Interactive group game is true to the 1980s

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Gamers get to show their ’80s moves at “Escape the ’80s” on Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia. It’s a real-life dress-up experience.

This is the season to dress up and be somebody, at such pop-up Halloween haunted houses as "Terror Behind the Walls" at Fairmount's Eastern State Penitentiary and such "room escape" adventures as "Trapped in a Room with a Zombie" in East Falls.

Now there's a kinder, gentler, and new option that opened last month on South Philadelphia's East Passyunk Avenue commercial strip. A clock-ticking, cooperative play challenge that lets you dress like Ferris Bueller, Rocky Balboa, or the gang from Sixteen Candles.

And it flashes you back to a time when people communicated on push-button phones, played Pong, wrote code on Commodore 64s, grooved to Herbie Hancock's robotic "Rock It," and watched VHS videos on clunky tube TVs.

Dream child of former advertising creative director Elizabeth Garson, with lots of technical support from her ex-husband Michael Garson and friends, "Escape the '80s" merges art and psychology, puzzle solving, and vintage gizmos "like nobody ever has before," she said.

"Room escapes needed to move past paper clues and rinky-dink codes and focus on the user's whole experience," she said. These happenings also needed to get out of a dark and dead-end nature. Now escape rooms are where people can go to play a live game, physically searching the environment for items and clues that help them escape.

"Most escape game developers" - and there are several in Philadelphia - "brag about how few people get out of their rooms alive," she said this week on site at 1804 E. Passyunk Ave.

The venue is a former drugstore in the heart of the hipster restaurant/retail row that she said took "far too long to renovate" into a four-room game environment plus party space.

"In our game," the room escape developer said, "everybody comes out smiling, everyone's a winner, even if you get stymied and have to ask for clues" from the hidden but observing production team by squawky, old-school walkie-talkies.

A stuttering, robotic on-screen character (remember Max Headroom?) gathers players around a TV to suggest what's coming up - hinting that all clues are readily available for spotting and suggesting that cooperative play is key.

Then you're let loose in a video rental store stocked with hit titles from the 1980s, some carefully cued to specific segments. Unraveling what they mean helps open lock boxes and doors to other rooms - a travel agency, a well-stocked toy store (heavy on the Fisher Price and Cabbage Patch merchandise), then a clothing emporium. Break on through to the other side and you're "flash dancing" in a photo studio.

"We were sticklers for detail," Michael Garson said, explaining how it wound up costing $20,000 to build and fit the game with period stuff. "We couldn't just rely on garage sales. The films had to be made in the '80s, likewise the music and furnishings."

Most of the nostalgic tech deployed is likewise true and operational, "but we did cheat a little on the computers," updating the innards, he said.

Even twentysomethings in our multigenerational group - such as team captain Paola Quinones - proved pretty savvy in the quaint gadget-working department, though no one knew the tunes better than Glen Stevens, a player "who really grew up in the '80s."

As many as 14 funsters can participate at a time, "which makes the adventure ripe for private parties, as well as pickup groups," Elizabeth Garson said.

Individual tickets go for $28 on weekdays and $32 on weekends for the hour-plus adventure. Groups get "extra perks," she said.

Since "Escape the '80s" is era-evoking rather than seasonal, the Garsons plan to run this adventure year round.

Rivals in the room escape business "have already made proposals to take ours national," she said. "Getting the production together, tested, and fine-tuned with focus groups was the hard part. Now it's easily duplicated. But we're not rushing into any deals."

takiffj@phillynews.com

215-854-5960

@JTakiff

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