"You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door," reads the opening line of Zork. "There is a small mailbox here."

To this day, Zork is considered a significant achievement in video-game history, despite its low-tech format. Beating it required observation, lateral thinking and creativity.

In 2004, a free Web browser game called Crimson Room revitalized the adventure genre by creating a virtually rendered room with blood-red walls and clues that revealed themselves through mouse clicks. The new genre was called Takagism, after the Japanese multimedia artist who created the Crimson Room, Toshimitsu Takagi.

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.

Three years later, in 2007, another Japanese entrepreneur, a disillusioned salesman named Takao Kato, opened the first Real Escape Game production. Since then, his company, SCRAP, claims to have temporarily imprisoned more than 10 million willing participants in Japan, China, Taiwan and Singapore, with an average escape rate of just 2 percent.

"I was thinking about doing some kind of new event, and the girl sitting next to me said she was hooked on online escape games, so I just tried to make one," Takao writes on the SCRAP website. "When we held the first event in Kyoto, Japan, all we had was a small ad in a classifieds paper. In no time, all tickets were sold out."

Soon after the launch in Japan, other models of the Real Escape Game spread to Europe and on to the U.S. In 2012 SCRAP opened a year-round operation in San Francisco, and others have sprouted up in Seattle, New York City and Chicago. The rooms have themes, like Escape the Moon Base and Escape from Werewolf Village. Last year SCRAP produced an escape room in the belly of a decommissioned battleship and another where participants were handcuffed together in a bathroom.

Nate Martin, a former product manager for video-game giant Electronic Arts, founded and runs Puzzle Break, two permanent escape rooms in Seattle; one is elaborately themed to be a locked movie set, the other a lair of an evil witch. Problem-solving video games have long been in decline, Martin explains, but translating those virtual tropes to reality provides an "unparalleled" high of accomplishment.

"When you have these physical puzzles and solving it is a big deal, the happiness of the moment is indescribable," he says.

In a spacious basement workshop in Freeburg, Illinois, Nir Chezrony looms over George Koval's left shoulder, peering into the wood and wire guts of the final puzzle for Trapped: two boxes, just six inches wide and covered in seemingly random symbols. Their lids have hinges, but neither box has any discernible locking mechanism. One contains the key to the door. The other is nailed shut.

"Whenever I come up with these things, George gets the fun job of figuring out how to build them," says Chezrony, looking down at his master builder's handiwork. "And then he curses my name."

It's eight days before the March 26 opening, and Chezrony, Koval and Jeff Landow are putting the finishing touches on various puzzle pieces. Koval estimates that he has probably spent 50 or 60 hours in the workshop so far.

"I want to bring a modicum of stylization to the puzzles," he says. "So, at least it looks good."

The conceptual work of the puzzle-making comes mainly from Chezrony, and he takes a puppet master-like delight in his work. He's a movie fanatic who gets inspiration for his escape rooms from films like Saw and Hellraiser. He calls the participants "my creatures."

"I do think I'm a smart guy," Chezrony says. "Do I think I'm the smartest? No. But I like rewarding smart people, and I like giving people a challenge."

The overall theme of the room is "inversion," he explains: The teams must open both white and black boxes, then open the next two boxes contained within. Around the room they'll find clues that give them the lock combinations. At that very end, a team will be holding the final two sealed boxes, each covered in symbols and pictures, one holding the key.

"I mockingly say that I'm the mad genius who came up with these," he says. "But at the same time I feel more like a serial killer, in that I want to be caught."

Chezrony met Landow at Parkway Northeast Middle School. They both loved the puzzle video game Myst and giggled at the unhinged wit within The Secret of Monkey Island. Chezrony never forgot how hard those games were or how rewarding the victories. When Landow first found out about SCRAP last summer, he e-mailed Chezrony immediately.

"I thought: Why can't I do this?" Chezrony recalls.

Chezrony, Koval and the fourth member of their company, Enigma Productions, Matt Glosecki, all know each other from their day jobs repairing x-ray and CAT scan machines for Philips. Together they use their creative, technical and engineering know-how to bring Trapped to life.

Chezrony's puzzles have to strike a fine balance. They've got to be hard enough so that the moments of discovery are satisfyingly earned, but they also can't be impossible. In November 2013, 91 people attempted to solve Chezrony's first Trapped puzzle. Just one team of ten people managed to escape. And even then, it wasn't done cleanly.

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