Almost a decade ago, Laura Hall (lauraehall.com) introduced Portland to the concept of escape rooms.
In 2014, it was a new idea to Hall herself. An avid puzzler, she and some friends experienced their first escape room on a trip to Seattle and decided on the way home to design their own. It was called Spark of Resistance. Participants entered the office of a missing undercover agent who had been working for a dystopian government’s Bureau of Propaganda, and were given an hour to investigate the clues left behind to figure out what happened to him.
“People were very, very receptive to it,” Hall says. “The concept was still pretty new at the time, and escape rooms can seem intimidating at first, but people came to play and were enthusiastic about it. Now there’s a huge scene.”
At the time, there were only 20 escape room companies in the United States. There are now more than 2,000—and Hall, 36, is considered one of the top designers in the field.
She and her partner founded the interactive gaming company Meridian Adventure Co. in 2017, operating out of a space in Southeast Portland. She’s also created more than a dozen games around the country, including pop-ups for Adidas, New York Comic Con and Twitch. She’s won awards. She’s even written a book on the subject: Planning Your Escape: Strategy Secrets to Make You an Escape Room Superstar, which publishes Aug. 3 from Simon & Schuster, is part strategy guide, part history of immersive gaming.
Today, escape rooms are thought of as fun diversions—a group activity for a birthday party, or a corporate team-building exercise. Hall has always thought bigger.
“We try to make stories that are truly going to transport the players,” she says. “A lot of the stories we tell are adventures. But, for example, with Spark of Resistance, it’s actually about the dystopian society and ‘What does censorship mean?’ There’s a power crisis. So it’s woven in, in ways that are enriching to the story and not distracting. But it’s deliberate.”
Hall and her partner are about to launch The Traveler’s Guide to Little Sodaburg, the first online game she and her husband have designed themselves, which she describes as a “colorful puzzle romp.” They also have a new in-person escape room called The Forgotten Forest coming to Meridian Adventure Co. in fall, in which guests investigate the attic hideout of a teenage girl obsessed with an ’80s TV show that never had a final episode.
“It’s an example of how escape rooms can be elevated. They can be artistic expression as well as a fun experience,” Hall says. “It’s more than fun. It’s an excuse to be transported for a time to somewhere else.”