Things to do in Providence

Leveling Up: New entertainment center opens in the Providence Place Mall

Founder Matt DuPlessie and a crew of Motif road testers.

About 15 years ago, I went to an “adventure” at Patriot Place Boston created by an organization called “5 Wits.” It was different than anything else, an entertaining, if slightly claustrophobic set of team-building puzzles set on a submarine, with an overarching storyline. The creators would argue that it was not an escape room, but it was very similar. The internet would have you believe that the first escape room began in 2007, but this came first, and since then it’s come a long way.

5 Wits still exists and manages a half dozen facilities around the region. One of its founders, Matt DuPlessie, moved on to create Level99, a puzzle and challenge-topia complete with a restaurant, brewery, and 43 unique games and challenges – from the physical to the strategic to brain teasers. You may have seen its funky blue triangular logo gracing the outside of the Providence Place Mall recently.

Even finding the not-yet-opened facility was a bit of a brain teaser. We ended up finding a trainee making his way through the mall and following him to the then-functioning rear entrance. “All I can tell you is that it’s opening on the 23rd,” said the tight-lipped employee. Spoilers are guarded carefully here, but the staff is still playfully helpful.

On a behind the scenes teaser-tour shortly before opening, a team from Motif was able to try out several of the challenge rooms. We hoisted giant dumplings using 6-foot chopsticks. We hacked imaginary passwords the length of a train car. We deciphered stories buried within magic crystals. We bounced lasers around a room to form patterns, and we jumped lasers using moves reminiscent of “Resident Evil” games, only with less dismemberment.

The space is large, with high, airy ceilings and no trace of claustrophobia, and with room for up to 600 participants at a time. It features entrances from the roof-level parking lot and from the inside of the mall on the third floor, between the food court and Boscov’s. The entire maze was under rapid, large-scale construction by a full team with some of the largest forklifts I’ve ever seen. One laser-beam oriented game, vaguely reminiscent of “Resident Evil,” where everyone must jump over a laser as it passes, was stymied because it kept reading an errant ladder as a particularly uncoordinated human. Even our tour guide, who designed the place, found himself briefly disoriented: “We just went through here and it was a blank wall. Now it has three giant animal heads on it.” With its official opening right before this will go to press, the decor should have stopped moving, but even at the time of our visit, the space was chock full of art of all shades and varieties of original artwork, from flocked depictions of Hendrix to psychedelic, hypnotic portraits by Mine Kontrol (muralist Kevin Bauccio), to an “augmented reality” video village providing video portals to exotic parts of the world and beyond. Over 50 pieces of art placed around the facility outside the challenge rooms were created by artists from the region (including some of those responsible for Roger Williams Park’s annual Pumpkin Carvings) and are tied together through a cipher where each one contains… well, that would be a spoiler. Just note that even the games have games within them. And many rely on teamwork, so for best results, come with a couple of friends.

The chief game developer graduated from MIT with a degree in mechanical engineering and has been experimenting ever since to find the most entertaining challenges. Most take less than five minutes to go through, but many attempts to master, and 43 rooms should keep things fresh for several visits. Like the Level99 in Natick, the first of its kind (PVD is the second, with more likely to come soon in other states), the challenges are modular, and the creative team has developed over 100 at their “Box Fort” development facility. “We can put a new one on a truck, put it in here and it becomes like a new level in a video game.” So don’t expect the challenges to be all the same as in Massachusetts, and expect them to rotate over time. Level99 estimates it will take 30 hours of gameplay to succeed in them all. Pricing varies by day and length of stay, but benchmarks range from $30 for two hours, to $50 for a full-day pass.

What inspired DuPlessie to create Level 99? “Very strange dreams,” he says, playing down the enormous amount of user research that has gone into tweaking the experiences to excite visitors. “We look for things that will get people off their couch, off their phone, out and moving,” DuPlessie says, noting that the games are designed for adults, not little kids. “It’s not the right place for your nine-year-old’s birthday party – the puzzles are too hard.”

The location also includes a bar and serious restaurant, the Night Shift Brewing Kitchen & Tap, like one the Natick location is known for. It’s a 300-seat restaurant with dine-in and cafeteria-style options. In Massachusetts, where they recently won a Best Pizza in Boston award, visitors come just for the bar and restaurant – Level99 expects the same for Rhode Island, and the dining area has a floor-to-ceiling view of Providence that had been boarded up when the space was a JCPenney. The location also has conference and meeting rooms, and it may become a magnet for corporate outings and events.

One thing is for sure – whether dodging giant foam axes or solving puzzles, this new PVD entertainment center won’t get boring! Between shooting photos, our testing crew was already making plans to come back. •