ENTER this room hidden in a residential area of Xuhui District: Every bamboo blind is drawn down to keep out the sunshine; a side table stands in front of the windows; on the table sit rolled bamboo strips, thread-bound Chinese books and Chinese brushes; a calligraphy of a Chinese constellation hangs on the wall. Paper lanterns, swords and wooden chests with bronze locks all add to the mystery of the room.
Then a young woman enters. She takes a bow with hands folded in front and says in an energetic and slightly rich voice: “Greetings! I’m the senior of Lingshan Denomination. You are welcome to be an apprentice here as an illusionist.”
She demonstrates some spells and one curse tablet. Participants can be apprentices only by finding the curse tablet in the room within an hour. The woman leaves and the door is locked.
Real-life room-escape game has become the latest craze for young people in Shanghai in recent years. It doesn’t involve a controller or fancy mobile device. It just takes a bit of thinking to get outside the box.
The idea is quite straightforward: With minimal explanation, players (usually four to six) find themselves locked in an unfamiliar environment, which seems to have no way out. Using items they find such as ciphers, keys and figures on the wall, players face the daunting task of escaping. During the process, they usually have to solve many puzzles including some involving mathematics, physics, culture, art, even music theory and more.
The rooms have varying themes — some spooky but hardly scary while some put the participants in a woven fantasy. Players can choose the game’s degree of difficulty.
As Halloween is tomorrow, in addition to planning fancy costumes and dresses in advance, a festive alternative is to become locked in a spooky or eccentric room for an hour with several friends to take an adventurous journey.
The going rate generally ranges from 70 yuan (US$11.47) to 100 yuan per hour per player.
“It’s like you are in a movie,” 20-year-old college student Sam Li tells Shanghai Daily. “By playing this game you get to be a friend of Harry Porter, a part of the characters of a beloved comic book. With elaborated scene décor and puzzles one after another, I feel remarkably exhilarated.”
The escape-the-room premise has been popular with computer and video players for years. The first basic game-play mechanism of having the player trapped in a single location dates to 1988, in which the player was trapped inside a toilet.
In 2006, a group of system programmers in California’s Silicon Valley decided to take the game off-screen. They created a real-life place named “Original Piece,” which was inspired by the works of English crime novelist Agatha Christie. Only 23 people have escaped from that room successfully.
Later the phenomenon found popularity in the US, Japan, Malaysia and China.
“Shanghai has many real-life escape-the-room venues with different characteristics — from big-scale to small ones, motion-featured to logic deduction-featured, scary themes to cute themes — for the players to choose,” says Leo Yang, owner and designer of Chuansongmen Escape Room.
“Now there are many players living outside the city who come here just for the games. They stay in Shanghai for two days. From day to night, they go for the game venues to solve various puzzles,” Yang says.
Two years ago, Yang and his partner Julian Zhu opened a room-escape venue featuring Chinese elements. It has two rooms: The player can choose to be an apprentice of illusion during the late Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) or an undetected spy within the Kuomintang secret service.
“We like Chinese elements, and not many people in this industry were doing this. So we decided to have a theme that is a little bit different,” Yang says. “Still it is a tortuous process to finish a storyline and arrange clues and puzzles in the room.”
Zhu says it took them half a year to perfect the gears, devising a plot and the deduction process of the rooms. “It is important to talk to the players, especially some aficionados of this game. They will tell you which place needs to be improved or which part is less logical,” Zhu says.
The two even learned carpentry for the game. “Our new theme is a Lilliput land, which requires the architecture and figures to be downsized proportionally,” says Zhu. “We have found many models in the market but all maintained a distance from our expectation. So we decided to make our own model.”
They built a tiny restaurant with several customers sitting outside in the yard having pizzas and coffee, while on the floral wall inside the restaurant you can see an oil painting near the window. There are also hotels, markets and residential houses like in a real village. When walking in this room, on the green grass-like floor, players feel like giants.
“We also have brand-new audio equipment that allows the figure to talk to you,” says Zhu.
“The form of escape-the-room has changed,” says Ren Youjing, manager of Captain C Room Escape, which features spooky themes. “It’s no longer merely a large number of puzzles or tests, with many requiring calculations. They are more plot-concentrated so the players feel immersed in the storyline and scene.”
Designers now create games not only for puzzle enthusiasts who like to test their logical thinking prowess but also for people looking for a new way to have fun, seeking an alternative to KTV or a cinema.
“I think the sense of achievement when you finally manage to escape the room is beyond language. At that moment, it feels like my IQ is soaring,” Ren says.
Alex Wang, 25, an accountant, takes the game so seriously that he has assembled a team. As the team leader, he carefully selected his fellow teammates by their professions: one majored in art, two in science and engineering and another one in business.
“Once we arrive in the room, I will assign everyone’s tasks and then split up. We insist on passing it by our own and never asking for any hint or answer, as most organizers promised to provide before,” he says.
He and his team have not failed yet. “Collaboration is the key. A team with different education background is better but not necessary,” says Zhu.
Most of the time, the puzzles do not require professional or advanced knowledge.
A word of advice: “Don’t participate in a game with more then six players,” says Zhu. “Too many suggestions and thoughts will actually get you lost. Plus with many players like ten, some in the group will even feel they did not participate.”
Chuansongmen Escape Room
Open: Daily, 10am-10pm
Address: Rm F, 3/F, Bldg T3, 2601 Xietu Rd
Tel: 6113-5283, 1891-7807-988
Open: Daily, 10am-10:30pm
Address: Room 701, Yanping Tower, 69 Yanping Rd
Other popular room-escape venues
• Pulupulu Themed Game Venue
Featuring Gothic décor, Pulupulu is one of the biggest room-escape venues in Shanghai. It has five themed games, all a tad frightening. Each game venue covers an area of over 200 square meters. An hour to finish the game could be mission impossible.
As one of the oldest such venues in Shanghai, Mr X has smooth storyline logically threaded with puzzles. Also, it requires not only a puzzle-solving approach but physical activities to complete the mission.
Open: Daily, 10am-1am
Address: Bldg 1, 550 Jumen Rd
Tel: 3304-1233, 3304-1239
• Tanuo Escape the Room
Tanuo has three themes — Green Day I, Green Days II and Alice in Wonderland. The venue periodically changes the theme, and it is the only venue in Shanghai with English versions of clues.