On a sweltering afternoon in mid-July, seven strangers and I paid to get locked in a room in the middle of a Brooklyn warehouse. If we didn’t manage to unlock the door based on an elaborate set of clues left scattered throughout the space within a 60-minute time limit, we would all vanish into a spatiotemporal distortion and disappear forever.
Honestly, it was a bit of a blur of puzzles, of the frantic frisking of furniture, of exploration. The eight of us whipped each other into an urgency befitting the stakes: We were, in a figurative and literal sense, trapped behind a locked door, trying to discover how to get the key. “Alright, what are we supposed to do now?” I remember one of my teammates saying. It was just a game — so why was my heart pounding?
The break-out attempt was actually part of a popular series of interactive events called the Real Escape Game, first developed by the Japanese company SCRAP in Kyoto in 2007. Each Real Escape Game location runs a concurrent set of themed scenarios in which a team uses its collective knowledge to figure out increasingly difficult puzzles and brain teasers inside a room. The goal: Unlock the door and escape. Think of it as somewhere between a real-world role-playing game and a slightly less-serial-killer-y version of Saw. The company expanded from its initial Japanese location to San Francisco in 2012, and have now brought the events to New York, part of a burgeoning scene that feels like IRL video games.
The man behind the American version of the games is Kazu Iwata, the CEO of each of SCRAP’s U.S. locations and the principal game designer behind each room. When I spoke to him at the Brooklyn location, the walls were lined with hundreds of posters from all of the game themes that have been run throughout the world since the company’s inception like the Escape from the Cursed Forest, Escape from the Werewolf Village, and more.
The New York branch has two games right now: The Mysterious Room, in which a group pores through cryptic codes that will spring them from a locked apartment building; and the Time Travel Lab, the game I played, in which players must puzzle their way out of an empty laboratory where a group of missing scientists studied the plausibility of time travel.
Each game starts from the same stupidly simple idea. “People are locked in a room and they have to get out,” Kazu said flatly. From that basic premise, his team of puzzle makers giddily branch out, cramming the room with riddles and immersive logic problems. “We come up with a theme and a title first,” Kazu explained. “We make an outline and then add the details, but then we put in a final twist.”
When they think they’ve come up with a sufficient theme for the game and puzzles that is challenging enough to stump even the most ardent gumshoe, they unleash it on themselves. “We have tests for our staff first, usually two times,” Kazu told me. Then, they tinker, and go through a beta round of three or four tests before opening the rooms to the public.
But things don’t always stay the same, and the rooms are constantly changing. “We always try to improve the puzzles,” Kazu said, “and we use some similar small puzzles for different games. But the big ideas are usually all unique, all different.”
The next theme Kazu and his team are working on involves escaping from an evil house filled with random toys. “I just wanted to make a toy house themed game because we haven’t seen it,” he said.
He envisions at least three to four more original games in the Brooklyn location by next year. But the expansion isn’t just because the Real Escape Games have been a constant hit. “Twenty-five teams have already escaped the Time Travel Lab in San Francisco, which is around a 20 percent success rate,” he said. “The number is a little bit higher than our past games, but I don’t think it’s too high.” Players have been returning to take on the challenge again. “Many of our fans came back,” he said. “They got familiar with the game.”
But that familiarity hasn’t caught on in New York just yet. When we stepped into the Time Travel Lab, risking almost certain time-paradox-related death, the odds were stacked against the team. Zero out of 18 teams that previously participated had succeeded. Since that time, only one New York team escaped. They had managed to conquer space and time.
When the door locked behind us and the clock started ticking, what we saw was a spare, unforgiving room designed to not give up its secrets easily. We eight scattered to comb the Ikea-sourced tables in the center and corner of the room, and the beakers and scientific instruments laid out across them. There was a chalkboard with what looked like a crossword puzzle drawn onto it, cryptic phrases scribbled in red ink in nooks and crannies, broken electronics parts in cabinets, binders with scribbled notations that offered more questions than answers, and clocks stuck at the same time at the tops of the walls. It was a formidable challenge, and one that didn’t offer quick solutions.
“Sometimes there’s a really great monitor that will pull people together,” explained Kazu. “People just meet in the game and they manage to work together. Sometimes they escape, sometimes they don’t. It really depends.”
You feel strange at first, jumping into the fire with people you barely know, but you’re all trying to get to the same outcome. Shyness falls away. As you get closer and closer to what you think is the escape, the tension gives way to an esprit de corps. Most of the team members I asked said they actually expected to escape from the get-go. “I definitely got overtaken by a bad case of hubris,” one said. “Of course we’d be the first to get out! Never underestimate New Yorkers.”
But it wasn’t our day. We frantically pulled together the clues, maybe did a little bit of time traveling ourselves, and managed to put full faith in the intelligence of random people, the buzzer rang and we became unstuck in time. Our mark was added to the New York tally, zero out of 19 tries.
One of my team members told me he thought we were on the right track. “The key was to focus on what matters,” he said, “less raw intelligence or processing and more being able to differentiate what matters most and why, and allocate the team’s collective creative power accordingly.”
Kazu was quick to point out that — like all losers have to hear at some point — winning isn’t everything, and that not escaping the room is still an essential part of the game. “Yes, you’ll get more satisfaction when you solve the tough puzzles,” he said, “but if the puzzle gives you an a-ha moment, even if you didn’t solve it, then you will have a more enjoyable time anyway. We’re creating tough puzzles but at the same time we want to motivate people, and that’s an important part of the job.”
And that bit is true. Losing actually made me want to jump into the next room with this new crew that was assembled and try our hand at another game. Call it sentimental, but in the Real Escape Game teamwork works. It’s a tendency that Kazu says drives its entire concept. “There are many opportunities for you to play games by yourself. You can play this game only once in your life, but people wanted to share those kinds of rare opportunities, adventure experiences, and challenges,” he said. “People want to live an experience like that.” I agree with Kazu. If I’m going to pay to get locked in a room, I’m OK with him having the key.