‘Let’s get another round in and then embark on our storyline,’ says someone for whom it looks like the evening’s main storyline might be just more rounds of drinks as he walks towards the bar.
The storyline he’s referring to is part of Phantom Peak, apparently ‘the world’s first open-world fully immersive adventure’ set in a steampunk mining town.
This is where a charismatic founder is hiding secrets in the mines, where a blimp has mysteriously crashed.
It’s also where, if you follow the clues, talk to the townspeople and generally play the game, you might just get to the bottom of what the hell is going on.
Not that you have to. You can just enjoy the atmosphere, rent a boat, have your lunch, a couple of drinks…
The set-up is Western meets New Orleans meets that casino on a steamboat in Ozark – not quite Westworld, not quite Deadwood but along those sort of lines – peopled by steampunk characters in leather Stetsons, cowboy boots and the outfits worn by dancers in those Wild West saloons.
A network of black canals separate walkways strung with lights and lined with bars, burgers, burritos, pies and old-school sideshow games where you throw things to hit things to win things, mainly rosettes… all this within a ten-minute walk from Canada Water station.
This, so the story goes, is the first time Phantom Peak has been opened up to ordinary folk like us and the cultish Jonas, founder of JONACO, the company that rebuilt the town after the terrible blimp accident that killed the mayor, is hoping you don’t get too down on uncovering his secrets.
There’s also something about a platypus but we were getting another round in before we tackled that bit.
The storyline comes to you on the website they give you as you walk in and you get to orient yourself by answering a few questions and then following the clues, interviewing the locals and looking out for answers to queries written on the walls to build up a story.
There is more than one mission to complete and you can do as many as you like, with most of them taking about an hour to get through. And it’s fun!
Especially with children in tow as, unlike some of the immersive experiences to be had – from Gatsby to Peaky Blinders – this is very welcoming to families.
You can learn the basic history of the town on a funny little boat ride, which is more Tunnel Of Love than Alton Towers: you glide and are pushed by people standing in the water with their trousers rolled up (all in character!) on little flat boats as you turn a crank to power the craft and view projections telling the story.
What they refer to as ‘the show’ – the whole experience – lasts about five hours, though you can obviously stay as long (or as short) a time as you like. Not even a charismatic leader like Jonas can prevent you from leaving when you’ve had enough.
With specially created rock formations complete with waterfalls, giving the place a hemmed-in kind of canyon feel, with all the surrounding buildings of the real world somehow masked, it’s not hard to get your head in the right space for your adventure, especially if you go through the curtain to the Old Town, dark even at midday, and what remains since the blimp accident.
There you’ll see the actual blimp and a funny bar situation, which was filled on the evening we went with people tracking down the right townspeople to talk to.
And it is the townspeople who make the experience what it is. Yes, for we Brits, there’s a little bit of embarrassment about interacting with the ‘talent’ but these guys stay in character, bring the energy and almost make you believe this stuff is true.
But while the game side of things is definitely the draw, you really don’t have to get involved to, you know, get involved. You can just drink in the atmosphere, float around those mysterious black canals or have a nice veggie or vegan lunch and then an ice cream in a set-up that is totally sustainable.
It’s not clear what it says about how we feel about the real world right now that we seem desperate to step into parallel universes, whether it’s the Black Cat cabaret or Punchdrunk or Secret Cinema, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be part of the action rather than just sit and watch.
And it’s not like you have to dress up or anything (though we’re sure they wouldn’t mind if you wanted to).
As for us, like those other guys, we’re going to get one more round in… then we’re definitely embarking on our storyline.
For more information, visit the Phantom Peak website.
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