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Escapist fantasies play out in Hong Kong

AFP-JIJI

Being blindfolded, handcuffed and locked in a dark room under the gaze of a surveillance camera is not everybody’s idea of fun. But a new game in high-pressure Hong Kong is playing on people’s escapist fantasies.

Freeing HK is a “real escape game” in which players are pitted against a ticking clock as they desperately try to work their way out of a room by finding clues, cracking codes and solving puzzles.

The phenomenon originated in Japan and has spread to China, Taiwan, Singapore and the U.S.

But the creators of the Hong Kong version say it has struck a nerve in the ultracrowded city of 7 million, as highly stressed students and overworked young business people look for a literal — and metaphorical — way out.

“I think Hong Kong is the most stressed city in Asia,” said Freeing HK creator Instant Wan. “There are long working hours, everybody is always talking about money, and there is little entertainment — we only have films and karaoke.

“People want to find something new and escape from their stress in the money-hungry city. Here, they come from reality into the game.”

Wan, 27, a member of the Mensa high IQ society and author, opened the game center in November along with three young business partners. Wearing an open-necked white shirt and black blazer with a silk handkerchief, he fits the role of a charismatic games master.

The center is on the fourth floor of an anonymous tower block in the heart of Mongkok, one of the most populated areas on Earth — an appropriate location for people looking for a portal out of the city’s frenetic hustle and bustle.

For 128 Hong Kong dollars ($16.50) each, players in small teams can take on one of three rooms — “Prison Break,” “Lost,” or “Dr. Alpha” — where they face scenarios that include being handcuffed to their teammate or having to negotiate a Mission Impossible-style laser maze.

Only about 1 in 5 successfully find their way out within the 45-minute time limit, pressured by the ticking of the clock and looping piano music drifting through the speakers.

Asked what she was trying to escape, Amy Chow, 21, a university student, sighed: “Oh, study, work, Hong Kong’s stressful life. We need to spend a lot of time studying and working, so today is a very happy chance to do something different, something challenging and exciting.”

High-school student Michael Wong, 17, said he came straight from his end-of-term exams.

“Hong Kong is a very busy city and we all have to rush our lives,” he said. “We just didn’t have the time to rest, but coming here to live a life we may never know, being trapped in a small room, it’s an extraordinary experience.”

Freeing HK takes inspiration from “room escape games” that can be played on the Internet, and also has similarities to films such as “Cube” and “The Game” — but without the risk of a painful death.

In less than three months, 5,000 people, mostly between the ages of 15-35, have already taken up the challenge, drawn to the chance for a more intense, interactive experience. And Wan hopes the phenomenon of real escape games will itself soon be impossible to escape in Hong Kong, as more and more people trapped in frantic lifestyles choose to get locked up for a bit of adventure.