Passport to Iron City is a live immersive theater venue inspired by the upcoming sci-fi film Alita: Battle Angel, itself adapted from the beloved manga Battle Angel Alita. For 40 minutes, the performance drops guests into a modestly-sized recreation of the film’s set. Guests get divided into teams and compete in a variety of simple puzzles and games to collect credits that they ultimately gamble on a round of Motorball, in the hopes of accruing enough wealth to ascend to Zalem.
Confused? So am I.
The producers of the event — currently operating in Austin, Los Angeles, and New York City — claim it works as a stand-alone experience, similar to an escape room or Manhattan’s interactive take on Macbeth, Sleep No More. They insist this isn’t a marketing promotion. If that’s the case, then they’ve found the right audience in me, somebody who only knows of Alita through its marketing materials.
The project’s designers try admirably to establish the film’s complicated mythos without giving a full lecture. Before the show, I wait with my team in Kansas, a bar that features prominently in promotion for the film. It’s supposed to be a seedy hangout for mercenary types, but mostly it’s a spot to catch-up on Alita fiction while drinking local beer. On a handful of tables sit small touchscreen displays that explain the backstory of the bar, Iron City, the year 2563, and the majesty of Zalem, the last of the great Sky Cities.
This being a bar, I chat and drink with my teammates, but an attendant keeps stopping by the table to insist that I read the info, because it will be valuable in a trivia game once I enter Iron City. It’s a not-so-gentle nudge to have a vague idea of this bizarre city filled with bionics, crimes, and elementary school brain teasers.
The trivia isn’t particularly difficult. In fact, none of the games are. The set itself is meant to look like a dystopian marketplace, but the games — each operated by an actor in character as an Iron City local — are blunt, familiar, and simple. One game is a magnetic jigsaw puzzle, while another asks guests to answer questions about a teammate; another game has me find a hidden object in a series of pictures. These remind me more of physical therapy exercises than brain teasers or tests of skill.
The real fun seems to be a scavenger hunt for secret keywords hidden throughout the Iron City space. But I never feel as if I have time to dig into this adventure without abandoning my team. The design of the top-level game — to amass credits — conflicts with this search and the desire to leisurely explore this neatly made set.
It’s all a bit hurried and unclear. Many of the games require your full group to participate, but some games benefit from players going in different directions. How many credits does each game reward? I can’t say. The only context comes from a leaderboard in the middle of the venue tracking and ranking team point totals. At one point in my visit, the gray team has over 100,000 credits, while the yellow team only has 40,000. Why? How? Who knows!
Worse, the credits don’t ultimately matter, thanks to a last-minute gamble. At the end of each session, every team is encouraged to bet all of its earned credits on a game of Motorball, which is represented by colorful dots zipping around a big TV screen. Winners get a huge payout, and climb to the top of the leadership. From a game design perspective, it’s like if teams competed in football for 40 minutes, then decided the winner with some old-fashioned horse racing.
The silliness of all of this is fine. Points don’t matter. It’s a fun theatrical experience — nobody needs to win! Except, by putting a leaderboard in the center of the venue, the event itself seems to say otherwise.
I wish I could do it again, this time ignoring most of the games. I’d focus on chatting with the character actors about the universe and admire all the set pieces. If you decide to give this a shot — tickets are currently $25, relatively cheap compared to many escape rooms — I encourage you to approach it with a similar goal. The trouble with Passport to Iron City is it does so many different things. It’s part escape room, part marketing event, part immersive theater project, part casual bar hangout. I think it can be enjoyed if you approach it as just one of those things, but it’s a bit of a frustrating exercise trying to experience all of that in 40 minutes, all while a leaderboard lets you know you’re not doing a good job of it.
As I mentioned, the producers of the event describe Passport to Iron City as a stand-alone event. Separating itself from the film may be necessary for longterm survival. Originally set for a big Dec. 21, 2018 release, Alita: Battle Angel was bumped to Feb. 14 of this year. Distributor 20th Century Fox has pushed trailers during big sporting events, but the film’s buzz has been middling. There’s a chance some (if not many) potential guests at Passport to Iron City won’t have seen the film.
Maybe that’s for the better. As a tie-in with a huge sci-fi blockbuster, it’s confusing and lacking. But if its competition is escape rooms, Passport to Iron City is elaborate, ambitious, and dense. Sure, its sci-fi world doesn’t make a lot of sense, but when’s the last time you left an escape room complaining about its narrative consistency?