Game on! Japan’s live-action games offer players a fleeting escape from reality

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

A group of surly guards inspect a line of inmates on death row standing in front of a prison.

One by one, the inmates are led inside and locked inside their cells as they await their execution.

“You better not try to escape,” the warden growls as he makes his final inspection.

And then, without warning, the lights go out, giving the inmates a small window of opportunity to do just that. They have 10 minutes to solve a series of puzzles that will enable them to find a key to their cell.

It’s game on.

“Escape from the Prison” is an alternate reality game at Tokyo Mystery Circus, an entertainment facility that opened in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district last month.

Various clues on how to escape are strategically hidden inside each cell, and the participants in the game frantically turn their enclosures upside-down as the minutes tick by. They won’t be able to escape unless they find all of them.

Jail break: A
Jail break: A ‘warden’ takes part in an alternate reality game at Tokyo Mystery Circus. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

From time to time, the guards walk by and drop a few hints along the way.

The participants must solve all of the puzzles hidden in the cell in order to succeed in their escape attempt. Failure to do so leaves their fate in the warden’s hands …

A real experience

Alternate reality games have been gaining popularity in Japan in recent years.

Event management company Scrap Corp. operates 15 live-action game facilities in Japan, including Tokyo Mystery Circus, and seven facilities overseas in locations such as New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. Some games are available in English.

“We create stories in which each person is the lead character,” explains Saori Kida, general manager of Tokyo Mystery Circus. “The players take action and the stories evolve depending on the decisions that are made. They are games you can really experience.”

The concept was first created in 2007 after a college student who had been taking part in a brainstorming session with Scrap employees revealed how she enjoyed playing a digital escape game.

Members of the session then discussed how fun it would be to play the game in real life — and that’s exactly what Scrap decided to do. The company rented an event space in Kyoto and hosted its first live-action escape game on July 7, 2007.

From there, Scrap began to organize various alternate reality game-based events in Japan, hosting as many as 1,000 participants at the same time in venues such as Tokyo Dome and Yomiuriland amusement park. The company established more permanent facilities after deciding to try and give its customers a deeper and more interesting interactive experience.

“The real nature of the situation is what makes these games fun,” Kida says. “Naturally, we use technology but we also want to connect games with people’s daily lives. We want participants to experience the thrill of these games in a physical space.”

Kida is a creator of the stories that lie at the heart of each alternate reality game. Her storylines all start from what she knows, whether it is her experience, real-life emotions or fantasy.

For example, she once thought back to her first love and wondered if she could use that as inspiration for a game.

“And, you know what, we did,” she says with a smile. “The game was called ‘Escape from a Crush’ and started with a young woman dropping her train pass.”

Natural instinct

Akira Baba
Akira Baba | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Akira Baba, a former economic history professor at the University of Tokyo, says alternate reality games don’t rely heavily on digital technology and place more importance on the physical world. As these games require participants to make use of physical and mental skills, Baba says survival games could also be considered part of the genre.

Baba has been researching games since around 2000. He believes the very definition of reality has changed in recent years with advances in technology such as virtual reality and augmented reality.

“There has been a shift in Japan away from digital games to alternate reality games,” Baba says. “As a result, the games are becoming more diverse and the choices we now have are making our entertainment lives richer.”

Baba says alternate reality games in Japan involve both physical strength and a measure of intelligence. What’s more, most alternate reality games are played in groups with friends or strangers.

“The best part of playing games, whether they be digital or live-action, is the sense of accomplishment you feel when you finish,” Baba says. “And the great thing about these alternate reality games is that you are solving them with other people who are right there with you. Such games have changed the process of how you gain that sense of accomplishment.”

In a book titled “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture,” the late Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote in 1938 that “play” is a central element of culture.

Baba goes so far as to suggest that playing games is a natural instinct.

Currently a board member of the Japan e-Sports Association, Baba believes that games are also a fundamental part of people’s competitive streak.

“Speaking in a positive light, people are never satisfied with their current ability and long to improve,” he says. “That, I believe, is the origin of games. With alternate reality games, you can see immediate improvements because every problem you solve is accumulated as knowledge.”

Inspyre Manager Yoshiya Kubo
Inspyre Manager Yoshiya Kubo | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Entering another world

In Tokyo alone, a wide variety of alternate reality games exist.

A couple of minutes’ walk from Tokyo Mystery Circus is Inspyre, an alternate reality game facility run by Humax Entertainment.

This game requires participants to play the role of secret service agents in an intelligence organization who are tasked with trying to stop the evil empire of Black-Max from taking over the world.

Each group of agents is given a small tablet that contains some of the information required to complete the mission. The agents are led into a small room to receive their final instructions.

“We’ve sacrificed many agents to get this information, so failure is not an option,” Inspyre Commander Grant warns.

Upon receiving this command, a shutter opens and the agents find themselves in Black-Max’s secret base, an abandoned warehouse. Using the tablet and clues scattered around the facility, participants have 10 minutes to complete their mission and escape the hideout in one piece. The tablets and screens can display information in Chinese and English.

Yoshiya Kubo, manager of Inspyre, says participants can feel as if they’ve entered another world as soon as they enter the facility.

“We put a lot of effort into the detail when creating this setting, so some people may have feelings of fear or unease upon entering,” Kubo says.

Established in March 2016, Inspyre is laid out over one floor. Nevertheless, Kubo says there are indefinite ways to complete a mission so the game can be played repeatedly.

Black-Max agents dressed in military uniforms patrol the interior, believing participants to be members of the same organization. Experienced participants can even use this knowledge as a tactic to extract information.

Kubo says Black-Max agents are often professional actors and voice actors who from time to time offer ideas on the production of the games.

“The cast helps make alternate reality an extraordinary experience,” Kubo says. “They’re there to provide a service to our customers through communication inside the unique game world.”

In addition to the live-action material, Inspyre also features Black-Max-related mystery games, board games and survival games using infrared guns. There is also a restaurant area in which participants can take a break and enjoy food and drinks.

“I believe these games are a tool for people-to-people communication,” Kubo says. “You can have fun playing digital games by yourself but in alternate reality games, you can share the excitement you feel with other people. It’s about connecting with others.”

K&K Entertainment founder William Ding demonstrates how to avoid lasers at Super Escape Laser Trap.
K&K Entertainment founder William Ding demonstrates how to avoid lasers at Super Escape Laser Trap. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Strategic approach

Near Harajuku Station, right at the entrance to Takeshita-dori, is Super Escape Laser Trap, an amusement center that opened in January 2016.

Playing a game called “Escape from the Museum,” participants are tasked with sneaking into a museum after hours and stealing a diamond. The diamond is guarded by a laser security system that would look at home on film sets such as “Mission: Impossible.”

Green or red sensors are displayed at various angles and participants must successfully navigate the lasers without disrupting the stream.

“The room is protected by a security system called a laser trap,” warns William Ding, one of the founders of K&K Entertainment Co., the company that runs the facility. “It will react to anything from your hair to your clothes, so please be careful.”

It’s not just the lasers that participants need to navigate. They also need to solve puzzles along the way and escape the facility within 30 minutes. Information is available in English and Japanese.

“It takes a lot of control, concentration and flexibility,” Ding says. “It’s not just your physical ability but you need to have a flexible brain to solve the puzzles.”

For those who would prefer to focus on brushing up their contortion skills, Super Escape Laser Trap offers a room devoted to avoiding lasers.

However, Ding says there’s much more to it than simply that.

“(But) this game’s not just simply about dodging lasers,” Ding says. “When participants enter the room, they need to be strategic and think about the route they need to take to get to the goal. It’s like sports. You can play the game many times and keep improving, and the course will be different each time.”

Photographs of groups who have played Escape Hunt Tokyo hang on a wall in the facility
Photographs of groups who have played Escape Hunt Tokyo hang on a wall in the facility’s lobby. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Team-building exercise

Escape Hunt Tokyo offers three puzzle-solving games based on different themes that can all be played in both English and Japanese.

Located in Asakusa, the venue insists that participants put all of their belongings in a locker. They are then handed some paper and a pencil and asked to find their way out by solving various puzzles.

Manager Dennis Oliver says Escape Hunt Tokyo makes a point of avoiding the use of technology in its games.

“For us, it is very important to put your cellphone away, put everything away, and come and really focus on something unusual and have a really unusual experience,” Oliver says, adding that Escape Hunt Tokyo is influenced by Sherlock Holmes.

The three games are called “Zen,” “Samurai Espionage” and “Runaway Bride.” Participants are led into a small room by a gamemaster who gives a brief explanation of the mission. Working in groups consisting of two to five members, participants have 60 minutes to solve the puzzles.

Groups must work together to find clues and understand their meaning. Sometimes the clues are staring them in the face; at other times, they are carefully hidden. And if a group is completely stuck, there is a button they can press to receive a hint from the gamemaster.

Escape Hunt Tokyo Manager Dennis Oliver wants customers to put their cellphones away when visiting his facility.
Escape Hunt Tokyo Manager Dennis Oliver wants customers to put their cellphones away when visiting his facility. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

“There is a history of mysteries and puzzles and clues, everything from Agatha Christie to anything else. People have imagined what if you were in the middle of a puzzle or a storyline,” Oliver says. “I think by calling it an escape game, it just gives it a more of a modern twist rather than something like treasure hunt.”

Escape Hunt Tokyo allows people to solve puzzles in groups, not with strangers. The facility also has multiple identical rooms, allowing a large group to be split up so they can play against each other.

“The team-building and team-bonding here is very much a part of what we do,” Oliver says.

In fact, Escape Hunt Tokyo has a related company called Invite Japan that offers companies team-building exercises for their staff.

“Team-building is a concept that is pretty common around the world but our experience is that in Japan, team-building is drinking parties or karaoke,” Oliver says. “There are certainly traditions of doing things together but nothing where you are really interacting with each other. We want companies and teams to come in here and play the games and have a different interaction with each other.”

The Asakusa facility can accommodate up to 30 people for the team-building projects but Invite Japan has also taken 100 company employees outdoors, using the whole Asakusa district as a backdrop for solving puzzles. The company used various landmarks and icons in the area as clues that eventually led everyone to a prominent local site.

“Asakusa and Tokyo are full of things … full of all kind of interesting little statues, temples and details, and I personally love discovering that kind of stuff — creating the whole puzzle thing was about that,” Oliver says. “It was really, really fun.”

Saori Kida, general manager of Tokyo Mystery Circus
Saori Kida, general manager of Tokyo Mystery Circus | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Appearance and reality

Back in Shinjuku at Tokyo Mystery Circus is a game called “Kabukicho Tantei Sebun” (“Kabukicho Detective Seven”), which also takes participants outside of the facility and onto the streets of Kabukicho. In this game, participants take on the role of a private detective who is tasked with solving one of six seedy crimes.

Kida says it’s difficult to create games such as this in the middle of a city like Tokyo because the buildings and companies that operate in them are constantly changing. Scrap employees had to walk all around Kabukicho to find vacant rooms that could be used as a location in the game, as well as identify companies that would let them use their outlets as a destination.

“Kabukicho Detective Seven” isn’t suitable for children, Kida says, and only people aged 18 and older are allowed to participate because some of the locations where the detective needs to investigate are real clubs. The game tries to encourage participants to go deep into Kabukicho and see places they would normally avoid.

“The image of Kabukicho itself is full of drama and it is easy to imagine a murder or a love affair taking place there. It’s a true mixture of daily life and the extraordinary,” Kida says. “Through this game, we have turned Kabukicho into a theme park and hope to give participants the opportunity to really get to know the area and enjoy it in their daily lives.”

An employee watches CCTV footage at Inspyre in Shinjuku.
An employee watches CCTV footage at Inspyre in Shinjuku. | YOSHIAKI MIURA