Six hundred years into the future, the weary residents of Iron City eek out a living within an industrial, cyberpunk cityscape, in the shadow of the floating city, Zalem. Teaming with various other travelers, your goal is to experience Iron City and perhaps to even receive a reward for earning enough credits to come out ahead of other teams. At least, that’s what one of the wily, city inhabitants tells us. Whether she has other motives remains to be seen.
Pomoting the release of Alita: Battle Angel on February 14th, Passport to Iron City is an immersive experience that’s part escape room, part “pick your own story,” and part live- action play. Guests are whisked into a studio filled with miniature locations meant to evoke the post-apocalyptic, gritty feel of Alita, while encouraging teams to bond as they play through games, puzzles, and competitions while interacting with actors taking the roles of city residents.
But first, you start out in a replica of the Kansas bar, a setting that made its way from the manga into the live action film. The barroom, complete with digital wanted posters and a devilish jukebox, gives guests an opportunity to file in at their convenience before the actual games begin; there’s also a real bartender there serving craft brews created especially for the event (different flavors for each of the three locations hosting Passport—New York, Los Angeles, and Austin, the latter taking place at Troublemaker Studios, which belong to one Robert Rodriguez).
When I walked in, I signed a waiver, took a photo, and was given an ID to go with my nickname (I went super original and chose my usual handle, TWWK), before being ushered into Kansas where I met other members of the group I joined, Team Grey. Although developed as a staging room, the time in Kansas was actually quite engaging and fun. You’re actively encouraged to form teams with people you don’t know, and I didn’t know either of my teammates, Killer (who is actually a lovely young lady) and Fartman (who did not live up to his name). Australians who had relocated to the Bay area a couple years ago, my new teammate were making their way cross-country and thought this would be a cool event in which to participate; she had no experience with Alita (which ended up making no difference in the night), while he had some, but more importantly, was serendipitously enough an escape room developer. We had a lovely conversation about travel, life, and this website while we planned some light strategy. We were later joined by a final teammate, Meesh, who brought added energy and enthusiasm to our group.
Eventually we were ushered into the main facility, where after an introduction, the team altogether (“Stay with your team. Do not stray. Iron City is dangerous.”) visited various locations, with names like Bounty Hunting Surveillance, the Marketplace, and Dr. Chiren’s Enhancement Assessment (an unscrupulous medical establishment indeed!). But first, we listened to a Deckman (As a reader of the manga, it was a highlight of the evening to see how they’ll look and sound!) give us instruction, explain the leaderboard, and shoo us on our way.
Each location offers different games based on four different types of challenges: logic, sensory, risk taker, and active. The activities were designed for vigorous participation by all team members. For instance, at the scrapyard we each had to find valuable pieces of scrap metal (active) while considering how we might discover the placement of the most expensive pieces (logic). At one of the marketplaces, we used hints given by the shopkeeper to help in determining the identity of aromatic substances (sensory), and in what was Meesh’s favorite event, we played a guitar-hero style game, all four of us at keyboards, at the Kansas Music Auditions.
It was a high energy night. We were given about 40 minutes to complete as many tasks as possible, though I’m afraid our team wasn’t as strategic as others. It’s a testament to the event, actually, that we went in “just for the experience,” but soon developed an “in it to win it” attitude, with Fartman taking the lead in the enthusiasm department. The games were every one engaging, and it seems that each team member found some sort of niche (I’m apparently a good smeller, though I’m afraid I wasn’t of much help elsewhere—and in fact, a hindrance in at least one game. More on that later). However, literature from the event dictates that good planning can lead to good results, and I think if we went in a second time with a more serious frame of mind from the start, even with different games, our result (we were in third place before the final competition—I’m not sure how we ended up in the final) might have been different.
The people also helped make the event special. Dozens of actors filled the studio, playing their cyberpunk roles effectively. They were quick on their feet and well-read, able to answer questions while staying in character. And not every actor was attached to a locale—some denizens walked around offering helpful or not-so-helpful advice. One told me that in the final competition, in which the team places bets at Motorball Stadium (risk taker), we should put all our credits down on motorball player, Ajacuty. We bet 50,000 credits, at my insistence. And we were elminated very, very early, as Ajacuty’s glowing ball, representing him on a digital racetrack board, was destroyed by other players shortly after the first turn. I must tell you—Fartman was stunned.
But ultimately, the experience wasn’t about winning or losing—the competitive aspect, in fact, is barely advertised. Once we four exited the arena, we were able to contemplate our time in there and I think we all came away very satisfied. The exit led into a gift shop, which offered some merchandise that can be found elsewhere and some more limited items, like hot sauce created for the event, Kansas pint glasses, and postcards. Our team lingered and had the opportunity, too, to take photos wearing cybernetic gear to make us look more the role of motorball players.
As our team said our goodbyes and departed with some freebie gear (a t-shirt and a commemorative Alita Arizona Green Tea can), I remembered some words I spoke at the beginning of the night to the team, which I’m not sure I even totally bought into at the time: “This is going to be a great event. It’s like a concert—you can just buy the album, like buying a movie ticket, but the experience you get with a concert is what’s special. It’s what you bring home.” The developers, builders, actors, and staff ensured that indeed, this was something I could bring home beyond souvenirs and content for a blog, a memorable night that was as much about people and creativity as it was about Alita.
Now here’s hoping the movie will be just as delightful.
You can still check out the event for at least a couple more weeks if you’re in L.A., New York, or Austin. Visit the Passport to Iron City site for tickets and more information.