Find the Way Out: Real-Life Escape Adventures

Cover-story-03In two dimly lit cells standing side by side, you and your companions are locked behind bars. There is nothing else except for black walls and three locked treasure boxes sitting on a bench. There must be clues in the boxes, but where to get the passwords to open the locks? And first of all, how to get out of this cell? Where is the key?

After struggling inside of “The Lost Road” escape game for an hour, 19-year-old Mingliang and 14-year-old Lin finally chose to give up.

This is one of the real-life scenes, “Imprisoned in the Night,” offered by one of the real escape games clubs in Dongguan. Players pay to lock themselves in one or a few sealed rooms, and try to break free by cracking a series of puzzles and codes. It’s an interactive and thought-provoking game. Young people find it very exciting and challenging. The game has swept throughout Japan, Hong Kong and Mainland China, now sprouting up vigorously in Dongguan.

Most of the players are high school and college students, white collar workers and other young people under 30-years-old. Although the game is likely to be mistaken at first for a haunted house, especially for young high school students, it has nothing to do with horror. Instead, the environment creates pressure and mystery, adding challenges to playing a game. But not all people find it appealing and worthy of return.

After struggling inside of “The Lost Road” escape game for an hour, 19-year-old Mingliang and 14-year-old Lin finally chose to give up. “We got the password but couldn’t find the door,” they complained to the owner. They had only finished about 20 percent of the game, after asking for half a dozen tips during the game.

Lin was clearly frustrated by his second attempt and second failure, and he wasn’t sure if he would come back again considering the game might be above his competence level. The first time, Lin and ten partners didn’t even reach the answer to the first puzzle. “They were all so scared and sitting there doing nothing,” Lin recalled. “I was the only one who acted.”

Compared to Lin, Mingliang’s attitude was much more positive although this was the first time he played. “I was not careful enough, lacking this kind of experience. Sometimes we can’t see things from a single point of view, they are different when looking from nearby or far away,” summarized Mingliang. “I’ll definitely come back again.”

The skills involved to play this game range from logic, observation, imagination and teamwork. But certain knowledge of chemistry, physics, math, history and international culture goes a long way, so does physical balance or flexibility because you never know whether the next step requires crawling along a secret tunnel, a tight exhaust pipe or navigating through a Mission Impossible style laser maze consisting of red beams and tight fits.

The HERE!Team and some guests meet the challenges and enjoy the space at Pioneer Super Room Escape.

The HERE!Team and some guests meet the challenges and enjoy the space at Pioneer Super Room Escape.

Some tricks are very simple once revealed. It is a matter of calm observation under circumstances of stress and pressure. For example, in the “Imprisoned in the Night” mentioned above, only four out of ten gamers stretch out their arms and check the walls they don’t see. The keys are hung on the wall between the two cells. Sometimes three sets of numbers with one missing in each set may look like a puzzle that could be solved by a common equation. But in fact they are just sequential numbers taken from a dart board which hangs on the wall the whole time.

The games are designed around a wide range of themes and scenarios, like a science laboratory, prison, hospital or murder scene, some are inspired from thriller films such as Inception. But sometimes they are nothing more than just a name, without relevance to the clues, interior design or decoration.

The game became popular world-wide since the Japanese company Scrap Entertainment Inc. established the first one in Kyoto in 2008, although similar online games were created earlier by another company, Takagism Inc. The first batch of game clubs was established and well received in Shanghai and Beijing since 2011. The trend finally took roots in Dongguan in 2013, dozens of real escape game scenes sprouted around the city successively. Many of them started before or during the summer of last year and took advantage of the summer vocation, attracting thousands of challenge-seeking students. The new experience provides a different kind of entertainment from the regular KTV or movies, providing challenges, excitement and teamwork building.

X-File Real-Life Room Escape

Sensing the bright future of the industry, small business creator Wu Zhicheng opened his club with a partner at the beginning of August 2013. Located in Dongcheng’s Kingdom Commercial Center, Wu turned an office into three-scene real escape games called, “Digital Waltz,” “Escape From The Cabin” and “The Ultimate Secret.”

Having studied communication technology in college, he described himself as knowing “a little bit of everything.” He and his partner actually designed the puzzles and arranged all the decorations by themselves. “The clues and puzzles are very easy to copy. I played in several places in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. I took their advantages, improved what they missed and created our own games,” Wu said.
Wu confessed that updating the scenes are almost like investing in a brand-new club. To entice players to return, the ideal way is to change the theme once every four to six months. But so far, few of the clubs in Dongguan or other cities are willing to invest in the constant renovations. Opened for nearly half a year so far, Wu compromised by updating only some puzzles and replaced some small, easily movable objects without changing the major theme, structure and furniture.

Wu confessed that updating the scenes are almost like investing in a brand-new club.

A 24-year-old white collar worker named Jean has played in the X-File three times with different companions. “I like it to make me think, and everything is unknown. You will find it very exciting and challenging,” she said. “I also enjoy the feeling of teamwork. Every one gives an idea, which will eventually lead to a solution.”

Pioneer Super Room Escape

Branding to be the biggest in Dongguan, the Pioneer Super Room Escape hosts four themes with 500 sq. meters of area on Hongfu Road, right across from Wal-Mart, and accommodates about 40 players at a same time. Owner/Operator Cheng Yafeng from Jiangxi Province opened the shop in August 2013, and used the designs provided by a room escape club in Shanghai. That place is famed for hosting the leading real escape game companies.

The Pioneer has a relatively big reception area with a large poster on the wall for Weibo/Wechat lovers to take photos with, and also sells an assortment of soft drinks and offers card games for waiting players.

As a businessman, Cheng sees a bright future for the games in Dongguan. “This is so much more exciting than the board games before and very suitable for a team,” said Cheng. “It still has lots of potential in China. The Japanese has invented the room escape reality TV show, which is gaining big success. It fits all the elements of what young people want—excitement, teamwork, showing off and challenge.”

This is so much more exciting than the board games before and very suitable for a team,”
said Cheng.

Two players test a theory by entering digits into one of the many combination locks.

Two players test a theory by entering digits into one of the many combination locks.

In the club’s biggest scene, taking up four rooms, “Prison Escape” requires other players to first designate and release a trapped captain from a cell, figure out a password to the second room, crack half a dozen puzzles and find the tunnel to the third room where more mysteries await. And the last task involves someone with a flexible physique to crawl under a network constituted by red laser beams that get lower and lower.

Although the real experiences that Dongguan clubs offer are more exciting than the online games, they are mostly limited to puzzles related to numbers (because numbers are required to open the password locks) and small objects such as paintings to provide clues. “In Guangzhou, their objects are much more lifelike. They have more space and bigger facilities such as a simulated air-raid shelter or a rope bridge with water below.”

MJ Super Real Escape Game

Self described as being a different experience from any other in Dongguan, the games at this club were designed by a real escape game developer in Hong Kong. It is hidden in the once prosperous Garden Road area of Guancheng on the second floor of a side street. “The other games just go from one door to another without any creativity,” said Owner/Operator Xiong Chiliang. “We have secret tunnels, a slide and an exhaust pipe to get passed, creating a different way to escape.”

For example, one of the three scenes in MJ, “Imprisoned in the Night” is started in two side-by-side cells separated with a wall. All gamers are in. After getting themselves out from the prison, they will crawl up through the tight exhaust pipe, slide themselves down to another room, crack half a dozen mysteries, navigate themselves through a laser maze, open a door to the simulated warden’s office, solve the last computer programming puzzles, and finally finish the adventurous getaway.

Though not necessarily quickly, about 70 percent of players successfully escape the room in Pioneer, most of them are college students.

One door of another scene “The Lost Road” requires not only a password, but a sword to be thrust open, which according to Xiong, will more or less increase the team’s sense of accomplishment.

“There are only 30 percent of players who can get themselves out within the allotted time,” said Xiong. Instead of revealing all the answers when time is up like X-File and Pioneer do, Xiong prefers to only tell the current unsolved riddle, creating another opportunity for gamers to play the same theme next time. Though not necessarily quickly, about 70 percent of players successfully escape the room in Pioneer, most of them are college students.

A large group of gamers dawn masks to take a celebratory photo at MJ Super.

A large group of gamers dawn masks to take a celebratory photo at MJ Super.

By sharing and tagging gamers’ photos on Weibo, MJ captures attention from the young crowd. In many cases, players actively make posts like “OK, I’m going to challenge the escape room game. If you don’t see me after one hour, come save me.”

At the same time, Xiong also encourages the after-game sharing among the players, directing them to improve. “We encourage them to share experiences after the game by asking who contributed the most or to find out the biggest misstep,” said Xiong. “We hope the game becomes meaningful and challenging to everyone. If they do well in the sharing part, the game will be much more attractive to them.”

MJ is associated with a Snooker Club on the same floor. Triggered by both of them serving the same group of customers, MJ aims to provide a new way of entertainment to the same people. “This game is very trendy. It exercises your mind in a way that daily life and education can’t. It attracts college students or, especially, white-collared workers who also find it a good way to build teamwork,” said Xiong.

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