For fans of the weird, the wonderful, and the utterly immersive… Something exciting is coming in 2024. From the creators of The Locksmith’s Dream comes an announcement of a new experience: The Key of Dreams.
We sat down with the two creators, Ivan and Laura, a super-team of designers and creators to find out just what The Key of Dreams is, and what can players expect.
So, what is The Key of Dreams?
Laura: The Key of Dreams is a bit tricky to categorise – maybe we need to coin a new phrase for it. It shares some DNA with escape rooms, immersive dining experiences, Secret Cinema, Punchdrunk immersive theatre and experiences like Phantom Peak, but yet isn’t directly comparable with any of these. In the most basic form it is an overnight immersive and interactive experience with an unrivalled attention to detail and a feeling of consequence.
Ivan: As part of that, guests explore a 17th Century manor house in Wales, discovering secrets that are both real history of the place and parts of the stories we weave there. There are a range of puzzles to solve, from simple trails following paths of clues to unlock boxes, narrative told in snatches of letters, journals, artworks and objects to discovering the stories of the characters of the house through interacting with the actors. The actor to guest ratio is four to one, this combined with the length of the experience means that people develop strong opinions about the characters, their trustworthiness and motives.
There are a range of puzzles to solve, from simple trails following paths of clues to unlock boxes, narrative told in snatches of letters, journals, artworks and objects to discovering the stories of the characters of the house through interacting with the actors.
Laura: Hospitality is also a huge part of the experience for us. The twenty fours hours that the experience lasts comes with all the meals you’d expect – and more. There’s an arrival lunch, an afternoon tea, a banquet dinner with stories and mysteries woven through the dishes and after dinner nibbles served in the bar where you can relax with a cocktail to celebrate your excellent sleuthing. The following day, a hearty breakfast sets you up for the final investigations.
You’ve compared it to other immersive experiences – but what else sets The Key of Dreams apart?
Ivan: At its heart, the Key of Dreams is about connection.
These can be human connections with other guests, the actors or characters in the stories. Moments of realisation provide another spark of connection, whether it happens when a puzzle clicks satisfyingly into place; when a piece of music suddenly makes everything come together and make sense; when you realise who a character is and how they were involved with one of the stories you have followed; and the friendships made along the way with other guests.
Laura: We are huge fans of weird fiction and of role playing games like Call of Cthulhu. We love the depth of description and attention to detail that helps to make the deductions, and to help us feel truly immersed in the world. While we consider the word immersive to be overused, it really is what we are trying to create here. That for the twenty four hours you exist in the house, you are part of the strange, timeless place; the outside world seems distant and less real while you are there and you happily give yourself over to the dream-like quality of the experience.
Just sitting in an ancient house, in front of a roaring fire surrounded by the ghosts of history, is an experience that cannot be translated into another medium. When you weave ‘imagined’ history through that experience, the ghosts of the real people with the imagined, factual events with the phantasmagorical, then it becomes truly extraordinary.
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What was the design process like for creating an experience like this?
Laura: Much of our design process revolves around the concept of ‘apophenia’ which it turns out is a much more recent and less commonly used word than anyone who knows us might expect! Apophenia is “the human tendency to see connections and patterns that are not really there”. But in our world of course they often are!
Ivan: We take all of the details we have, historical facts, characters, places in and near the house, objects, sounds, colours, flavours and smells and then create links between them. Attention to detail is a big deal. When attending our events, we want the suspension of disbelief to happen naturally, to slowly creep over you, like the dawning realisation that comes over a character in a Lovecraft story. You won’t find any bits of paper with roleplay effects, you won’t be told how you are feeling, and you won’t be expected to believe anything is something other than it appears to be. But if we’ve done our job right, you’ll find yourself muttering over scraps of paper in a corner lit by lantern-light, pointing at some feature of the craved wall, or telling a character your deepest fear (even though you strongly suspect that by doing so you may be imperilling your mortal soul).
Laura: When we write, we become pretty deeply immersed in everything ourselves and I’m not sure how good it is for our own sanity! But apophenia works! We recently had a guest message us to say that he was convinced that we’d hidden a secret message in our website and he’d been scouring it for hours to try and work it out! And of course – he may be right…
Ivan: There’s actually a quote I love from the Sherlock Holmes reimagining Elementary that sums it up this part of the design and the experience perfectly:
“It has its cost, learning to see the puzzle in everything. They’re everywhere. Once you start looking, it’s impossible to stop. It just so happens that people, with all the deceits and illusions that inform everything they do, tend to be the most fascinating puzzles of all.”
The staircases inside the Key of Dreams
Connections between people (and things) is at the centre of this experience, could you talk more about how The Key of Dreams brings people together?
Laura: We say that our events have no ‘right way’ to experience them and it really is true. For previous events we have run, we’ve had people turn up in character and hold their role all weekend in how they interacted with the actors and other guests. We had people come along with their partner or family members who knew nothing about the experience that they were coming to, we had escape room folks who came and sped off around the house following clues, interrogating the characters and solving puzzles, and everyone loved it.
Laura: Creating an experience like this can be a bit overwhelming, by design there is far more than people can experience in one sitting. We make sure there is plenty of story to follow and we try very hard to ensure that there isn’t just one way to solve each problem. For instance, when writing trail clues, we usually have three ways to solve them: there is the ‘I’m a fan of the stories’ who has the knowledge, the ‘I’ll put in the legwork’ who can go and discover the answer from a specific place in the house and the ‘I’m a researcher’ who can find the answer in the commonplace book that they are given on entry in to the house.
Ivan: In a roleplaying game, whether of the tabletop or live action variety, if someone isn’t in character when they should be they break the social contract which makes the game less enjoyable for the other participants. We want to *invite* our guests to play a role when interacting with the actors, to believe in the stories and events, but on their own terms and at their own pace. As they get deeper into the stories and the experience it becomes easier, and all the more delightful to unexpectedly find yourself trading dark secrets with a denizen of the house, or making a connection that makes complete sense within the dream-like logic of the house.
Laura: As someone who suffers with anxiety and can easily become overwhelmed, the experience is designed to include the opportunity to be in a quiet space while still being near the flow of the action. We have puzzles in the bar and in the quiet sitting room, which develop the story, but also help people just to take some time to reset. Additionally, building in some structured activities like a house tour, or dance class with the actors, is a great way for people to learn more about the lore without feeling awkward about approaching people.
The Key of Dreams is set in the past, how does technology factor into the experience?
Ivan: While we don’t force people to have to accept that they are experiencing time travel, the house is itself out of step with the real world, even more so at night. Because of the 1920s vibe that the place has, we aim for the experience to be as diegetic as possible, from music to objects and the technology/science elements. We don’t want people to be wondering how they should be reacting to something, a speaker behind a picture might be able to play atmospheric music, but from the context it isn’t clear how you should respond to it, pretend it isn’t there, or consider who and why it was placed there.
Ivan: Our aim is for the technology to always be in service to the experience and the story, so that they contribute to that little moment of delight that the guest will remember and tell their friends about. We have some utterly delightful embedded technology planned for the Key of Dreams, which should really give a sense of magic. We aren’t ready to reveal our secrets at this time, But we have been dabbling with psychometry and spirit photography!
One of the rooms in The Key of Dreams
Finally, what do you hope people will take away from their experience at The Key of Dreams?
Ivan: A sense of magic and wonder. To be drawn into a world both familiar and unfamiliar in an extraordinary place. To have stories to tell about the little moment of delight. There are physical mementoes of course as well, from the ‘Commonplace book’ crammed with clues, and diversions that each guest will get, to other ephemera that they will get to take away.
Laura: The world we live in can be a hard one; it can be relentless and unforgiving. There is a joy to be found in letting go of that for a day, exploring a strange and mystical place, even if you’re interacting with some sinister beings and unravelling some unpleasant stories. There is a special quality to a shared experience, whether that is dining with fellow investigators, exploring a house, uncovering secrets, and plotting with (or against). There is a Lovecraft quote which captures our hopes that our guests will,
“clothe life in embroidered robes of myth and look through the ivory gates into that world of wonder which was ours before we were wise and unhappy.”
Laura: We love our growing community of cultists, investigators and enthusiasts! Your readers should have a peek at The Key of Dreams website, and if it appeals can sign-up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook or Instagram. We also have a blog on our site, which is where I get to talk about my passion for literature and we’ll talk more about the design or inspirations as they arise.
Laura: Our website has information about what you can expect and about the house and how to book. There is also a section on ‘Investigations’ that is currently rather heavily redacted which will fill up over time with teasers and snippets of lore about the world (prize for the reader that creates the best red string diagram!). Over the next few months there will be more information about the characters, societies of interest and objects of curiosity appearing – so do check back. The best way to keep up to date with everything is to come and join our mailing list. That is where the date announcements, competitions and early access to new details will be in the newsletters.
How to book The Key of Dreams?
The first two events have been announced, and will be on the 27th and 30th of April 2024.
Discount for The Escape Roomer readers! As a special treat for The Escape Roomer fans you can get a 10% Discount for all April tickets until the end of October. Just use the code APOPHENIA when you check out.
You can also book a deposit for a future 2024 event and get a 10% discount early-bird discount as well.