REGAME – Escape from the Haunted House

Yesterday, in the name of investigative journalism (and curiosity, and cheap fun), I went ahead and signed up for REGAME, the online version of the real version of online escape the room games, Real Escape Game. The game started at 9:00am EDT, so I hopped online at 6 to get a ticket before registration closed (2 hours before the event).

Closer to 9:00, I got everything prepared for the game.  It said I would need to print out an answer sheet (a page with boxes for 9 words which made a 10th vertical word once all the spaces were filled in), a pencil and paper, and a cell phone.  (A cell phone, how exciting!)  I logged into “My Page,” a kind of profile/lobby area which had a lot of social integration via Twitter and Facebook, but it was pretty much all Japanese players.  I anxiously watched the clock countdown to zero and hit the start button, which brought up a pop-up window where a video was supposed to play.  Mine just said DivX, so I clicked on the “my video isn’t playing” link which took me to a page with a YouTube embed of the following video:

Pretty exciting!  That’s Real Escape Game creator Takao Kato, and he is explaining the rules and tips for the game.  I enjoyed this part because it gave me a chance to brush up on my Japanese listening skills!  The important notes were as follows:

  • The house is alive.  To escape the house, you must kill it!  If you solve all of the puzzles, you’ll understand how to kill the house.
  • Don’t spoil the game for others by posting spoilers online.
  • The puzzles in the game must be viewed from different perspectives.  (This was the “most important” hint)

There were also some more general rules for playing the game in the pop-up window.  My favorite was this very inspirational (and very Japanese) advice that can be applied on a more spiritual level:

“The time given to you is very limited. Please don’t be ashamed of failure. People often grow up by accepting the sorrow.”

Very deep!  Suitable for framing!

Anyway, another countdown allowed for time to watch the video, and then the game officially began!  You started out in the same little dollhouse kitchen as the trial game.  A mini-map had little dots representing players to show which zones the players were in, which was actually pretty exciting at first because all of the players were in the same zone, and it sort of felt like a race to get out of your zone before you saw someone else’s white dot in a different zone.  A clock counting down from 60 minutes also added to the pressure.

The starting room was still locked and needed a number code like in the trial, but the puzzles were different.  This time, I combined a few items to obtain a sort of magic square-style puzzle.  I started writing the puzzle down a few times, but stopped part-way to try and think it through.  This is the moment, seven minutes in, when the game crashed!  I checked the official Twitter account and found that they were encountering some server problems.  I decided to take the opportunity to try and solve the magic square-style puzzle.  I was missing a few operations, but through some trial and error I managed to solve it just in time to get back in the game at 9:22.  I escaped the first room!

Once I was out of the kitchen, I found myself in a labyrinth of hallways, filled with dead-ends and doors and promising to get me totally disoriented.  I noticed there were some large numbers placed on the floor throughout the hallways, so I started trying to document those.  Eventually, I busted out the graph paper and mapped out the entire hallway system.  I’m always lazy and hesitant when it comes to doing that sort of thing, even though I always end up enjoying the process and results.

Throughout the hallways, I found different framed images which each corresponded to one of the nine answers I needed.  I think I got one or two before the game crashed again at 9:45.  I took advantage of the break again and used the time to organize my information and determine what I still needed to find and solve to get each answer.  The game stayed down for a while, and a livestream announcement was given that they would try to bring things back up at 11:30 (10:30am my time), but that the same problems might occur again.  They also announced that if players weren’t able to finish the game at that time, they could play later through an archive and refunds would be issued.

It’s always sad to see something that people have worked hard on and care about malfunction like that, and you could hear/see the frustration and disappointment in their announcement.  I hope players didn’t get too angry at the fine people of REGAME!

I did some errands in the downtime and came back at 10:30 to try again.  My game was acting a little strange at first, but the Twitter account suggested clearing the cache and that seemed to do the trick.  I was back in!  And if I recall correctly, my game clock was reset.  Fine by me!

I spent the next 30 minutes or so traversing the hallways, checking out the other two rooms, solving the framed clues, and combining items to discover other answers.  The user interface for the game used this sort of hotspot feature to show areas that might need to be examined further.  This helped to do away with some of the pixel-hunting and placed more of an emphasis on the puzzles and clever inventory combination (though I did find myself doing the “combine everything” strategy at one point when I was stuck).  I did have one really frustrating moment when I knew, based on the other items and clues I had, that I was supposed to find a specific object.  I knew what the object was and how to use it, but I could not find it.  That seemed very wrong.  I had essentially solved the puzzle, but the interface and mechanics were keeping me from actually executing it.

When I had found five of the nine answers, I realized I could already tell what the vertical word was going to be.  At first I wanted to go ahead and solve the rest of the puzzles, but I was a bit stuck so I decided to see if I could reach the endgame with what I had.  I found a door that seemed to say “I am the endgame door” and went to input my answer.  I was surprised when the keypad available to me did not include what I needed to input, but a little creative thinking got me on the right track, and my password was accepted.

The door opened and I went into a dark, creepy room with an interactive button puzzle.  Solving that revealed a cryptic message about using my nine puzzle answers in a certain way.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but I recognized what to do immediately because of some work I had done earlier.

At this point, you might think I would need to go ahead and solve the rest of the puzzles, but I think there were two that ended up not being used at all (one that relied on the item I couldn’t find and one that I just wasn’t clever enough to ever figure out).  I was still missing one vital answer, but I tried to solve anyway.  The music had gotten more intense at this point, as I was running out of time.  I actually got really, really close and I think I had a good chance of solving, but I sabotaged myself with something I had written down incorrectly.  In the last moments, I did have a breakthrough and solved that missing answer, but it was too late to save me from my own folly.  The game closed.  I had failed to escape.

The “you failed” page let me know that there would be a livestream explaining the answers to all of the puzzles, so I checked that out a while later.  I felt pretty silly about my mistake, but I’m not sure I would have even made it to the next step since it required a pretty clever mental leap.  It was pretty cool and involved the cell phone, so I was a little bummed I didn’t make it that far.  I also learned of another final item necessary for the endgame that I never saw, so I might have gotten stuck again at that point!

In the livestream, they also announced the player numbers:  3,809 total players, out of which 499 escaped. Damn, I could have been #500!

Overall, I enjoyed the game well enough, though I would say it would have a hard time competing with all of the free escape-the-room games out there.  Production values were very high, and the dollhouse aesthetic was fun, but really the live, exclusive element seems to be the only thing that sets REGAME apart.  Is that enough to make me try again for Volume 2 in winter?  I’m not sure.  I think I can see it being one of those improvement things, the same way I’m excited to go back to DASH next year and try again since we didn’t do so hot this year, but I’m not sure there is enough skill involved or room for improvement for that to really make REGAME more enticing.

While the puzzles were enjoyable and felt a lot more polished and sensical than a lot of the stuff you find in traditional escape the room games, I’m not sure about the format.  About half the puzzles involved inventory and environment interaction, but the other half were basically self-contained signs on the walls in the hallway, totally ignoring the context of the game.  They were good puzzles, but I would have preferred them to be more unique to the style of the game and to utilize the virtual presence of the player.

As for all the technical problems, that’s just how it goes sometimes.  I was a little surprised since a big deal had been made about the game being powered by Intel, but I don’t really know what part they were powering exactly.  REGAME announced afterwards that it was the social chat “Friend Activity” feature that overloaded the system and was removed when the game was relaunched, so who knows if Intel even had anything to do with that stuff.  I won’t be asking for a refund.  I still enjoyed the game and rarely expect anything massively multiplayer like that to run smoothly, especially on the first (though unfortunately, in this case, only) try.  I definitely wouldn’t have made it as far in the game as I did without the breaks and the clock reset.   In fact, those breaks were so effective for me, I’m beginning to think I need to pre-schedule some breaks into all puzzle events I attend!

Speaking of social, they had this weird feature where other players’ Twitter icons were overlayed onto your game screen and seemed to float around as those players explored the room.  This was annoying, distracting, totally unnecessary, and detracted from the game experience rather than enhancing it.  Why inject an annoying feature of MMO games (crowding) into a game that doesn’t require it?  All I could imagine was this tiny locked kitchen packed with people shuffling around looking for clues.  You can’t build up all of this atmosphere and narrative of seclusion and escape and then try to throw this “social” experience on top of it thinking the one won’t affect the other.

The whole idea of social interaction while you’re supposedly trapped in a haunted house by yourself seemed so strange and counter to the aesthetic of the game.  It might have been integrated in a different way more effectively, but as it was I was relieved when it was all shut off in the relaunch.  I was way more bothered by the negative effects the social integration had on the feeling of the game than on the functionality.  (Side note:  fellow fans of keeping things appropriate within their context will be glad to know that no puzzles in the live version of the game required outside research, unlike the trial.)

So that was REGAME!  Fun, though flawed.  Worth checking out for 5 bucks, though you’ll have to wait a while to get another opportunity to do so.  Game designers: beware the siren song of social and consider its repercussions, not just in the game’s ability to function but in the integrity of the game’s design.