The annual SXSW conference kicks off today in Austin, Texas, bringing together the worlds of technology, music, film, and gaming in a nine-day carnival of breakfast tacos and panel presentations. It’s also a time where corporate brands are able to capitalize on the crowds to raise awareness for various properties. As I discovered this morning, Star Wars fans aren’t getting left out in the cold.
Disney has opened up what’s essentially a Rogue One-themed escape room here in downtown Austin, running through Sunday, March 12th. (The timing isn’t coincidental; Rogue One director Gareth Edwards is speaking next week at the conference, and the film’s home-video release is just around the corner.) As described in the official SXSW guide, Rogue One: Escape From Scarif provides an “all-new adventure” in which participants can “infiltrate the Empire” and steal plans to the Death Star. It sounds exciting! It sounds daring! It sounds like stepping inside a movie! Unfortunately, it’s not… but it’s enough to leave Star Wars fans wondering about the incredible potential of the proper Star Wars theme park Disney is currently building.
At the start, I should clarify by saying this isn’t an “escape room” in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s a pop-up maze built inside a location near the Austin Convention Center. A series of different terminal “stations” require teams of four players to solve a clue before they can move on to the next one, making it more of a puzzle scavenger hunt than an escape room. The experience is framed as a training mission that will help recruits learn how to infiltrate the real Imperial headquarters to steal the Death Star plans. The program is about 10 minutes long — far below the expected hour-long traditional escape room run, but all the better to increase throughput for SXSW attendees.
More of a scavenger hunt than an escape room
I’m now going to be utterly obnoxious and critique an experience that is being provided totally free as a promotional tie-in for a blockbuster movie franchise. When tackling an immersive experience, the goal should be actual immersion. Escape From Scarif falls a little short. The Rebel leader who instructed my group wasn’t a hardened figure in full regalia, but rather an young employee wearing a black Rogue One T-shirt. The set featured some Star Wars-ian designs, but it still felt like it was cobbled together with black curtains and aluminum framework. (I’ll cut the Rebels some slack on that one. They’re short on resources. Perhaps they didn’t want to dedicate their best available materials to a mock-up.)
The puzzle stations themselves were a different situation, however. The challenges ran the gambit: asking players to manipulate physical objects, decode images, and unearth keycodes through a combination of codebreaking and careful examination of the various display “screens.” The stations opened up with secret panels and trap doors in a way that felt satisfying and relatively high-end for a pop-up activation, and my group successfully stole the plans. (They were Rogue One stickers.) An engaging new adventure that will live on in my memory as a proud addition to the Star Wars legacy? No. A fun way for Star Wars nerds to spend 15 minutes while hanging out at SXSW? Absolutely.
But while Escape From Scarif is just a one-off brand activation in an overwhelming wave of them here in Austin, it nevertheless was fun to pretend — even if just for a moment, surrounded by black drapes — that I was inside the Star Wars universe. Interacting with the physicality of a world we primarily know from film, television, and books provides a particular type of immediacy and thrill, one that’s not easily replicated in other kinds of entertainment. It’s a notion that made my biggest takeaway from Escape From Scarif not the escape experience itself, but the potential in the large-scale version of that same idea: the massive Disney theme park expansion known as Star Wars Land.
Squint and you can see a future that’s truly exciting
Announced two years ago, the company’s dual Star Wars expansions — one in Anaheim, California, the other in Florida — have been billed as top-to-bottom immersive experiences. Attendees will step inside the parks, where there will be rides, plus the usual merchandise for sale. But participants will also be dropped into the Star Wars universe. Everybody from the aliens walking the street to the cantina barkeep will be a character within the world, rather than the standard, smiling Disney employee. It’s taking the idea of Harry Potter’s Wizarding World, where guests are enveloped by the sights, shops, and beverages of the Harry Potter universe, and putting the weight of Disney, Lucasfilm, and the theme park wizardry of Walt Disney Imagineering behind it.
When it comes to experiential entertainment, that has the potential to be truly groundbreaking. (Audiences will get a glimpse of what Disney can do in this space when Avatar World opens later this year, assuming it isn’t delayed like the Avatar sequels). Star Wars: Escape From Scarif doesn’t go anywhere remotely near that; at the end of the day, it’s just a quick time-killer meant to hype a DVD release. But if you squint, you can imagine the potential of what may be coming when Star Wars Land opens in 2019 — and that is a brand activation worth getting excited about.