On the flight to Singapore, I gradually advanced my months-long efforts in Virtue’s Last Reward, a game where you go into rooms and have to solve puzzles to escape. The puzzles are word games, logic problems, lateral thinking exercises — anything goes.
The solutions to the early puzzles become the building blocks of those that follow, and while they begin as abstract brainteasers, they eventually tie into the game’s overarching themes of science and humanity.
I found my way through one more door, then put away my Vita until the return flight.
At the baggage carousel
Here’s a question: does a game like that need to be on a computer?
Real-life room escapes are so real they have a page on Wikipedia— separate from the escape-the-room videogames page. The Japanese version doesn’t even see that distinction, though, and puts real and virtual together under “escape games”. So if we forget about the computer, what’s a real escape game going to look like?
If you’re thinking — as I did — of a mystery game on The Crystal Maze, think again and think bigger. Since trademarking the Real Escape Game name in Japan in 2008, Kyoto publisher SCRAP have run increasingly complex games in Korea, Canada, China, Taiwan, and the US, and venues have progressed from small basement rooms to schools, ships, cathedrals, stadiums, and abandoned hospitals. Meanwhile they’ve released several videogames and three Japanese TV shows under the Real Escape Game brand.
Oh, and there was one real escape venue I left off the list: the future-utopian public gardens on the idyllic Marina Bay in Singapore.
Gardens by the Bay
Singapore treasures the natural tropical landscapes of its national parks as much as the modern sophistication of its built environment. It treasures them both, but it’s not afraid to smash them into each other.
Within the gardens, another example: the staggering manmade structure of the world’s largest greenhouse is a wonder in its own right, but it houses a naturalistic sweep of delightful plants from around the world. Adding to the mix while I was there were artificial rocky outcrops with rampant rams beckoning the Chinese New Year.
One more example: Supertree Grove. It’s a grove of supertrees, which are 20m-tall steel-framed trunks leading to perfect circles of regularly spread tubular branches. Each structure is planted up its sides with colourful flora, and wired up for a musical light show in the evening.
They’re sculptures mimicking nature, they’re space-saving vertical planters, but they’re part of the park’s infrastructure, too. At the top of the highest tree is a restaurant, further down are sweeping elevated walkways, plumbing inside cools rainwater and vents hot air from the greenhouses, and down at the bed of the grove, shade grants the neat greens and gardens a little relief from the equatorial sun.
And it’s here at the roots of the supertrees where the Real Escape Game begins. Over the counter of a temporary pavilion, a young woman with pineapple earrings explains how it’s all going to work. She takes my 35 Singaporean dollars and directs me to a TV mounted on the outside wall of the pavilion. There, she tells me, I can watch the last recorded transmission from Professor Frank. After that, she says, one of his colleagues from the research facility will come and brief me.
Into the Last Garden
It’s Singapore, 2065, and things aren’t looking good. Professor Frank only managed a brief and desperate message as his equipment failed, but the gist was that the limitless clean energy flowing into the self-sufficient island utopia from the supertrees above me had been cut off. The orb! Restore power to the orb! And then nothing — just black and white snow, like you used to see on TV sets 70 years ago in the 90s.
Out came the professor’s research assistant in a white lab coat and pineapple earrings. She looked familiar. She expressed some unconvincing but adorably earnest concern about the wellbeing of the professor and, indeed, the whole country, then gave me a sealed white envelope. Cutscene over, I went to a bench to see what I’d been given.
I got an instruction sheet with a map on the other side and a bunch of postcards. The first task was to complete some abstract puzzles — word games, logic problems, lateral thinking exercises, and so on.
The solutions to those indicated where to go next, and which postcards to contemplate when I got there. Things started in the abstract, but the more complex puzzles eventually tied into overarching themes of science and humanity. So it was Virtue’s Last Reward, but with a better control scheme and an incredible outdoor setting.
The game took me through some astonishing sights and inventive puzzles while my body clock steeped the whole experience in a soothing jet-lagged delirium. My rhythm from a wrong time zone hit a sort of euphoric alertness as the sun started to set.
As the gardens fell dark, I finally returned to the scientific outpost with what I believed to be the key to restoring the orb’s power. That key took the form of a single word.
I guess pineapple-ears had clocked off at the lab because she’d hung up her white coat and was chatting with a friend. They were pretty relaxed really, considering the scale of the catastrophe I was about to save us all from. They pointed me round the side of their hut for the final cutscene.
The prof was on the screen again — this time by live link-up in a private room where other gamers wouldn’t see. I noticed that even in 2065, people still can’t set a widescreen television to show video in the right shape, but I didn’t mention it, given the urgency of the situation. The professor asked me how to save the orb — what was the answer? I told him the word. After a hearty back-and-forth of faux interaction with the recording, the professor was able to use my information to save the world — taking all the credit when it hits the papers, I’ll bet.
The technician supervising this video call handed me a reward of a conservatory entrance ticket worth $30, which was a pretty cool surprise, but more importantly the orb was revived. The prof reported that power had been restored to the Supertree Grove.
Success! That was the end of my adventure. Almost.
The final final cutscene
I set foot out of the air-conditioned pavilion into the gentle warmth of the Singapore night. I turned to look at the supertrees I had supposedly just reenergised. And then — exactly then — entrancing orchestral music bloomed forth and filled the whole of the gardens. Passersby stopped still and gasped.
Streams of light shot from the roots of the darkened supertrees to the tips of the top branches, then danced in a soothing glow as the music swelled and dipped magnificently.
Had Real Escape Game Singapore somehow coordinated an impossible integration of individually timed games and a park-wide spectacle? Or was it pure coincidence? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
The lights and music I had summoned played on together into the night as I wandered back through the dark grove and along the glittering seafront to my hotel. In the distance I heard crowds still cooing at the son et lumière, unaware that I had just saved them and all humanity.
A long shot
I managed to have a chat with the REG staff and they told me they’re planning an island-wide game for June 2015. Island. Wide. If by some incredible coincidence someone reading this is going to be in Singapore this summer, look it up.
I still haven’t finished Virtue’s Last Reward, even after the long flight back. I’ll get there eventually, but Last Garden’s finale’s going to be a tough act to follow.
Photographer and writer covering Tokyo arcade life – the videogames, the metropolis and the people