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Behind the scenes of a 30-player video game theater

ESC Game Theater takes experimental gaming to a New Jersey mall

It’s been three rounds, and the inmates of Pixel Prison Blues are having a rough time. My anthropomorphic owl prisoner has gotten locked into a cell block, pacing from side to side as I swipe the touchscreen controller in my hands. I’m supposed to be coordinating an escape with some half-dozen other people standing on numbered circles beside me, under orange spotlights that denote our criminal status. But I’ve never spoken to them in my life.

Nervously, I raise my voice. “Unlock Cell Block E!” I shout, hoping one of the last free inmates will come release me. Someone rushes to my aid, traipsing across the 30-foot screen in front of us. It comes too late. Within a couple of minutes, we’ve all been recaptured by guards — the group of players next to us, bathed in blue light. But in the last few minutes of my time at the ESC Game Theater, I think I get the appeal.

Players stand on their circles in Pixel Prison Blues, while blue and orange lights mark them as prisoners or guards.

The ESC Game Theater is an experiment in group video gaming, a cross between an arcade, a cinema, and a pickup basketball game. It’s a big box with a wall-sized video screen and 30 circles drawn on the ground, each of which is matched to a player. After a short pilot program, the first theater recently opened in Paramus, New Jersey, a colorful box in the middle of the Westfield Garden State Plaza mall. For $5, players can spend roughly half an hour playing three rounds of a rotating mini-game collection. The 10 games vary in difficulty and the amount of cooperation required, and they’re selected each time by a master of ceremonies, who acts as both chaperone and sportscaster.

We tried a handful of these projects at ESC Games’ test studio in Manhattan, where the designers had filled about half the slots with volunteers. The ESC Game Theater’s titles trend toward Mad Libs-style randomness: sports like football and basketball mashed up with feudal warfare and vacuum cleaners; a race to put hats on animals; and a game called Fruit Tattoo, in which players smash fruit to acquire tattoos.

Whatever the premise, a game’s rules have to be simple enough for the MC to explain in a couple of minutes, and the inputs basic enough to be handled by swiping a tablet-like touchscreen controller. Players need to be able to keep track of their character on a crowded screen — if they’re in one of the back rows, maybe by peering over the shoulder of another participant.

Cube Ball is soccer, but with cubes — and a giant mouth as the goal.

These might not be average game design challenges, but the basic idea isn’t that unusual. New York City is particularly full of people showing quirky games built for public spaces, at events hosted by museums, universities, and nonprofits like Babycastles. (Disclosure: my husband directs one such university show, where he has worked with the developers of Pixel Prison Blues.) ESC Games incubator ESI Design hosts a family day during Come Out and Play, the city’s annual street games festival.

But ESC Games is looking for long-term commercial success in a way that most of these projects aren’t, with an unusually elaborate production. “The vision really is to try and open dozens of these,” says CEO Todd Swidler. There, the theater will face the same problems as other location-based entertainment: difficulty balancing games that can attract both newcomers and hardcore fans, pressure to maintain a steady flow of new material, and building a foundation that will remain after the novelty factor wears off. That said, the $5 price is a minimal investment and Swidler says that theaters will hold tournaments to draw repeat players, competing either internally or with other locations.

One of the most difficult things to scale up might also be the ESC Game Theater’s most interesting feature: the running commentary that makes every player feel like an e-sports star. The theater has automated individual spotlights that shine when, say, someone scores the most points in a round. But the MC — actually ESC Games platform director Pete Vigeant, during my games — does more than announce winners. While I’m playing, Vigeant’s blow-by-blow helps explain basic strategies, and rewards people with callouts for getting little things right, even — or perhaps especially — if they’re not experts. In public spaces, an MC can also draw crowds of bystanders who might watch the action through a window and sign up for a round next. Finding a talented commentator is tougher than just hiring someone to crew a booth, but it’s what really justifies calling the box a theater.

For someone used to covering the surreal, solemn, and often solitary phenomenon of virtual reality installations, the casual raucousness of the ESC Game Theater — even half full — is a welcome variation. But if you don’t happen to live around New Jersey, will one of them make it out to your hometown? I’m even less confident of predicting that than I am of ever winning Pixel Prison Blues.

Photography by Amelia Krales.

ESC Games’ touchscreen controllers can also show players their scores or stats.
ESC Games’ Manhattan studio hosts a less-polished version of the Game Theater.
Spotlights and commentary help pull players into the game.
ESC Games platform director Pete Vigeant provides a play-by-play.