I Spent Saturday Morning Solving Puzzles In The Belly Of A Naval Battleship

If you've played a Zero Escape game like 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors or its sequel, Virtue's Last Reward, you're no stranger to the idea of a "room escape" game. You're placed in a room, probably with a team. The room is locked, and the only way out is to solve the puzzles and turn in a correct answer.

This past weekend, I took part in in the Real Escape Game's Escape from the Haunted Ship game in San Francisco. The setup is simple: you go on board the ship. You're locked in (or, "locked in"—if you freak out or have to leave, they of course let you). They give you a ton of interlocking puzzles of all shapes and sizes, and you have to solve them to win and get out.

The people at the Real Escape Game are super vigilant about online spoilers, so I unfortunately have to keep this article pretty vague. The most important thing: was it fun? Yes. Were the puzzles good? Sure were.

I was in a team with five friends, some of whom write about games, some of whom make games. It was a room full of smart people, actually, mostly grad students, tech professionals and puzzle nerds. And it was a good thing, because the puzzles were hard. Hardcore adventure-game fans wouldn't feel out of place, nor would fans of the Zero Escape games; you'll often be solving a puzzle to learn a password for another, only to come across a cypher that connects to another, unrelated puzzle. There are puzzles written on pieces of paper, but also lying around the room and hidden in plain sight. Everything you overhear, every announcement could be another puzzle. (Or could just be a red herring!)

We were given an hour to solve the overarching puzzle, after which they walked us through all of the solutions. My team did pretty damned well—we got maybe 60 or 70% of the way to the final answer (no thanks, I'm sad to say, to me). But once they got into the final few solutions, I was floored by the difficulty—who on earth could have gotten this stuff? And yet, one team among the fifteen or so in the room actually solved the whole thing.

The Haunted Ship was a limited-time deal, but there's a more regular incarnation of the game that runs in San Francisco's Japantown. I gathered that the Haunted Ship differed significantly from the original format, during which each team was actually locked in its own room. You can see the flyer for that one, which will be happening again soon, here:

I Spent Saturday Morning Solving Puzzles In The Belly Of A Naval Battleship

At first I laughed at the line, "You will be actually trapped in the room," but then I found that was an important distinction. In the Haunted Ship, we were all in one big room, so the teams were often crowding around clues and whispering to one another so as not to be overheard. In the original incarnation, well, you are actually trapped in the room.

My friends, who had attended the original game, seemed to feel that the original was somewhat better, since it felt a bit strange to be in a room with a ton of other teams. It wasn't all that immersive; it felt more like a camp event. That said, the battleship was a really cool setting, and the slow rocking of the ship felt just weird enough in my guts to make the whole thing feel off-balance and vaguely nightmarish.

I really want to try the original, one-team-one-room event. Here's a shot of the room from the eventbrite page:

I Spent Saturday Morning Solving Puzzles In The Belly Of A Naval Battleship

The idea of digging through that for clues, along with the great puzzle-design in the game I just attended, sounds great.

The Haunted Ship game concluded on Sunday, but it looks like the original game will be running all through February, so it shouldn't be hard to find a time to go. I'll certainly be checking it out, and I'll write more here (no spoilers!) once I have.