We went to a real puzzle room based on the Zero Escape games

Forget dinner with nine strangers; how about spending your evening breaking out of a locked room together?

Last Thursday, ZAM's editor-in-chief Laura Michet and yours truly made the trip to a nondescript shopping mall located in the heart of Los Angeles's Little Tokyo. Our target: to participate in a variant of the Nonary Game, in which nine people solve puzzles to free themselves from a locked room.

This is a room escape game, Real Zero Escape: Trust on Trial. It's an official adaptation of the Zero Escape series of puzzle and visual novel videogames from Japan, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and its sequel, Virtue's Last Reward (as well as the upcoming Zero Time Dilemma).

As a genre, room escapes can be considered a specialized subcategory of puzzle games, combining hidden object/point-and-click mechanics with successive locks, ciphers and usually at least one dead body. In their modern incarnation they began as web games, specifically Toshimitsu Takagi's 2004 Crimson Room, and from there filtered onto console and handheld titles. The titular room in Silent Hill 4: The Room has elements of the genre, for instance.

The flyer for Real Zero Escape, currently running in Los Angeles The flyer for Real Zero Escape, currently running in Los Angeles

But the most concentrated example of this puzzle type can be found in the Zero Escape series, which are entirely structured around these room escape scenarios. You could even say that they are room escapes inside of room escapes, each door leading to other, more elaborate puzzles within a grand labyrinth. Some of these puzzles can't even be solved on a single playthrough, requiring the playercarry over items and codes from one playthrough to the next in order to unlock increasingly convoluted narrative twists. They're the spiritual twin of the brick-and-mortar room escape games that have sprouted up in cities all around the world in recent years, especially in Asia but with increasing frequency in the West as well.

This particular meatspace room escape is the brainchild of Doc Preuss and his colleagues at SCRAP, a Japanese company responsible by and large for pioneering this type of game in the Western United States. Preuss is a fan of the Zero Escape games and pitched the idea of an official puzzle room based on them to Aksys, the series's North American publisher. Aksys got the original developers at Chunsoft involved, and now it is a real thing you can go and play, make-believe death timers and everything.

What follows is an account of Laura's and my adventure through Real Zero Escape. We can't share everything with you -- it'd suck all the fun out of playing it for yourself if we did -- but we're going to relate as much as we can, because we had a lot of fun trying to escape!

From 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (2009) From 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (2009)

Arrival

Our group began to aggregate outside the venue about 10 minutes before 9:00 pm. Most of us had signed up in pairs, I noticed -- only one player appeared to have come on his own, and we all pretty much stuck to talking with the people we'd arrived with, until one of the game runners came out to greet us. After signing a waiver and heading into the foyer, we heard a brief overview of the game and its rules. Then at what I am going to assume was exactly 9:09, the game master (Preuss) led us into the main play area.

In the dark, we felt something on an elastic band slip around our wrists. Those who have played the games will know what these turned out to be: watch-styled bracelets, bearing digital numbers from 1 to 9. Laura was 1; my bracelet bore a 2. I was a bit disappointed we couldn't pause to give ourselves clever codenames, but with the clock already running, we were off.

Playing the Nonary Game

In the Zero Escape series, players are often confronted with a set of doors and multiple story paths. Most of these doors require some combination of the nine participants -- hence "Nonary Game," from "nona" meaning "nine." I won't tell you how the Real Zero Escape playing space was laid out, or how our group was distributed, but it required us to work independently as well as in concert.

Just my luck that this, too, has its origins in the games. Just my luck that this, too, has its origins in the games.

How that works, when locked rooms are involved, is one of the major "a-ha" moments of the game. I've gone back and forth on how much detail to use in which to describe this, but honestly, virtually any amount constitutes a spoiler. Let's just say that at one point I had to stick my hand down a toilet, which I can't say I've done a lot of in my time.

Meanwhile, many of the other players -- including Laura's cohort -- were scouring the rooms in search of clues. Taking in the whole mess of objects, Laura told me afterwards, she was impressed how initially inscrutable the puzzles were: unlike the Zero Escape videogames, which often had a limited number of items to interact with and a clear theme, these rooms confronted us with so many seemingly incongruous objects that both of our teams easily spent about 20-30 minutes just figuring out the logic to them.

I will say that one potential problem that emerged when we played was that one member of the group was extremely quiet. Mind, he was just as willing and eager to help collect clues as anyone else, but with the game's music blasting through the room's speakers on a loop, his was the first voice to get lost. We made it through all right, but it was a good reminder how important clear and constant communication is for these games.

Racing the clock

Laura, the most efficient puzzle-solver in our group, was already hard at work on the next phase of the game when I was able to rejoin her, about 40-45 minutes after the start. Already exhausted and frazzled after the first leg of the game, a lot of us started to drag our feet through this part, which turned out to be a very bad idea. By the time Laura had jotted down the last piece of a code we needed to use, our group was down to the last five minutes of our allotted hour, and then we learned we had another layer of puzzles ahead of us.

"Just when you think it's over... think again." -- Doc Preuss, Real Escape Game producer for SCRAP

"We [wanted] the game to feel epic like the Zero Escape series, so we designed multiple goals of different types," Preuss told me, later, when I was conferring with him for this story. (Understandably, SCRAP does not want the solutions of its room escape games leaked online, so I contacted the game runners prior to publication to see what constituted a spoiler in their eyes.) "Just when you think it's over... think again."

Eventually, Laura and I found ourselves working together. There wasn't any time to compare notes or catch up, though: by the time we had cracked open the final lockbox needed to complete the last puzzle, we had less than a minute remaining.

"We're not going to make it," Laura said, in the same grim voice she uses to tell me I need rewrites. "But we might as well try."

In a movie, these would be the heroic last words spoken by the grizzled protagonist facing down certain death, although in our case, I could barely hear her above the speakers. We pulled the brightly-colored items out of their container and examined them one by one, to no especially productive end: they were still completely unintelligible to us when the clock counted down seconds later.

Suffice it to say, we all failed. Luckily, our deadly wristwatches did not actually contain any poison, or we would have ended up very short-staffed here at ZAM dot com.

Aftermath

With our hour up, Preuss and his team came by to free us, and then helpfully walked us through the solution to the final puzzle. Once he explained it to us, I immediately recognized what I assume is its source of inspiration -- it appeared to be based on one of the early rooms in Virtue's Last Reward, though I won't say which -- but we would have needed actual psychic and/or time-travel powers in order to complete it in time remaining. Perhaps if we had moved more quickly in the earlier sections... ah, but that's hindsight for you. Though it seems obvious now that any locked room game based on Zero Escape would be multi-layered, my group clearly hadn't considered that possibility thoroughly enough going in.

Laura (left) refused to take a picture with Clover, whom she considered treacherous. Laura, you don't understand! Clover's had a hard life! Laura is the one of these who is not a cardboard cutout or creepy rabbit.

Anyway, learning how complex it actually was took some of the sting out of failure. Now I understood why, on a placard out in the lobby, the game showed that only 3 out of 15 total teams had succeeded to date: it's just so damn much to accomplish inside a mere 60 minutes.

Despite one of us being an accomplished puzzle-solver (Laura is a wizard at Stephen's Sausage Roll) and the other fairly familiar with the source material (I had, in fact, failed to get much sleep the night before because I was too busy browsing the Zero Escape fan wiki), this was the first time either of us had tried a room escape in real life. We definitely enjoyed ourselves, so much so that we've already started discussing the next room escape we'd like to drag our colleagues to, but I'm afraid it means we're not able to judge how this stacks up against other games of its type.

If you are new to real life room escapes, but have played the Zero Escape games, I can promise you plenty of allusions to the series -- but don't expect to have an easier time of the rooms' puzzles as a result. Where Zero Escape's puzzles tend to emphasize ciphers and some light math problems, most of Real Zero Escape's challenges took a different approach. And as I mentioned, the sheer volume of objects to interact with and solve here is much higher than you'll be accustomed to, coming out of the handheld titles.

That said, there were a few interesting moments in Real Zero Escape which couldn't easily be replicated in a videogame. Namely, the "a-ha" moment of realizing how the game expected us to all work together, and a particular late-stage puzzle which uses perspective in a way I would not have expected. These moments really made the experience for me. While I was disappointed that the theme present in the game's subtitle -- "trust on trial" -- didn't really factor into the game in any meaningful way (I was really looking forward to backstabbing my boss), I still left feeling a sense of accomplishment for everything the nine of us did. You can see why these room escapes are often pitched as corporate "team-building exercises."

If you happen to be in the area and have even a remote interest in Zero Escape, real life games, live-action roleplay, or any combination of those three, I would recommend checking out Real Zero Escape. It's still running through May and June, and only in Los Angeles -- not even Japan's gotten a hold of this one yet. You can read more about the game and reserve tickets at its official site.

Kris Ligman is the News Editor for ZAM. To hear their thoughts on why Sigma/Junpei is endgame OTP, follow them on Twitter @KrisLigman.