Nov 11, 2023

Traveling Through Otherworld

Grant Avenue - Philadelphia, PA
Walking through this place made me feel as if I had taken shrooms and fallen into another dimension that is part Stranger Things, part Labyrinth, part Alice In Wonderland, and part X-Files, with puzzles that reminded me of Myst and the Swordquest series on Atari 2600.

Here's how the company that designed Otherworld describes it on their website:
Imagine a world where anything is possible.  A place with no rules, only your imagination to guide you through countless rooms of large-scale interactive art, mixed reality playgrounds, and secret passageways await you in our surreal landscape of science fiction and fantasy.
It sounded pretty interesting, so my wife and I ordered tickets earlier this year during the pre-sale.  When they announced that their Grand Opening was on August 4th, they got in touch with us to schedule the date and time that we'd like to visit.  We decided to wait until the drive-in season was over, so we scheduled our trip for November 10th.

From the description, I was picturing that this would be something like Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.  While the two are both interactive art exhibitions that make use of high definition projectors, that is where the similarities end.  The rooms at Otherworld are not based on any one artist, but they're also not without a theme.  Everything here ties together into a story that you discover as you wander through the exhibition.  It's also not the kind of place where you start at the entrance and walk through until you reach the exit.  It's a maze with twists and turns that you're supposed to get lost in.  Last, but not least, there are puzzles hidden throughout the exhibition for you to discover and solve.  It's not like an escape room where you have to solve them to move forward.  You could ignore the puzzle aspects entirely and still have an amazing time exploring everything that there is to see.

Otherworld is absolutely worth the time, travel, and the price of admission.  If you're planning to visit this exhibition for yourself, please be aware that there are potential spoilers from this point forward, including photos and information about the story and some of the puzzles.  This is by no means a complete walkthrough of the entire place... it's just one person's thoughts, opinions and observations after wandering through Otherworld Philadelphia.

Some of the puzzles involve setting dials and gauges at a certain level.  Some are solved by solving mini-puzzles to obtain a symbols, then using those symbols to solve one of the main puzzles in a different room.  Sometimes you're working with touch screens, or by stepping on certain areas or touching certain objects or places in the room at just the right moment.  Sometimes you're playing a full room video game using lights, and sometimes you have to circle back to a place you've already been to before to find something that you didn't know you needed the first time you were there.  They're a lot of fun, but it got to be a bit overwhelming.

The puzzles themselves aren't too difficult once you know that they exist, but you could easily find yourself spinning your wheels trying to "solve" something that isn't a puzzle at all.  This also could lead you to triggering the solution to a puzzle accidentally before you're meant to, which is what I think happened to us.  There was a room that has a tree with faces and hands coming out of the trunk and different colored lights and patterns being projected onto it.  Since you really don't know what is a puzzle and what isn't, you're left on your own to experiment.  I noticed that the music in the room changed when you held one of the hands coming out of the trunk, so I recruited some of the other guests to each hold one of the hands so that all of the tree's hands were being held at the same time.  Shortly after doing this, the room went completely black and then bright lights flashed and a different song began to play.  I didn't think too much of it at the time, but we later overheard people saying that they had to find different symbols and colors that told you what order to touch the hands on the tree.  Apparently, you have to touch the hands when a certain color is projected onto them, and in a certain order to solve the ultimate puzzle of Otherworld, or at least that's what they thought.  If they were right, then I think it's possible that we "solved" the end puzzle without even knowing it... or maybe we didn't.  Don't get me wrong, I like the idea of discovering things, but unless you get help from a staff member, I don't think there's any way to know for sure how much of it you have solved by the time you leave.  I know that we didn't get anywhere close to 100%, but I couldn't tell you if we got through 75%... or 50%... or 25%... hell, I don't know if we found 5%.

Another thing that made the puzzles frustrating is that some of the other guests had a habit of spoiling things for us.  There was one room in particular where there is a DJ console set up, and you have to read the clues on the wall to play the music in a particular way.  Once you do this, the music controls disappear from the screen and are replaced by a panel of symbols where you can input a code that you discover throughout the other rooms.  We had just gotten into the room and were working out the clues on the wall when one of the other guests interrupted us by saying "Oh, we already figured this out." before walking up to the console and solving the puzzle for us.  This wasn't a case of bad timing where we just happened to walk into the room when she was solving the puzzle for the first time. She had circled back to this room to discover a clue for a different puzzle in a different room.  That's how this place works.... if you're trying to solve all of the puzzles, you have to find secrets in one room, then take them to another room, and this could mean going back into the same room several times, but for completely different reasons.  I know she was only trying to be nice, but I would have appreciated if maybe she asked me if I wanted a hint or something so that we could enjoy the room for ourselves, but before I knew what was happening, the puzzle was solved.  So, what else is there even to do at that point.  I just shrugged and said "ok" and them moved on to another room to let her search for whatever clue she was searching for.

I can't really blame that lady for spoiling one of the puzzles.  Clearly, she thought that she was doing us a favor, but I can't say the same for another one of the guests.  There is a small octagon-shaped room with bookshelves and newspaper clippings on the wall with a computer sitting on a desk in the center.  Like just about everything in this place, the computer is interactive.  You're meant to sit down at the desk and click through series of emails and instant messages to discover clues about the story and some of the puzzles that you're trying to solve.  There was a young man (late teens or early twenties... difficult to say because he was wearing a face mask) sitting at the computer for an unreasonable length of time.  I wandered around the rest of the room, read the newspaper on the wall and went through some of the books to see if maybe they held a clue, and by the time I was finished, this dude hadn't budged from his spot at the computer.

We left the room after about 15-20 minutes and found a different room with misshapen furniture, an old radio, and a trippy scene playing through the windows that surrounded the room.  We soon discovered that the radio dial not only changed the music in the room, but also the scene that was going on outside of the windows.  We sat here for a while and spent some time talking to a mother and her young son that had come into the room.  After we discovered the clue in this room (and rested for a while), I said something to my wife "well, do you want to go see if the computer is free".  The mother who was in the radio room with us then told us that she wanted to use it too, and the same guy was hogging it all to himself when she was there, and he huffed when she stood near the desk waiting for her turn.  Sure enough, when we went back to the computer room, that guy was still there and it didn't look like he was about to move any time soon.  He had to be there for at least an hour.  I decided it wasn't worth getting into a confrontation, so we just said to hell with whatever clues were to be found on the computer.

The story of Otherworld is very interesting, but I think it would have been a better experience if we had a little bit of the backstory before we went in.  Even after spending over three hours here, I'm not really sure what's going on.  I know that it involves a twisted Mayor named Kartano Barak, and his two daughters: Rafflesia and Apollonia, the latter of whom created a malevolent artificial intelligence called ATAM that controls the thoughts and behaviors of those who live under its watchful eye.  Dr. Sperringer works for Apollonia and/or ATAM and he has been studying dozens of different creatures who are from a different planet or another dimension.  There's a lot more to it, but beyond that, I'm really not sure what's going on.  If they ever publish a book about all of this, I would definitely want to read it.

There are so many rooms, displays, puzzles, and other awesome things to discover in Otherworld that I could never put together a room-by-room description of everything, so the rest of this post is just going to be photos.  Please believe me when I say that this is a very small fraction of what you'll see at here.

I'm not sure how long this place is going to be around, but I highly recommend it.