Real-life room escape games are point-and-click puzzle games made real. You and your team are locked in a room, and you have to solve a series of puzzles in order to get out. So how does it all work?

Photo by Calsidyrose.

I'm a sucker for point-and-click puzzle games: Crimson Room, Machinarium, The Mystery of Time and Space, Year Walk, The Room and its sequel. Basically, if you have to translate musical tones into numbers or rifle through couch cushions looking for a key, I'm in.


So when my husband (who asked to be identified in this piece as Tallzilla) came home one day and announced that he and a group of co-workers had just played a real-life room escape game in San Francisco's Japantown, I was jealous. And I had questions.

I'd heard that real-life room escape games existed in other countries, but I hadn't realized there were any in our area. (It turns out there are a bunch in the Bay Area, including one where you get locked in with a hungry zombie.) How did the game work? What kind of puzzles did they have to solve? What happened if you didn't solve them all in time? Did everyone have to work together?


He didn't talk about the puzzles themselves, but he explained the setup: he and his teammates were locked in a room with a couple of game runners for one hour. The players tossed the room looking for clues to various puzzles. One puzzle would lead to clues to another puzzle and so on and so on, until, in theory, you found a key to let you out of the room.

The game Tallzilla and his coworkers played had a three percent success rate, meaning three percent of teams who try to escape successfully do so within that one hour. Tallzilla's team was in the other 97 percent.

Once time was up, the game runners took them through all of the problems, explaining their solutions. Tallzilla said that the challenge wasn't just the puzzles themselves; it was working together as a team. One of the reasons they got stumped on so many puzzles was because some team members decided to work out puzzles on their own, inadvertently hoarding important clues. If they had communicated better as a group, they probably would have gotten further along—which was funny since they had played the game as a team-building exercise.


At this point, I was practically seething with envy. I had to play one of these games.

We gathered a couple of friends—one male and one female—and headed to Omescape in Richmond, Calif. The Omescape rooms don't have nearly the failure rate of the room in Japantown; we signed up for the Omega Room, a time travel-themed room with a 30 percent escape rate.

After we surrendered our bags and cell phones, the Omescape game runners explained the rules. Once they locked the door, we would have 60 minutes to solve all the puzzles and escape from the room. The game runners would not be coming inside with us; they instructed us not to touch the clocks—which contained important clues—but otherwise, we could poke and prod at anything that didn't have a "Do not touch" sign on it. They handed us a walkie-talkie and told us if we were completely stumped, we could ask for one hint. Then they led us inside.


At first glance, the room looked like the playhouse version of a professor's study. There was a desk in the middle of the room, and the place was filled with books and maps. Clocks lined the walls, showing various times. A small chest with a combination lock sat atop the desk. Odd pictures hung on one wall.

The game runners produced an iPad and showed us a brief introductory movie, which explained that the scientist who owned this office had mysteriously disappeared while performing time travel experiments. If we didn't get out in time, his fate could befall us. Then they locked the door and started the clock.

The boys immediately set to work turning everything in the room over, looking for instructions, clues, secret compartments—anything that might be hidden within the room. Along with the other girl, I focused my attention on the clocks, wondering what they had to tell us. Together, we solved the first puzzle quickly, which gave us tools to see hidden things in the room that we hadn't been able to see before. We paced through the first few steps, feeling pretty good about ourselves.


Until we got stumped, that is.

I don't want to spoil the puzzles too much (and I tried to be vague in the images), but I will say that we spent a lot of time trying to figure out one of the instructions we were given. And by "figure out the instructions" I mean "run around the room placing various objects next to each other until something happened."


We felt pretty dumb once we figured it out.

The puzzles in the Omega Room varied. Sometimes it was just about understanding the clues properly; sometimes it was just about working together effectively; sometimes, it was all about quite literally changing your perspective.


Along the way, there were lots of delightful surprises, things that made us felt that we were walking through a real-life video game. Hidden chambers would spring open. Clues would appear, seemingly out of thin air. And to add to the drama, there was a soundtrack, interrupted every ten minutes by a voice telling us how much time we had left.

Eventually, we reached a particularly satisfying and complex problem, one that relied on us piecing together various types of clues, some of which we'd been staring at since the very beginning of the game. We had to separate the real clues from the red herrings and, most importantly, follow instructions.


After 55 minutes in the room and trying to escape through the wrong door (twice!), we emerged, exhilarated and quite proud of ourselves into the lobby to the cheers of the other teams waiting their turn.

We were hooked. A few weeks later we returned to Omescape with four more players to try the Penitentiary, the prison-themed room.

The Penitentiary, at the time we played it, had an 11 percent escape rate, so while it's not as insane as that room Tallzilla attempted in Japantown, it's a definite jump in difficulty. Our team was actually separated into two groups at the start. Two players were the "prisoners;" they were handcuffed together and placed in a cell. The rest of us were the "visitors," trying to spring our friends before escape the room.


This time, the video told us that our two teammates had been locked in a cell where the infamous serial killer Water White (a name distractingly similar to Walter White) died. The implication seems to be that White's ghost haunts the cell and that we need to get our prisoners out and escape before the guards come back from their 60 minute lunch break. Once again, we'd have one hour to escape and one clue.

Putting two of our players in a separate cell was a neat twist, especially since the room is constructed in such a way that the players in the guardroom can't see the cell terribly well and vice versa. Both groups had to be good about sharing clues and resources—and making sure we actually let our prisoner players out of their cage before rushing on ahead.


And fortunately, the puzzles in the Penitentiary were of a very different variety than those we encountered in the Omega Room. We were initially perplexed when we can across several strips of papers containing cryptic clues and weird symbols, but gradually their purpose became clear.

But the thing that excited us the most about the Penitentiary was that it was a much more physical game than the Omega Room had been. It test not just our brains (and our ability to share the room's limited resources), but our aim and our agility.


Sadly, though, we did not make it out of the Penitentiary in time. We listened to the voice count down to zero while we desperately tried to solve the final puzzle. In retrospect, we probably should have swapped which players were working on which clues. We had a strong team, but some of us (myself included) let our eyes glaze over after staring at one clue for two long. We could have benefitted from some fresh eyes.

Even though we lost, we all agreed that the Penitentiary was immense fun. As we debriefed in the lobby, our eyes floated to a chalkboard announcing that Omescape's third room, a pirate-themed challenge called "Forgotten Treasure," would be opening soon. We're all clearing our calendars.