Live-Action Puzzle Game in S.F.: Can You Escape from the Mysterious Room?

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It's about 5 p.m. on Sunday, January 20. The 49ers just secured a place in the Superbowl, but I'm not out celebrating, because I'm locked in a room with 11 strangers. Inside the room is a desk, a couch, art, and some random furniture. There are two doors, and both of them are locked. One with a padlock, and the other with a regular door knob. We have one hour to escape.

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I'm here to play Escape From the Mysterious Room, a live-action puzzle game from Japan. Before the game started, our host, Dzu, gave us a laminate with a few rules. Things like:

Don't run. Please be safe. Don't BREAK the furniture.

Don't climb on the furniture or walls. There aren't any clues in HIGH PLACES.

Don't use TOOLS to DISASSEMBLE the FURNITURE.

And my favorite:

There is a SPIRIT inside the room. When they give you a warning, please follow them.

We were also warned repeatedly that there would be no bathroom inside, and once, twice, triple sworn to secrecy. With that, a cryptic first clue was given, a timer was set, and Dzu yelled "Go Niners!" as he locked the door. Not a game for the faint of heart.

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Honey have you seen my keys?
Our group springs to action right away. We split into teams and search each corner of the room. In general, we find that the clues fall into categories, and we arrange them into several piles. Letter clues, number clues, artistic clues, and things with no clues.

Within 10 minutes it is clear that the other participants all know each other, but everyone is nice to me. The time limit is a good motivator, and we work together without getting all Lord of the Flies about it. The room is already a mess -- there are couch cushions on the floor, desks rearranged, and shelves taken apart. Voices fly around the room, like superb bargainers yelling back and forth across a frantic flea market.

"I've got 2 of 6."
"We found E and G but no F."
"D is over here!"
"Where is across 2?"

I specialize in finding things. I walk around the room slowly, inspecting each piece of art and every piece of furniture. I take apart anything I can get open with my hands, and find several clues, which I place in their corresponding piles.

The clues add up to brain teasers and puzzles, which, presumably, will lead to more clues. I can't tell you much about the puzzles -- but I can tell you this -- they are beyond me. I pair up with another team member, Angela, to try and solve a word puzzle. I am a few rungs up the ladder from useless.

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Every 10 minutes a female voice booms down from the ceiling.
"10 minutes have passed," she says.
"20 minutes have passed."

At 30 minutes we attempt a progress report. The urgency is palpable -- this is a team that wants to get out of the room. We can feel that we're on the edge of a breakthrough, but are missing something crucial. The group meeting dissolves into people talking over each other and we scatter back around the room to work in small groups again.

I abandon my station at the crossword-type thing to wander around the room. I search the couch cushions again, and dig through the "non-relevant" pile with another player named Ice. We search in vain for something we might have missed.

When the voice from above announces that "40 minutes have passed," things slow down a bit. We have hit a stuck spot. People begin to inspect things a bit too aggressively, and occasionally the "spirits" remind us to be careful, or not to step on certain delicate items. These moments -- when the room monitors break the fourth wall -- are the only bummers, in an otherwise captivating experience.

But this buzzkill also works in our favor, because the spirits drop us a vital piece of information. That clue solves a riddle, that unlocks a mystery, that leads to a breakthrough. With 15 minutes to go we scramble around the room -- and break the no running rule -- in an attempt to win. At 10 minutes a musical countdown begins, and when the time is up, a loud buzzer goes off. Our group has failed to escape.

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Can you guess which one is me?
Dzu comes back to explain the final mysteries. Can I say that we were close? No, but I don't feel too bad about it. Out of 73 teams in San Francisco, only three have made it out of the room -- a success rate of less than 5 percent. But in this case, it really isn't whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Our team had a blast, and the experience is highly recommendable.

When the game is over, I stick around to chat with Dzu and the Real Escape Game team. The games are basically the same here as in Japan, they tell me, but they did change a few details for the U.S. market. "American audiences like more props, Japanese audiences like more narrative," says Kazu, the game designer and localizer.

I thank them and bow deeply before I leave. Outside on the street, people are still yelling about the 49ers. For once, the 22 comes right away.

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Dzu says it can be done.

Escape From the Mysterious Room runs Wednesday through Sunday at New People, 1746 Post (at Webster), S.F. Admission is $28-$33.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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