotel. In Los Angeles, Hall designed an escape room based on Resident Evil, drawing on locations from the video games and incorporating X-rays, codes and VHS tapes. And to stay sharp, she does plenty of playing herself: She and her fellow puzzle solvers recently traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and set out to play in every escape room in the city.


Problem solving at the Mixed Flour dinner  

Hall’s goal isn’t to stump players, and she crosses her fingers that teams eventually escape. The key to designing these rooms is a balance of fun and difficulty. “I want everybody to get out. I want people to have fun,” she says. “I want them to solve everything.”

This fall, Hall debuts two new projects in a converted warehouse space in Portland. For The Forgotten Forest, Hall drew on her childhood nostalgia to create an escape room set in the attic hideout of a teenage girl obsessed with an ’80s cartoon. In the family-friendly Wandmaker’s House, parents and children have 45 minutes to explore a magical house after a wizard vanishes into thin air. “In any escape room, you’re playing against the room, but really it’s against your best self,” Hall says. “The challenge is getting people intrigued to solve it, but they can’t do it immediately.”
lauraehall.com

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