Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Step right up and prepare to enter a world of interactive play and technological wonderment, where the video games of your childhood have a futuristic new look and the environments you've only fantasized about suddenly become a reality. Well, virtual reality.
At the new VR-driven “micro amusement park” called Two Bit Circus in downtown's Arts District, a whimsical mix of simulation and real human interaction makes for a new kind of arcade experience. The warehouse space is sort of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory (minus the candy) meets futuristic Dave & Busters, divided into distinct areas featuring different types of gaming.
In the Midway section of the space, a carnival-themed setup features digitally driven games and installations, most of which pit patrons against one another, yielding spirited competition if not the usual ugly plushies. The Arkane section (basically the arcade) takes up the center of the building, with old-school video games alongside new ones that Two Bit's creators developed themselves. In the Arena, VR booths and battlezone stations offer fully immersive, visually stimulating virtual play, most involving shooting at targets of different sorts, while Two Bit's Story Rooms provide more elaborate virtual reality entertainment with escape-meets-VR rooms made for multiplayer adventures. And the Club 01 theater features digitally driven games and competitions (mostly quiz shows with live hosts) pitting guests and groups against one another in an environment that's a lot like a bar trivia night but way techier.
Two Bit hosted several media tours in the weeks before it opened; we attended one of the later ones, when construction was nearly complete. We got to hear from the creators themselves, too: Eric Gradman, a computer programmer and former circus performer known for rocking a brightly dyed mohawk, and Brent Bushnell, a bowtie-sporting engineer who is the son of Nolan Bushnell, Chuck E. Cheese's co-founder and the guy who created Atari video games. Together they are two mighty colorful characters and not just in the way they dress and look; their vision is childlike yet scientific, innovative and tech-minded yet inspired by IRL social interaction.
Gradman's baby seems to be Club 01 (which, for you old-time L.A. scenesters, should not be confused with the infamous '80s party space of the same name that used to be on Melrose). We played some competitive quizzes against other media folk, with the creator hosting onstage, and it was spirited. The room has a nightclub feel, so we imagine playing will be a lot more fun with a cocktail. Club 01 likely will be one of Two Bit's more adult destinations but it's open to all depending on the time of day. Gradman says they're ready for rough play, too.
“We tested the equipment in here thoroughly,” he says during the media visit. “It's built to withstand both drinking adults and restless children.”
Speaking of drinking, there are two bars. One is a gorgeous, carousel-like setup near the center of the space, serving cocktails for grown-ups and soft drinks for youngsters. The other is a robot-tended serving station with a Rube Goldberg–esque contraption that helps him mix the drink. The one-eyed robot's a real charmer, by the way, so don't be surprised if he flirts with you as he serves you.
A computerized balloon pop-up game, a digital skee-ball game that changes depending on how Two Bit sets it up, a light-up button game that brings to mind both Twister and that '70s color-memory toy called Simon … these are just a few of the fun features that catch the eye as you journey throughout the space. Still, for most who come to this new downtown attraction, it's all about the virtual options.
VR can simulate just about any experience imaginable these days, from childish adventures to adult encounters. It's an area of entertainment that continues to show viability with all age ranges as it continues to grow. At Two Bit, the goal is to blow minds on both sides of the market with a head-spinning array of immersive VR experiences in private booths and rooms, for family outings and date nights. (Most of the story room experiences cost $20 each. Private gaming cabanas run about $60, while Club 01 entry is $25. Video games run $2 to $5. Two Bit uses membership cards that hold prepaid credits.)
We tried “The Raft,” in a story room that was decorated safari-style, with a virtual raft in the middle. It came to life once we donned a VR headset, and then we had the sensation of sailing down a river into swampy darkness filled with strange, menacing creatures, both flying and swimming. Two other players joined us in the room to fight these monsters and we all tallied up points as we shot them with virtual weapons. Other story rooms have names like “The Lost City” and “Space Squad.”
Bushnell says bringing people together is Two Bit's biggest goal. “Everything here is designed for connecting with others,” he says during the tour. “The games are made to make that happen.”
Two Bit had its big grand opening event on Sept. 6, and it has already hosted a bunch of private parties and received hordes of media hype. We paid a visit this weekend to see if Bushnell and Gradman's early goals for the place were on track, and it appears they are. There was a giddy, all-ages crowd playing pretty much everything. As expected, the VR story rooms were the most popular and there was a wait for them, though it wasn't too bad. The dining area was a little empty but there was a birthday party taking up a couple tables.
The expected visit time to Two Bit Circus is about three hours. “Having so many things to do and a wide array of options means that people will come here for one thing but try something new as well,” says Gradman, who along with Bushnell also touts secret Easter eggs and scavenger hunt programs at the venue. “We'll be adding new things all the time.”
The Two Bit duo promise interactive performances and features that actually tell a story about the place itself, but we didn't notice this on a Saturday afternoon. We have a feeling there's more to discover after dark here, when the place becomes an adults-only environment. Either way, the circus is in town for good and, thanks to digital technology and two big dreamers, the show continues to evolve as it goes on.
Two Bit Circus, 634 Mateo St., downtown; (213) 250-9964, twobitcircus.com. Mon.-Thu., 4-11 p.m.; Fri., 4 p.m.-1 a.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; admission free, game prices vary.