"Real Escape Rooms," the diabolical Japanese puzzle game, comes to St. Louis

"Real Escape Rooms," the diabolical Japanese puzzle game, comes to St. Louis
Tom Carlson
Trapped mastermind Nir Chezrony.

With a dull slam, the door closes behind Cheri Davidson. The 29-year-old blinks from behind a pair of rectangular-frame glasses as she takes it all in: The oddly shaped room is claustrophobic, barely 200 square feet. The locked door behind her its only exit. Directly in front of her, flowing white curtains cover two bay windows that look out onto the street three stories below. The round eye of a camera lens hangs from the ceiling, watching her. She is trapped.

Click here for a video of contestants trying to escape

Davidson is not alone. She and the nine other people who've been sealed inside move to the room's perimeter. They all begin knocking against the walls, running hands along the door frame, searching for anything that could help them get out.

Some of the puzzle boxes from Enigima Productions' Trapped, Volume 2.
Tom Carlson
Some of the puzzle boxes from Enigima Productions' Trapped, Volume 2.
Master builder George Koval constructing puzzles in the Freeburg, Illinois, workshop.
Danny Wicentowski
Master builder George Koval constructing puzzles in the Freeburg, Illinois, workshop.

Eventually, the group gravitates to two end tables placed on opposite ends of the room. Identical boxes sit on identical tables, though one is white and one is black. Both are shut tight with combination locks.

"There's something heavy in here," says one of the prisoners, lifting the black box and shaking it.

Davidson gazes up at a poster hanging above the end table. She murmurs the gibberish written on it three or four times:




The others continue to search the room. A man with a black ponytail running halfway down his back finds a velvet bag of oversized Scrabble tiles hidden behind the window curtains. They discover three strips of paper covered in symbols and letters — some kind of cipher or code. None of it makes any sense.

In a corner, the numbers of a timer displayed on a flat-screen computer monitor silently count down. They have less than an hour to escape.

What Davidson doesn't realize is she already has the answer. In fact, she's said it out loud two dozen times but didn't realize it.

"Form orc, lose bees, I lent. Form orc lose bees I lent. For more clues, be silent."

But she can't hear it.

A note slides under the door. It says, "Don't say a word little babies."

"Oh!" exclaims one of the women. "Hush little babies? Is it 'hush?'"

Davidson grabs one of the decoder sheets and translates H-U-S-H. She enters it into the combination lock on the white box. With a tiny click, it opens.

"Yeah!" Davidson exclaims.

Some of the others clap and high-five. But then Davidson lifts the lid, and the room falls silent again. Nestled inside is another, smaller black box. It's locked.

As the timer dips below twenty minutes, panic sets in. Davidson spreads the Scrabble tiles out in a jumble and starts shouting number combinations to a guy who enters the random digits into another white box in his lap. There's a 1 in 10,000 chance of randomly guessing correctly.

Suddenly, Davidson sees it. She rearranges the tiles to spell a new phrase: PATTERNS IN TILES.

She stares, incredulous. She looks left, at the computer screen in the corner. Seconds remain. It's too late. The clock hits zero.

At this moment, the door swings open. In walks a stout Middle Eastern man with a well-groomed beard, his red polo tucked into sensible jeans and a leather cell-phone holster riding his belt.

"Time's up," he says.

Davidson and her friends have just become the latest team to fail at Trapped: A St. Louis Room Escape Volume 2, an elaborate puzzle game that opened in St. Louis for only two weekends this spring. They all paid $25 to be voluntarily imprisoned and figuratively bang their heads against the wall for an hour. Nir Chezrony, the man in the polo shirt who, for the last hour, had watched their futile attempts through the black GoPro lens in the ceiling, walks over to the Scrabble tiles strewn about the floor.

He explains that if Davidson had flipped the tiles from the phrase "PATTERNS IN TILES" over, she'd have discovered another anagram to solve, "DOUBLE MIRRORED," and more numbers on the back. Those numbers form a simple sequence — switch two numbers, double them, switch the next two numbers, double them, etc. — that ends with a four-digit answer: The combination for the second to last box.

"Oh," says Davidson. She thinks for a few moments.

"I don't like you."

The other members of the group crowd around Chezrony. They want to know how they stacked up against previous teams. Listening from outside the open door, Jeff Landow, a high school English teacher and one of Chezrony's partners in Trapped, tries to restrain his laughter. He's watched more than a dozen losing teams clamor for validation this way.

"It's the same every time," he says, shaking his head. "Nir's so evil. They just want to hear that they're smart. And he won't give it to them."

The first ever Real Escape Game — a room where players must escape by solving a series of puzzles that eventually lead to a key that unlocks the door — was produced in Japan in 2007. But the roots stretch back to the primitive video games of the late '70s, a time when the limitations of computers meant players had to use their imagination to supply the graphics. Using nothing but text prompts, games like Adventure and Zork placed users in labyrinthine dungeons and haunted castles, setting the scenes with simple but effective descriptions.

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