Escape the Room games have long been a ‘casual game’ favorite of mine. So when I saw the poster for a real (physical) world version of such a game in my very own city, there was no way I was passing it up.
SPOILER NOTE: This is a review of ‘Real Escape Game: Escape from Werewolf Village.’ I do not talk about specific puzzles, but I do talk about the general structure of the game and my reactions to the experience.
Briefly – for those not familiar with the genre – ‘Escape the Room‘ games or sometimes just ‘Escape’ games are typically first person Flash games that place the player in a locked room from which they must exit. They’re usually completed through a combination of looking around the room, picking up items, recombining them and solving small puzzles.
The ‘Real Escape Game‘ that I attended this past weekend was produced by a Japanese magazine called SCRAP. From what I can tell from their videos and English language site, they’ve done several large games throughout Japan, as well as games in China and Singapore totaling over 100,000 participants. This weekend marked their North American debut.
Sadly, the elements that make me most excited about the possibilities of translating Escape the Room games from the screen to the physical world weren’t much in evidence in ‘Escape from Werewolf Village.’ I looked forward to the designers playing with and building on our expectations of how to interact with a room and the contents of that room in the same way that digital Escape games do. I imagined tropes like the paper in the trashcan or the key in the dresser drawer gaining new life when I could actually open the drawer with my own two hands. I looked forward to ‘winning’ by literally unlocking the door that would let me back out into the rest of the world.
Descriptions of previous games seemed to confirm this level of environmental interaction (and more). Here’s how they described a previous game in Osaka:
The adventure progressed with things like dead bodies falling from the ceiling, infrared beam crossings, trying to find your way in total darkness, and games where you have to shine light on the wall with a mirror.
While I had high hopes for encountering something that I’d never seen, I also wasn’t shocked by what actually greeted us when we entered the room. The scene: gallery-style room with white walls, circular tables with chairs grouped around them, pencils and envelopes on the tables, a projection screen and PA at the front. The North American premier of ‘Real Escape Game’ was a puzzle hunt.
In the Ebert tradition of reviewing the thing for what it’s trying to be, it was a very well composed puzzle hunt. The meta puzzle was engaging and well integrated. The sub-puzzles were diverse and challenged different ways of thinking. They steered clear of the busy-work and drudgery that poor puzzle design can bring. Smartphones or other extra tools weren’t useful or important. There were additional time-based elements that brought the crowd together, making it relevant that we were all in the same room instead of interacting digitally. It was clear that they’d play tested very thoroughly. Not only were there no snags or mistakes in puzzle design – the pacing and timing were also superb. Each team really felt a sense of accomplishment at multiple stages throughout the game because of the careful structuring of the meta-puzzle. This took much of the sting out of not finishing. Only one team finished – ‘escaped’ – during my session, but many teams (mine included) were just on the verge. Those last ten minutes were actually meaningful, and it felt great.
It was very well put together. I was delighted to discover during the curtain calls that the team was lead by a female puzzle designer (as puzzle hunts are so often a male-dominated field). Her extremely limited English only increased my curiosity about the differences designing puzzles for a syllabic or logographic writing system instead of an alphabetic one. None of the puzzles bore any obvious hallmarks of translation, so I left pondering the relative universality of puzzle creation and solving.
It was an elegant puzzle hunt. I think everyone from the girls in Classic Lolita getups at the table behind us, to the sweatshirt-clad MIT Mystery hunt regulars on my team enjoyed themselves. But it was a puzzle hunt contained in a room – not a translation of a screen-based Escape the Room game. Although some puzzle clue were placed around the room instead of in the envelopes on our tables, their placement had nothing to do with the logic of the room. The experience of their discovery didn’t add to the overall enjoyment of the game. They might as well have all been copied and placed on our tables alongside the other materials. The physical ‘stuff-ness’ of the room didn’t matter – didn’t figure into our ability to escape. Even the team that solved everything, didn’t conclude their game by literally escaping the room. Their escape was much more figurative and less tangible. After completing their puzzles, they sat at their table and exited the room at the same time as everyone else. The good news: I’m still convinced that I’d love to play a ‘Real Escape Game’ that translates more of the principles of it’s digital inspiration while adding elements that could only be done in the physical world.