Are we having high-tech fun yet?

With group activities and a gourmet menu, Entros joins the pack of game palaces for grown-ups.

Published December 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I've got a beer in one hand, a pencil in the other and a woman in a French twist and two rhinestone chokers breathing down my neck. My boyfriend and I are trying to find the "spirit rock" -- we suspect it's the plastic boulder in the corner. This latest clue in a series will lead us to the "time-traveling supercriminal Serrin" who, from what we can decipher from an instructional video, is planning to murder a bunch of natives in the 18th century with a semiautomatic weapon.

It's the Thursday before Christmas at Entros, and the main thought going through my head is, "I paid 20 bucks for this?"

What does Entros mean? As the effervescent young women at the front door recited for me, "It's a unique name because we're a unique place." It is, in plain English, the latest in high-tech entertainment for grown-ups: an "Intelligent Amusement Park" that mixes interactive games with fusion cuisine and microbrews. Adults, you see, are no longer supposed to simply enjoy adult entertainments (you know, cocktail parties, poetry readings) but are being given their own arcadelike establishment where they too can play games -- adult games -- and frolic like teens. But at adult prices, of course.

Entros, in San Francisco, is the second outpost of a growing chain that, with a recent $20 million investment, plans to have 10 restaurants across the country by 2001. The premise, according to president and CEO Stephen Brown, is "to provide social people a better way of enjoying their friends ... We're not interested in using technology to try to wow people, but we do like to use it in innovative ways to help people learn new things about each other." The concept, he says, is more Pictionary than pinball.

Entros is, in other words, a kind of high-tech, getting-to-know-you hell. Like a number of similarly thematic establishments riddled with tech toys and games that are popping up across the country, Entros is based on the idea of drawing affluent geek professionals out from behind their computer terminals and into a social environment. Just give 'em some microbrews and some "multimedia," and the $20s will flow like water.

Entros San Francisco is a two-level building with two bars, a downstairs restaurant and games scattered along the edges. The decor is a mishmash of modern industrial, with hints of jungle adventure and American nostalgia memorabilia (most of the "theme" decor is part of various games). There's no cover charge to come in and eat; however, if you want to play the games you'll have to pay $20 a person. This is not arcade-style entertainment; games take between 10 and 45 minutes. You can drink your cocktails and snack between games, or you can do the full sit-down meal (the entrees are pricey, around $17.95 a plate). A full evening at Entros, with games and a meal, could easily cost $75 a person.

On the night that I visited, Entros was half empty -- perhaps because the restaurant was just a few weeks old, perhaps because everyone was too busy Christmas shopping. The average age of the mixed-gender crowd was about 33, and the going attire seemed to be a blue button-down shirt or a little black dress. Entros is definitely targeting a gourmet yuppie crowd, as evidenced by the fusion cuisine -- a strange but tasty mix of salsa, soy sauce and Asian/Southwest food ("Duck Mole Spring Rolls" and "Cantonese Tequila-Marinated Grilled Chicken").

The food, however, is far better than the games. Not only are the games not particularly high-tech -- they're mostly just downright cheesy.

There's Imagene's Gifts, a "creative workshop" where you can "morph your face." Reality: Get your picture taken in a picture booth, and an overworked staffer will use a computer to paste the picture into a mock passport which you can then decorate with cut-outs from magazines. (The computer broke down while we were in line, so we couldn't finish ours.) Or there's Interface 3.0, a "high-tech blind man's bluff" -- which translates into a mildly entertaining game in which, with the help of an earpiece and a head-mounted video camera, you remotely assist your blindfolded partner buy a jelly bean and determine its flavor.

Then there's the Time Portal, an endless "time travel multimedia odyssey" which purports to be a virtual reality game -- and seems to take its inspiration from that TV classic, "Time Tunnel." After watching a video through special headsets, you search for "clues" throughout the Entros building that help you find a nasty, bearded, time-traveling supercriminal named Serrin. Not only is the plot of the game tediously silly and full of holes (in the year 2024, apparently, people will be using primitive early Macintoshes that seem to be running Windows), but the clues don't make sense; and if you figure out the mystery, there's no prize.

The only truly fun game in the lot was the Blender, in which 20 patrons get to compete in one of a number of themed "game shows" (our theme was Las Vegas). The game show is set up in a large room with actual working contestant podiums, a giant screen and a host; the set looks great, and the questions are challenging, but the fun comes simply from being nastily competitive with a bunch of strangers.

The whole place is like something out of a Human Resources manual: Games that help people get to know each other! Learn team management! Solve problems and build cooperative skills! (Entros games, its Web site claims, "stimulate the brain and body by opening the floodgates to creativity, communication and energy.") It wasn't surprising that half the people at Entros the night I visited were with company Christmas parties -- Charles Schwab, IDG and an insurance firm were all having events that night. In fact, says Brown, 30 percent of Entros' business is from group events.

Entros isn't alone in its pursuit of the adult game entertainment market. It is joined by the GameWorks chain, a more traditional gamers' arcade aimed at the over-21 crowd (read: microbrews and gourmet snacks) that also has an outpost in Seattle. GameWorks, which was created by Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks, Universal Studios and Sega Enterprises, has been successful so far -- boasting millions of visitors last year (as compared to Entros' 60,000) and outposts in five cities. GameWorks focuses heavily on the latest, greatest, blow-your-socks-off arcade games (along with a selection of some vintage favorites). And although it does attract kids, it also draws an after-work crowd.

That's just the beginning of the fun targeting tech-oriented adults. There's Sony's new chain of Metreon entertainment centers -- in San Francisco, this will combine upscale bistros with Microsoft and Sony stores, an IMAX theater and arcade games for kids and adults. Tourist centers in both New York and Los Angeles are increasingly chockablock with themed restaurants and entertainment centers for families, featuring "virtual reality" or other techie toys.

Brown sniffs at the comparisons with GameWorks, saying that Entros "create[s] entertainment that meets our target market's social needs. It's not just putting some arcade games in and putting wood on the wall instead of paint and then saying we're an arcade for adults." Yet both Entros and GameWorks have an almost maternal concern about the social experiences of adults. GameWorks' online promotional materials similarly boast, "GameWorks is a unique entertainment destination where guests can eat, drink, meet and compete in a dynamic and energetic series of thematic environments that offer an unparalleled social experience around games."

And both are, undoubtedly, focused at high-tech workers with deep pocketbooks: It's no coincidence that both chains started in Seattle, or that Entros' second outpost is in San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch. It's disconcerting to realize that marketers still have a vision of high-tech workers as disconnected people with no social lives who are suckers for any kind of "high-tech" promise. That's what San Francisco coverage of the Entros opening emphasized, quoting a sociologist's view that these places are good for those poor "cubicle-dwellers" who have "a real desire for community."

There is, of course, something to be said for entertainment that's a bit out of the ordinary, and that encourages adults to do something together instead of just nattering over cocktails. On the night I was at Entros, there were a number of happily drunk groups who seemed to be having a mighty fine time indeed. And although my boyfriend and I winced at the painfully pandering material, there were moments when we found ourselves having fun in spite of ourselves -- even "communicating," as I yelled at him to tell me what flavor the damn jelly bean was.

If nothing else, visitors to Entros can laugh together about how silly the games are.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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