Monday, 19 August 2013

Beat the clock, and bond

Escape artists: Impressed with their experience with the Real Escape Game in Hong Kong, Victor Lo (left) and Jason Leung have brought their own version to Malaysia. That’s the Pharoh’s Room they’re sitting, which involves a game set in ancient Egypt. — Photos by SAMUEL ONG/The Star

Escape artists: Impressed with their experience with the Real Escape Game in Hong Kong, Victor Lo (left) and Jason Leung have brought their own version to Malaysia. That’s the Pharoh’s Room they’re sitting, which involves a game set in ancient Egypt. — Photos by SAMUEL ONG/The Star

Use your brains, think outside the box, work together and you might be able to avoid the walk of shame at the end of it all.

IMAGINE this: You’re thrown into prison with five other people. You’ve got exactly 45 minutes to escape, according to the red glow of a digital clock counting down to the moment of reckoning – and you’re all handcuffed to each other. Do you, a) scream your head off and brace yourself for the worst; b) admit defeat and brace yourself for the worst; c) calmly (okay, maybe not so calmly) search for clues?

As entertaining as A and B sound, most people go for C. They are, after all, voluntary captives in the Escape Room, an interactive game that blurs the line between fantasy and reality by putting its players in a race against time to identify and solve a series of puzzles. Their mission, should they choose to accept it, is to escape.

This heart-thumping, mind-boggling form of entertainment was originally developed in 2007 by 35-year-old Japanese Takao Kato, of Kyoto publishing company SCRAP.

LEAD PIX: Get out if you can: Welcome to the Escape Room, an interactive game that blurs the line between fantasy and reality. -- The Escape Room
Escape Room, an interactive game that blurs the line between fantasy and reality. — The Escape Room

“As a kid, I always wanted to ‘live in the story,’ and survive the adventure, solve the mystery, and be a hero like the characters in books I loved as a child. Riaru Dasshutsu Ge-mu (Real Escape Game) is an opportunity to make these dreams come true,” he once said in an interview.

The games appear to have struck a chord among the Japanese and have even made their way overseas, with tens of thousands of players in China, Singapore and San Francisco taking part.

So impressed were they with their own experience with the Real Escape Game in Hong Kong that Jason Leung and Victor Lo – two enterprising young Hongkies and self-professed game enthusiasts in their early 30s – have started a spin-off version in Malaysia. Leung is half Malaysian, and his knowledge of this country and its people has been an indispensable asset to the duo’s first business venture together.

Located on the second floor in e@Curve in Mutiara Damansara, Selangor, the Escape Room opened last month and features an unassuming exterior apart from the “Escape” signage that graces its entrance. But one would immediately realise just by looking at the hordes of gleeful, squinty-eyed (from the lasers – more on that later) visitors trudging out that this is no ordinary hangout spot.

PLACE PIX 2b + 2c + 2d + 2e IN SEQUENCE, CLOSE TOGETHER: In order to escape, one must first play super sleuth.
In order to escape, one must first play super sleuth.

Before starting on a game, participants are asked to pick from six different themed rooms with varying levels of difficulty. The founders themselves have supervised the design of each room from start to finish, taking extreme pains to ensure that everything – especially the props and puzzles – fits in with the rooms’ respective themes.

“To get ideas, we spoke to our friends and thought of movies we’d seen and liked. Then we brainstormed to see which would work and which wouldn’t. All in all, each room took us three to four months to complete,” says Lo, the chattier of the two.

Achieving the right atmosphere for each room has proved challenging for these former finance whizzes (Leung was a financial analyst while Lo was a hedge fund accountant), but their hard work has apparently paid off. The Prison Break room – which is, incidentally, inspired by the TV drama of the same name – looks like an actual prison cell, complete with a narrow bed, random scribblings on the wall and, yes, rats and roaches that seem to spring out at you when you least suspect it.

If you think this is creepy, wait till you check out The Slaughterhouse (not yet open at the time of writing). Lo says their latest room is inspired by “one of Saw’s most memorable scenes whereby two men are handcuffed to each other in the bathroom”, except his version “is a lot more gory.” Think blood and body parts – lots of it.

PLACE PIX 2b + 2c + 2d + 2e IN SEQUENCE, CLOSE TOGETHER:  Losers will have their pictures taken to be displayed on the Wall of Shame. Which is, strangely, kinda of fun, too!
Losers will have their pictures taken to be displayed on the Wall of Shame. Which is, strangely, kinda fun, too!

(For those who might not be au fait with the movie, the Saw franchise is renowned for putting its characters into seemingly unescapable situations with very gruesome ends for those who don’t make the right moves.)

The other four rooms are no less inventive. The Mummy – Tomb of The Ancient Pharaoh is, of course, based on the movie The Mummy and set in ancient Egypt, while The Abandoned Factory, which opened only two weeks ago, takes place in ... you guessed it, an abandoned factory. The Mysterious Room – filled with lasers that one has to dodge – is almost Mission Impossible-like in its theme, and the game’s biggest room, The Pirate Ship, looks so convincing that one almost expects Captain Jack Sparrow to hop onboard any minute.

It is this painstaking attention to detail that sets the Malaysian Escape Room apart from its Hong Kong counterpart.

“We focus a lot more on decor and storyline because only then can players fully immerse themselves in the game,” Lo explains.

The Pirate Ship - The Curse of The Adventure Galley game takes place on, yes, a pirate ship -- you almost expect Jack Sparrow to pop out at some point. -- The Escape Room
The Pirate Ship: The Curse Of The Adventure Galley game takes place on, yes, a pirate ship ... you almost expect Captain Jack Sparrow to pop out at some point. — The Escape Room

Squeamish types, however, need not worry – not one person has ever freaked out and called it quits halfway through a game ... yet. “We don’t rely on human actors; no one will be jumping out of the shadows to scare you,” he says.

The duo has also tweaked parts of the game to adapt it to Malaysian tastes. “Players are required to use more of their brains in order to solve the puzzles and riddles in Hong Kong. However, we’ve realised that Malaysians prefer physical challenges to mental ones. As such, we’ve thrown in a few interactive elements so that players can scramble around and get their hands dirty, so to speak” says Lo.

My own experience with Prison Break was exhilarating, to say the least. It began the moment Lo whipped out six pairs of handcuffs and proceeded to lock my friends and me behind bars. Our first task, then, was to look for a single key that would set us free (from each other, not the room). We calmly began our search – under the bed, behind a mirror, on the walls – giggling as we went. Thanks to my journalistic instincts, I found it! And in less than five minutes!

Unfortunately, the smugness I felt from this minor triumph was short-lived: it was time to move on to the next clue. We needed to find the key that would let us into the warden’s room, where the final set of keys to our freedom lay hidden from view, and I had no idea where that was. That was the gist of the game: answer one puzzle, receive a clue to another.

The poster for the Slaughterhouse room, which promises to be a creepy affair once it's opened to the public. -- The escape Room
The poster for the Slaughterhouse room, which promises to be a creepy affair once it’s opened to the public. — The Escape Room

But we quickly lost hope toward the end. The ticking clock, which reminded me of a digital timer on an explosive device, didn’t help to calm our mounting anxiety (not to mention shame – Lo had mentioned earlier that a bunch of 16-year-olds before us managed to escape). All in all, we managed to complete 80% of the game – not bad for first-timers, he reassured our red-faced bunch.

I’m not the only one who had a ball of a time. The Escape Room is practically booked out days in advance – a testament to how much the public loves it. A single game is repeated, like a theatre production, several dozen times over a fortnight, with a maximum of six participants each time. So far, more than 3,000 players have tried their luck at escaping, with only a handful – 10%, to be exact – succeeding.

However, this figure has spiked to 30% in recent weeks as players return again and again to test their wits. The results are often surprising: women do much better than men (“They’re more detail-oriented and are better at teamwork,” says Lo) while teenagers tend to trump adults (“Adults have a tendency to complicate things,” says Lo).

Emerging from the shadows of one room is a defeated-looking Chin Miew Ling. The 29-year-old accountant, however, didn’t mind doing the walk of shame; on the contrary, she has nothing but glowing reviews of the game.

“My brother was raving about the Escape Room so I came here to see what the fuss was all about. I wasn’t disappointed at all; it was like being a character in a thriller but, best of all, it offered a great opportunity to bond with my friends.”

Bonding is a word that comes up often during the games. “I think what makes it so special is that it’s a great way to spend time with your friends, as opposed to, say, watching a movie,” says Lo, adding that teamwork is the key ingredient to success.

He also has another piece of advice: “It helps if you think out of the box, because most of the questions are not rocket science.”

Rocket science or no, the boys ultimately harbour aspirations of one day collaborating with Marvel comics, no less. “We’d like to do an Iron Man theme, with an intelligent computer like Jarvis giving out instructions in the background,” says Lo. “I know, it’s a crazy idea!”

But the sky seems to be the limit when it comes to next-gen entertainment such as this. Overseas, the Real Escape Game has been staged at venues as small as a locked room with enough space for just four players and as massive as the Tokyo Dome, with hundreds of players participating simultaneously. The game has also been played in different settings, ranging from outdoor amusement parks and stadiums to indoor theatres and even churches. For Malaysia – Iron Man in an ancient rain forest, perhaps? Keep an eye on these guys, they dream big.

The Escape Room is located at Lot 2-01A, 2nd Floor, e@Curve, Mutiara Damansara, Petaling Jaya. Each game is priced at RM32 per person during off-peak hours (11am to 4.45pm) and RM40 per person during peak hours (5pm to 11.45pm) and on weekends and public holidays. For more information, call 03-7732 9198, e-mail info@escaperoom.com.my or go to escaperoom.com.my.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Escape Room , Jason Leung , Victor Lo , Real Escape Game , Takao Kato


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