Engaging the otherworldly environment is the point

When I touched the folder on the wall, a video diary began playing. Two scientists — one quite concerned, one naively excited — were discussing some sort of experiment, when suddenly I heard what sounded like a machine gun coming from another room.

Exiting the room and turning the corner, I saw a large metal object rising slowly, loudly, toward the ceiling. It was a cherry picker.

On the evening we visited, Otherworld wasn't open to the public. It was a “tech day,” which meant that, at various times while walking through, I encountered a piece of construction equipment or someone with a box of tools making tweaks to an installation. But with Otherworld's constant barrage of sights and sounds, the maintenance tended to blend in with the surroundings.

Otherworld primes you to expect the unexpected. Each room — of which there are 25 to 50, Art Director Scott Schaaf said, depending on your definition of “room” — hits you in a different way. Sometimes it's glowing plant gore. Sometimes it's a bunch of eyeballs embedded into the ceiling. Sometimes it's a sepia-toned funeral parlor with creepy clowns.

Whatever the room, it's transportive. You have to look and listen and touch. You have to engage. And that's the point.

“A lot of experiences now, whether it's a movie or just watching Netflix or something, it's very easy to not really be in the experience,” Founder and Creative Director Jordan Renda said. “You're kind of watching it, but you're kind of not. You're on your phone and you're thinking about other things. It's really tough to just be in tune with whatever you're trying to experience. So the whole idea from the beginning was to hit you from every angle. … You don't really have a choice but to be right there in the space and be present with what's going on.”

Each time I entered a new room on my self-guided tour I sounded like a Keanu Reeves highlight reel: “Whoa.” Otherworld builds a sense of anticipation that feels like climbing the first hill on a rollercoaster, except you don't have to wait for the first descent to feel a thrill. As you ascend, the experience has already begun as you simultaneously stare in wonder and ponder what awaits on the other side.

Schaaf's illustration background plays a key role in creating that tension and then delivering the payoff. “[In comic books], one thing that is reinforced in the visual narrative is the page turn, where you can build suspense and have drastic mood changes when you flip the page,” he said. “Walking through, our goal conceptually is that whenever you turn a corner, you stumble onto something completely different.”

And while that sense of surprise is intended, it shouldn't feel entirely out of left field. Renda and Schaaf want the drastic transitions to feel natural, too. When you crawl through the bottom of arcade game Space Boopers, for instance, you emerge in a glossy, black room with neon, Tetris-like shapes suspended from the ceiling; you are now in the video game. In the child's bedroom, the giant, pink, fuzzy, clawed feet coming out of the wall may seem random at first, but it makes more sense once you crawl under the bed and emerge in the world of the fuzzy monsters, where I felt a sudden urge to take my shoes off.

I can't say I ever figured out the storyline, though I didn't watch all of the videos with the excitable scientists (I was antsy to explore). The narrative seems to involve plants that are more than plants (particularly a magical tree), portals to alien realms (one of which felt like it was drawing me in) and black-and-white clowns that may exist only to forever haunt my dreams.

After exiting, Otherworld's abandoned strip mall setting felt even more dystopian, and the sensory overload also left me a bit dizzy, which only heightened the feeling that I had just been on an interdimensional journey. Side effects from reentry calibration are only to be expected when traveling between worlds.