It was kind of like Saw meets lame video games.
Image: Real Escape Game
When I told my claustrophobic father I was going to be locked into a windowless room, forced to solve puzzles to escape, his immediate reaction was mild anxiety. “You don’t have to do this,” he said, repeatedly. “If anything goes wrong, call me, I’ll come help you.”
I get that. I have issues with heights, and my guts coil when I see people climb rock-faces. But I had to emphasize to him that there was zero threat of danger in Real Escape Game, a new Toronto-based version of a growing and popular niche activity, based on “escape the room” sub-genre video games, particularly The Room and 999.
But this version is live action.
While video games classically borrow from reality, Real Escape Game borrows from its virtual version. Originally thought up in 2006 by Japanese game designer Takao Kato, the game puts participants in a group that must search for artifacts and puzzles contained in a locked room that will help them escape. It’s an IRL take on the ‘Room Escape’ game genre. Kato saw one of his classmates playing a similar game on her computer and thought of what it would be like to play it for real.
Real Escape Game takes the video game design and applies it to the physical world. But unlike the video game versions, players have to sign a waiver before entering the game space—because you’re actually going to be locked up for an hour. That being said, even if there’s an easy Saw series comparison to be made, the highest the stakes actually get is that there are no pee breaks. “Live or die,” as they say.
In the past, similar classic LucasArts and Sierra adventure games forced you to outwit objects and dialogue to further along your quest. At their worst, you’d be rubbing every item on every inch of the game environment praying new answers would reveal themselves. In this live iteration of video game puzzles, it was a lot more scouring and shaking anything you could find, rather than gliding your cursor over them and hoping for some sort of option.
Before we entered "the mysterious room," located at the Foundry Buildings art space in Toronto, I made a Silent Hill joke about jabbing a mannequin arm against the door until it opens. Puzzles and their solutions work best when the clue masters understand where their players' instincts will lead, without immediately coming to a conclusion. And that’s in a limited, digital environment. Before the game started I wondered how game design would translate into the real world, where functions can’t be scripted and games can't be paused.
Ultimately, this live-action video game could be one of the first in an evolution of real-world video games.
“Be thorough” was an instruction the staff wanted us to internalize, as was “communicate” and “don’t use the tools to take apart the furniture,” but thoroughness stuck most. Once we entered the room and the clock started, the players, two-fifths of whom were strangers to me and many of whom mention playing video games during their introductions, scattered, combing, shaking, breaking every box, book, and chair they saw in the room.
Carpets pulled up, tables flipped over, secret messages discovered, hidden compartments explored. My instinct knew there was more to the container with a few pens in it. Hinges on boxes and frays in clothing showed many of these items had been roughly handled in their short lives.
After the scatter blitz, many of us loosely tied ourselves to focus on one object. I’ll go easy on the details, not to bleed the surprises or solutions on the internet, but there's a light dusting of spoilers ahead. Be warned.
Two of the clues we found were completely innocuous, functions of the room so universally normal you wonder if you should bother worrying about escaping. One really nerdy clue is inside of a manga and I think the woman who discovered it may have read that volume of the classic Death Note before.
All said and done, we didn’t complete the riddle and escape the room. Most people don’t. Only about 15 groups made it out before us, so we didn’t feel too ashamed. But it frustrating, especially those last 10 minutes when ominous dramatic music begins to play, and the strains of game design in real life become obvious.
One of my friends, Filipe, compared these highs and lows to the contrast between Myst and Riven. To him the first Myst puzzles are fairly well contained into themselves, you could be challenged but not overwhelmed, even though the game exists in a very abstract environment. In its sequel, Riven, the puzzles would bury some solutions across the entire timeline, meaning you’re constantly having to reel back to already vague hints. Clues collapse into each other when you don’t know where they’re intended to go.
This is what really defeated us, in that mysterious room. There’s no obvious hierarchy to the puzzles, when in fact their usefulness totally has a hierarchy. There was a ‘zodiac’ themed puzzle that seemed to be incredibly significant, a big number of items in the room, at least, seemed to suggest it was. But it turned out the entire chunk of detective work was only leading to fill one space of another puzzle—a puzzle we solved without it. When we hit the final leg of the puzzle, there was a mad dash for that last juicy answer as time wore down.
If you end up as puzzled as I was and never escaping the room, don’t worry: Staff will walk you through the remainder of the solutions after time runs out, partly because the only key to the room is in that last unopened lockbox. And for all the griping, there is an evolving learning curve for the creators of the game too, who would drop hints throughout the session to help players navigate the sometimes confusing direction of the gameplay.
Ultimately, this live-action video game could be one of the first in an evolution of real-world video games. Virtual reality could expand this genre into more expansive and immersive adventure. And then, instead of being in a regular old room, you could potentially extend the game space into wilder, more frightful environments where escaping becomes necessity. Not only that, cheaper 3D printing could enable the game space to become more realistic and darker without the help of Oculus Rift: props and digital aides could then be afforded to add more realism.
There will be another “escape the room” session in Toronto in the fall, followed by a team vs. team event that sounds a little like Survivor: All-Stars. Next time maybe I’ll get my dad to come and we can both fret about the enclosed space. Or I can watch him sweat bullets as the cheesy dramatic music comes on and we’re still stuck in the room.