Otherworld is located at 5819 Chantry Drive in Reynoldsburg, and is scheduled to open in April. Discounted presale tickets are available at otherworldohio.com until April 1.
Remember the OASIS, from Ready Player One, the immersive simulation game that sucked in players around the globe to escape from their dull existence? Columbus might have just gotten a step closer to that virtual reality. At least the escape part is down.
I need an escape. It’s a classic winter-in-central-Ohio gray day when I turn into the enormous parking lot of an abandoned strip mall off of Brice Road—a layer of fog has settled five feet above the pavement, and the faded lettering of a former Office Max marks the building in front of me. In the middle of the gray is a futuristic and intriguing sign: Otherworld. I park next to a car with the license plate “MORBID 1.” Despite the fact that I haven’t yet entered the building, I’m already transported.
Jordan Renda, Otherworld’s Creative Director and Founder, takes me on a tour of the building—formerly a Sports Authority—that’s being transformed by a team of designers. Their goal is nothing less than developing a brand-new genre of “gamified” entertainment. Renda describes it as a combination of an escape room, a role-playing game, an art installation, a children’s science center, and a haunted house. “It’s an interactive art installation that’s tied together with an overarching story,” he said. “We’re sort of blending all those things together to create something that’s totally new.”
When visitors arrive, they’ll learn their role in the story that’s about to unfold—serving as beta testers for a company called Otherworld Industries. “This company’s been developing this new sort of technology. It […] manifests this dream realm. So you’re unlocking this archetypal dream world that you can explore and go through,” Renda said. Visitors may also choose to follow a different path to learn the backstory of the company. In total, there will be roughly three-hours of content to explore.
As we walk through the rooms, Renda shares more about who—or what—will inhabit them. Expect to meet a 19-eyed creature whose orbs can track you, a seamstress in a room of spiders, a monster with an oversized bed, and a botanist experimenting with wild plants (Renda describes him as “Willy Wonka meets Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty.”)
Even without having met these characters, I’m taken in by the design. With light projections, fantastical creatures, infinity mirrors, interactive control panels, and a central surreal-looking tree, Otherworld functions at a core level as a giant immersive piece of art, designed to be enjoyable even if visitors don’t want to solve any puzzles.
“A lot of this tech is just emerging where we can actually make a whole room change around you by, like, the touch of a small button,” Fabrication Director Leland Drexler-Russell said. “There’s an interactive, or multiple interactive elements in every single room.” These features include spiders whose legs visitors can control and gems that guests can explode. There are even opportunities to influence other visitors’ experiences.
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While Otherworld aims to be something entirely new, it’s inspired by the creators’ experiences with different forms of immersive art. Renda and Drexler-Russell both credit visits to City Museum in St. Louis as a formative early experience with large-scale interactive exhibits. Renda also spoke of attending Haunted House trade shows. “As a teenager I thought, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be great if you could add a story to this, add some themed elements,’ ” he said.
I wondered whether Otherworld could be compared to immersive theater experiences where guests wander through the set, often staged in multiple rooms, watching bits and pieces of story unfold along the way. Drexler-Russell confirmed my hunch, but added that in this case, the story is told with video and audio logs instead of actors. “It’s kind of like immersive theater, if it was combined with like a Burning Man art installation and a role-playing game,”Renda added.
Renda felt Columbus was the right place to bring Otherworld to life, and not just because of the abandoned retail space that’s available. “There’s a lot of people looking for, you know, culture, cultural activities like arts and entertainment, so it seemed like a good spot to do it from that angle,” he said. Our proximity to other large cities also convinced him. “We’re looking to not only attract people from Columbus, but to make it more of a regional thing.”
With the uptick in interest in escape rooms and other forms of immersive entertainment, it seemed to Renda like the right time to take things to the next level. “There’s so much information coming at us all the time; we just need to be interacting with it somehow,” he said.
How far Otherworld’s guests will take these interactions remains an open question, even to the designers. As the storyline and the art evolve, so do the possibilities for the experience. It’s “taking that idea of this immersive entertainment and really branching it and seeing where the limitations are,” Drexler-Russell said.
So how many levels could this world go? Plan a visit to Otherworld and find out for yourself.