You’re locked in a room with three friends, and zombies are kicking their way in. The clock is ticking as you crack your heads over a series of puzzles that will allow you to exit the room safely, and away from the clutches of the Undead. Is the doll a clue or just a prop? What’s the significance of the writing on the wall? Before you know it, an ominous voice comes over the intercom, “You have 10 minutes left”, setting off shrieks and a renewed frenzy to crack the secrets of the room.
If you enjoy puzzles, teamwork and working under pressure, then hop over to one of the real-life escape rooms popping up in cities from Kuala Lumpur to Brisbane and Los Angeles.
Hugely popular in China and Hungary, it is said that these rooms originated in Japan as the brainchild of Takao Kato, an event planner and magazine publisher.
In Kuala Lumpur, this new game is increasingly taking root with more venues cropping up to tickle the imagination and the brain. One of them, Escape Room (escaperoom.com), is now an international franchise with outlets nationwide and around the region, including Australia, Thailand and Vietnam, and as far flung as Romania and the UK.
Founders Jason Leung, Patrick Ong and Victor Lo first experienced playing a real-life escape room game in Hong Kong. “We were so blown away and inspired by the game that we decided that we just had to share this with the rest of the world. And so here we are in Malaysia,” says Victor.
While most venues have a clutch of themed rooms, Escape Room has 26 themes spread out across its outlets, with detailed back stories to heighten the gaming experience. With these adventures, you could be seeking to escape a locked room of a haunted house, the cell of a Vampire King or the accursed ship of a notorious pirate. “Our latest theme, Space Voyager – Mission To The Moon, is one of our most sophisticated rooms to date, with its futuristic essence carved into the details of the room,” Victor says.
When it was first launched, the games were designed by Jason and Victor; they now have a team of experienced designers on board to work on their ever expanding portfolio of themes. “Each challenge must have a teamwork aspect to it and it has to be smart enough to make you want to slap your forehead when you finally figure it out,” says Victor. “We always try to push the envelope of conventional Escape games by adding something that gives the room a memorable factor.”
The beauty of real-life escape rooms is that each and every room is different, whether in the puzzles or the quality of the set-up. Some rooms are simply furnished with only pen and paper for tools. Some are dressed up according to theme, such as a Pharaoh's tomb, and a few employ gadgets.
Breakout (breakout.com.my), located in Avenue K and Nu Sentral in Kuala Lumpur, employs a fantasy element to its games by introducing role playing. Participants assign themselves different roles, including a Light Bringer to carry a torch light and an Oracle, who gets to see the future by briefly going through a photo album of essentials in the game room.
The games are created by Johnny Ong, Breakout's Director of Creative and Operation, as well as an electronics engineer and a magician. The themes at Breakout are imaginative. In one room, participants are crew members torn between leaving months of research in Mars or facing possible human extinction on Earth. In Testament of Tesla, your mission is to bring light to the world while working in the dark as in pre-Nikola Tesla days.
“The puzzles are designed according to the storyline of the themed rooms. To make the games more rewarding, the outcome of solving the puzzles comes with a 'wow' effect for the participants, such as crawling into a tunnel or opening a trap door in a secret wall,” says Johnny.
At Lockdown (lockdown.sg), a Singaporean company with branches in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, games are firmly entrenched in real-life events. “We do not have fantasy themes. Every game is based on an incident that you usually read about in the newspaper. We try to make the puzzles fused together with everyday items, so it gets the players excited when they realise how they can link these items together to solve a puzzle,” says Jonathan Ye, the Director of Lockdown.
Besides individuals and groups of friends, Lockdown has hosted birthday parties and corporate team-building events for Fortune 500 companies. Jonathan attributes the surge in popularity of these games to their human element. “The current social media is causing us to lose that physical touch with each other, so such a game is a great activity and ice-breaker,” he enthuses.
Win or lose, it is the play and the camaraderie that defines real-life escape room games. To get the most of your gaming experience, Johnny of Breakout advises: “Don't get too serious about winning the game. Enjoy the process of solving the puzzle and the design of every single thing in the theme room.”