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Real Escape Game brings its creator’s wonderment to life

by Edan Corkill

Code-like messages on the walls grabbed my attention first: “g=circle, square, triangle”; “42, 23, 16 . . . ” Then I saw the padlocked safe and the six candy dispensers — the latter for sustenance, I guessed, in case we intrepid 18 gamesters locked in this mysterious room should malinger in accomplishing the mission we had been assigned: escape. OK, so we weren’t there against our will. We were voluntary participants in a Riaru Dasshutsu Ge-mu (Real Escape Game) — a kind of real-life computer game that has gained a small but dedicated following among a segment of the 20- and 30-somethings in Japan of late.

Developed a year ago by 35-year-old Takao Kato, of Kyoto publishing company SCRAP, Real Escape Games are generally held in clubs or bars that have been filled with various hidden objects, messages and codes. Players are led inside and given 60 minutes to “decipher” the various elements and thus make good their “escape.”

In explaining his motivation for creating the games, Kato recalled that when he was was a child he would be filled with a sense of envy after reading novels and manga. “I wondered why interesting things didn’t happen in my life, like they did in books,” he said. “I thought I could create my own adventure, a story, and then invite people to be a part of it.”

The games appear to have struck a chord. Tickets for the latest, held at Tokyo’s Ikejiri Institute of Design in November, cost ¥3,000, and all 800 sold out within hours. (A single game is repeated, like a theater production, about three dozen times over a fortnight, with around 20 participants each time.)

Our game began with Kato addressing us like a teacher: “Stand! Bow! Sit!” he barked.

Next, we 18 participants were divided into four small groups and given “answer sheets” on which there were five vertical columns, each marked with a letter of the Roman alphabet. There was also a blank grid of squares at the bottom left and other mysterious markings on the right.

There were no instructions telling us exactly what we were supposed to do with this paperwork, and so it quickly became apparent that the most difficult part of a Real Escape Game is not answering questions — but identifying them in the first place.

Nevertheless, my group started out organized and confident. “Let’s write down all the clues we can find in the room,” someone said, and we fanned out and scribbled down all the messages I had noticed when we first came in, and then some. The other three groups in the room all seemed intent on similar sleuthing.

Many of the messages were in the cryptic form of “3 Down: . . . ” or “5 Across: . . . ,” suggesting a crossword puzzle. But there wasn’t a crossword in sight.

The first breakthrough came when we found a note taped to the ceiling: “A = something that only exists in the day, but gets longer in the evening.”

“Shadow,” someone said, eliciting a chorus of “Ahhs!” Not quite knowing what we were doing, we wrote “kage” (shadow) in the column marked “A” and handed the sheet to the teacher. Five minutes later it was returned along with a mysterious silver medallion.

At this point I decided to flex my problem-solving muscle by grabbing the coin and slotting it into one of the candy dispensers.

To my slight disappointment it wasn’t a sweet that dropped into my hand but a plastic bauble filled with pieces of paper cut in different shapes. These, we guessed, needed to be arranged on the grid on the answer sheet.

And so it went on: Answer one puzzle, receive a clue to another.

Real Escape Games might have been inspired by computer games, but if the conventional image of a game-addict is a geek without social skills, then this was not for them. The keys here are lateral thinking and an ability to collaborate with your fellow players; it’s half brainteaser and half corporate teamwork seminar.

The need for us all to work together became particularly apparent at the 30-minute mark. The teacher announced that a young female “transfer student,” whose name was “J. Fujita,” would join us.

Just as we began scrawling “Fujita” into the “J” column on our answer sheets, the “student” jumped up, pulled out a (cap) gun and shot the teacher.

Some people sat stunned. Others giggled. My journalistic instincts told me to run and snap photos of the crime scene.

The most perceptive of the 18 Real Escape Gamers present soon sussed that within the instructions we’d received at the outset were several clues that would allow us to not only to turn back time, but also to stop a bullet.

Five minutes later the teacher’s life had been saved and some groups were progressing rapidly toward a solution. Mine ground to a halt. We spent the last five minutes of the game reminding each other that Kato had assured us we’d be allowed to go home even if we failed to escape by ourselves.

“The game tonight was particularly difficult,” Kato admitted afterward. “Only about one in 40 people would be likely to find a solution.”

Still, it didn’t seem to detract from everyone’s enjoyment.

“I was so close to getting the answer,” said one exasperated 30-year-old from Osaka.

Nevertheless, she and others agreed that it was a great way to spend an evening. “It’s really interesting to be able to have this kind of surreal experience,” a 27-year-old woman from Tokyo said.

According to Kato, anything that blurs the line between reality and fantasy tends to be perceived negatively in Japan these days — as with otaku (obsessive) anime fans or hikikomori (stay-at-homes).

“But, the fact is that stories have the power to make the real world a better place,” he said. “By creating a game, an ordinary desk can suddenly become the hiding place of secret treasure. I think that sort of thing is fun.”

The lanky Kyoto-ite with a short-brimmed hat suddenly began to remind me of a Romantic poet. Wasn’t it William Wordsworth who said “We have within ourselves / Enough to fill the present day with joy . . . “?

Along with the game’s appeal to the powers of the imagination, Wordsworth and his freethinking ilk probably would have appreciated the symbolism of its conclusion, too.

By filling in those columns of words, we were meant to arrive at a question, then plug the answer into a hidden code in the crossword puzzle. The letters emerging from that code would have told us how to respond next time the teacher called us to attention: “Don’t stand up.”

One team got it, and for their disobedience they were promptly shown to the door, victorious and free.

The next Real Escape Game will be held at BankART Studio NYK, Yokohama, in January. See realdgame.jp for details.