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."