Trapped in the Time Travel Lab: My puzzling Sunday

Wear comfortable shoes. Pen and paper will be provided. Crave contributor Kelsey Adams explains how she became trapped forever in a spatiotemporal distortion, and maybe so could you!

Kelsey Adams Senior copy editor / Reviews
CNET senior copy editor and contributor Kelsey Adams was raised by computer programmers and writers, so she communicates best by keyboard. Loves genre fiction, RPGs, action movies; has long, fraught relationship with comics. Come talk to her on Twitter.
Kelsey Adams
5 min read

If this doesn't make you feel competitive, it's like I don't even know you anymore. Real Escape Game in the U.S/SCRAP Entertainment

"You are trapped in the mysterious laboratory, where it has been said, they study time travel. The door is closed. A lot of hidden clues await you. You wonder if they were able to make time travelling true..." These words on a poster beckon you in to a frantic puzzle-solving team experience that can lead, as it did in my case, to your untimely demise.

Or you might...Escape from the Time Travel Lab.

SCRAP Entertainment's first Real Escape Game was held in Japan, and nowadays the company is putting on events in San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles. In addition to the basic Mysterious Room, people have escaped from the Magic Show, the Werewolf Village, and other sticky scenarios. There are also Real Escape Game branches in Singapore, Taiwan, and China, plus there seem to be at least four live-escape game companies operating in the UK, so I'm going to call this a worldwide phenomenon. If the rest of this sounds fun to you, you may be able to find something similar nearby.

On the particular Sunday on which I fell into a rift in time and space, never to be seen again, my team of six assembled in a cute tea shop below the venue, a nice, clean spot in San Francisco's Japantown that's probably normally used for art installations or something.

The signs warn you to use the restroom before the game starts, since you will literally be locked in the Lab for the next hour. (As it turns out, there's a "lab technician" in the room with you the whole time, so it's not as dramatic as the waiver makes it sound, but the game timer's not going to pause while you take a bathroom break, so it is something to think about!)

"Detective-style clothes might help to sharpen your mind," the Web site said, but also, "refrain from wearing heels," so I squashed my first impulse of Victoriana. Clearly we'd need to be physically active to some degree. In Web-based room escape games, you need to examine everything, from the undersides of furniture to the tops of light fixtures. I settled for a Nancy Drew T-shirt, sneakers, and my lucky magnifying glass.

It's my lucky magnifying glass because it's pretty, all right? Not because it saved us from wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey destruction, because it didn't. Toni Thompson
As I'd suspected, I didn't actually get to use the lens: you're not allowed to use any items you bring in. Including multitools, the cheerful young MC told us firmly. ("Pens and paper?!" "They'll be provided in the room.") We hung our jackets on a rack outside, but there was a clear, closed bin inside the room where we could store our purses and bags, thus removing most worries about credit cards going missing.

The game is played in groups of 11, so we were thrown in with 5 very nice strangers. Going around the room, we introduced ourselves and described our experience with these types of games, and time travel in general. My aunt (she of the Thor socks) claimed to be from the year 2038. Her friend obligingly said he had come to our time in pursuit of her. Another friend revealed that he'd been time traveling at a rate of roughly 1 minute per minute for...quite some time now. The MC's face: "So this should go well."

The opening briefing laid out some parameters of the game, though it didn't ultimately keep us from being lost in an eternal temporospatial limbo. The directions were clear as to, for example, what objects in the room we could and couldn't disassemble. (Did reading those words make you want to click over to buy tickets? Then we're on the same page.)

When we finally walked into the room, it was a bit like living out my favorite scene in "Apollo 13," when they put the engineers in a conference room and tell them they have to save the day by making THIS fit into THIS using only THESE PIECES. Except with more of a festive air, though we certainly all got pretty excited as our time ran out and our impending doom, um, impended. I wasn't the only one with shaking hands.

What's funny is, I'd assumed that with the set of experienced puzzle-solving brains I'd brought with me on my team, we'd definitely win unless the puzzles were badly designed. I'd also suspected I'd be dead weight in the group, based on past games parties with most of these people. Neither of these turned out to be correct. I personally solved and helped solve several puzzles (to be honest, they weren't hard). And my group -- you may have picked up on this from foreshadowing -- DID NOT escape from the Time Travel Lab! We definitely could have...maybe in about another 10 minutes...but we did not.

As the game's materials point out, there's no shame in that. Still, it's not WINNING, is it?

This pic does not contain my aunt, who was voluntarily erased from this corner of history. Probably afraid they'll track her from 2038. Real Escape Game in the U.S/SCRAP Entertainment

Overall it wasn't quite what I was expecting -- I'd thought there'd at least be some in-story justification for all the puzzles, and instead they appeared mostly arbitrary. But even though the puzzles weren't hard and yet we didn't come that close to winning, my team still walked out (insofar as you can walk out after having fallen into a spacetime anomaly never to return) feeling like the challenge was fair. That seems like good game design. Here's a little advice, none of which I think counts as spoilers:

1. The comfortable-shoe requirement was a good one. Most of the puzzles are mental, but in addition to the restrictions listed on the site, at least one person in your group should be able and willing to get down on the floor.

2. Unless you bring enough people to fill all the game slots (the number varies by scenario), you'll be thrown in with strangers, but that's OK. Anyone who thought this sounded fun and showed up to try it is probably pretty rad, so the group meshes a lot faster than you'd think.

3. Organization is key. Every minute counts, the setting can be a bit overwhelming, and it helps to have someone keeping track of the overall effort. (Corollary: Communication is also key, so if your friends hate being hurried or get snappish in a crisis, it may be best to leave them at home with your high heels and multitool.)

Real Escape Game in the U.S/SCRAP Entertainment

I guess that's all I can say without ruining it. It was definitely worth the ticket price; I live in San Francisco so I don't have to judge whether it was worth the drive as well. Still, we immediately started looking into getting tickets for Escape from the Haunted Ship. It takes place aboard the Queen Mary! The actual Queen Mary, down in Long Beach.

Unfortunately, the dates for Haunted Ship didn't work out for us. And my team vetoed the upcoming Escape from the Space Station (before your air runs out) as "too scary." My aunt's hoping for other local venues, such as...Alcatraz.

Alcatraz! Think it over, Real Escape Game people! Minus the swimming! [Update: Of course they've thought of it.]

In the meanwhile, if you know of any other interesting types of puzzle-based events, please tell me about them in the comments below or on Twitter. (Shout-out: I found out about Real Escape Game via @sosh, the not-personalized Twitter feed of a personalized event-recommendation service based in some major US cities.) I'll leave my future self some notes on the calendar!