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Back to the Future

Sebastopol's escape room is a real trip

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Working in the Lab Sebastopol natives Galen (left) and Aidan Forrest run the Spacetime Travel Agency with the help of a robot named Otto. - PHOTO COURTESY SPACETIME TRAVEL AGENCY
  • Photo courtesy Spacetime Travel Agency
  • Working in the Lab Sebastopol natives Galen (left) and Aidan Forrest run the Spacetime Travel Agency with the help of a robot named Otto.

"During the Cold War, as you may be aware, the United States was involved in a very public space race with the Soviet Union," says Galen Forrest. "Behind the scenes, however, a time race was taking place. The United States' effort in this time race was known as the Kronos Initiative."

According to Forrest, unbeknownst to most Sebastopol residents, the Kronos Initiative had a laboratory right in town, off the main drag. Today, that lab is the home of the Spacetime Travel Agency, a science-fiction themed escape room that's become a popular immersive play experience for all ages.

Conceived, created and run by Sebastopol natives Galen and Aidan Forrest, the Spacetime Travel Agency opened in early 2019, and has already welcomed over a thousand groups, who partake in solving a series of puzzles over the course of an hour aimed at uncovering the secrets of the Kronos Initiative.

New Game

For a generation that grew up traversing video game dungeons, escape rooms have caught on in the last decade as a physical alternative to staring at screens for fun.

"It's interesting that we ended up running an experience that comes out of video games, because we only played video games at friends' houses," says Galen Forrest. "The emphasis was on doing things outdoors, making things by hand."

Raised in West Sonoma County, the brothers both attended Santa Rosa High School, where Galen studied video arts and Aidan attended drama classes as part of the school's ArtQuest program. Eventually, Aidan got into welding and robotics, while Galen pursued a film degree at UC Santa Cruz and worked in various art departments in Los Angeles.

For the Forrest brothers, escape rooms became an obsession after they played their first one three years ago.

"We were actually late to the game," says Galen. "We had heard about it, but then didn't play one for awhile."

It was on a family trip in London that the brothers finally made their way into their first escape room, and they were immediately hooked.

"We booked another one before the end of the day and from there we quickly started knocking around ideas of what if we made one, what would it be?"

Outside the Box

The origins of escape room games date back to the late 2000s, though the exact history is a bit murky; some enthusiasts claim that escape rooms were born in East Asia while others maintain their genesis was in Eastern Europe. Escape room owners and fans, however, unanimously agree that the United States was the last country to catch on. One of the very first stateside escape rooms came by way of Japan, making landfall in San Francisco in 2011.

The concept of escape rooms has grown so popular in the Bay Area that an entire blog is now dedicated to reviewing and ranking the best rooms across the region—escaperoomtips.com.

"In terms of the industry as a whole, escape rooms in America are still in the infant stages—a lot of mom-and-pop investments by hobbyists and enthusiasts," says Nick Schilbe, entrepreneur and CEO of Off the Couch Games in Santa Clara. "What we're seeing now in the industry is that to become extremely popular and profitable—and what I think we will see in the future—is massively increasing the quality of escape rooms. The technology to make high production rooms is available; it simply costs more."

In the next five years, Schilbe predicts that escape rooms will not only take over as a main source of entertainment, but will also transform many of the modern marketing tactics employed by media companies and the entertainment industry as a whole. As entertainment providers like Netflix and Hulu continue to compete in an increasingly saturated and content-heavy industry, escape rooms will become the next vehicle to help promote new films, TV shows and consumer goods in general, he says.

"My forecast is that there will be a diversification in movie budgets—whether its marketing or production—for entertainment that we can't reproduce in our own homes," Schilbe says. "We can reproduce movies and video games, but not escape rooms. I think they'll become the de facto form of entertainment in the future, especially with the higher production quality that we're seeing with games out there."

Space & Time

"We knew we wanted to do it in Sonoma County," says Galen Forrest of the SpaceTime Travel Agency. "We thought about how much we would have liked something like this growing up."

Originally the brothers were looking at warehouses in Santa Rosa, then a space became available on South High Street near the Sebastopol Center for the Arts, and they jumped at the chance to operate the escape room in Sebastopol.

"It's more central than a lot of escape rooms," he says. "Santa Rosa wanted us to be in industrial (area) if we were doing it, because it's treated the same as a bowling alley or an arcade in terms of zoning. The Sebastopol head planner understood we're weren't a bowling alley. So, that was really nice to be able to be so central."

For the science-fiction theme of the escape room, the brothers decided to build on a single time travel-based narrative that was told through the completion of the puzzles, and the mission of the room extends beyond simply trying to get out of it. Along the way, a helpful robot named Otto guides the groups of three-to-five players in their quest, which features several puzzle mechanisms that are both challenging and engaging.

"In general, people approach puzzles differently, so everyone is going to have their strengths and weaknesses," says Galen Forrest. "Playing as a team rounds that out and each player is able to contribute when it makes sense."

Keen-eyed players may find puzzles that pull inspiration from various science-fiction movie tropes, though the narrative behind the escape room is a welcomed array of original characters, concepts and adventures that are accessible to anyone who loves a good mystery.

"It's been across the board," says Galen Forrest about the groups who come to experience the escape room. "There have certainly been more families than we expected, which has been great. In a day, we'll have families with pre-teen kids, groups of millennials, groups of older people, some groups who don't always know what they're getting into."

Escape rooms have also become popular as corporate team-building exercises. "It is good for team building because it requires teamwork in communication, critical thinking and creative problem-solving," says Forrest.

Yet, at its core, Forrest says that their escape room is an opportunity for adult play. "Being presented with the unexpected and playful is something people don't normally get to experience," he says. "And they get a kick out of it."

The Spacetime Travel Agency is open Wednesday-Sunday by appointment. Book a mission at spacetimetravelagency.com. Avi Salem contributed to reporting for this story.

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