“Solving an escape room is like being the hero of your own movie.” I’ve said that a lot over the years, trying to describe this real-life adventure and the rush that goes with it. I’ve used that analogy because it evokes a set and a story with me (or you!) as the main character, and it’s relatable to just about anyone.
An escape room might be like a movie in many ways, but I wouldn’t say it categorically is a movie. If I had to categorize it – and I do, but more on that later – I’d say, it’s theater.
Escape rooms take place in physical venues where groups of people come together in person to experience a story. Unlike the recorded movie, this performance happens live on stage every time.
The set is the stage for this piece. It might look like the attic of a manor, a spacecraft, or a pirate ship, but it has been designed around character action, story beats, pivotal scenes, and hidden effects.
Originally, the goal of the escape room was just that: escaping a locked room. Since then, this form of entertainment has evolved into a form of storytelling.
Early on, David argued that escape rooms wouldn’t be a passing fad because they had the power to tell stories. The guests interpret the story mostly from the set, the actions they take within the game, and the outcomes they accomplish.
For many top creators we’ve talked to, how guests feel while experiencing the game is even more important than the actions they take within it.
Performers & Spectators
In an escape room, the guest is both the performer and the spectator. They are the archeologist when they open the mummy’s tomb. They are the spectator when their teammate pulls the sword from the stone.
The staff too can be both performers and spectators, even when they never step onto the stage while the guests attend. In their performer role, they perform introductions and send hints as different characters. In their spectator role, they watch the performance of the guests.
There are many technicians behind the scenes in an escape room. They rig lighting and sound. They trigger effects.
While most tickets are booked online (for escape rooms and traditional theaters), at the escape room there is a box office too. It’s the person at the front desk who answers the phone and helps you with your booking questions, credit card woes, and sells you souvenirs.
When we included in that report our analysis of the PPP loans that escape rooms received in the first half of 2020, one of the reasons it was challenging to find these businesses and the database was the lack of consistent categorization. While most escape room businesses are too small to have received more than $150,000, and thus were not included in the ProPublica loan database we analyzed, we did find 13 escape room business loans listed.
These 13 businesses are classified in 7 different ways:
All Other Amusement and Recreation Industries
Other Spectator Sports
All Other Support Services
Other Performing Arts Companies
Theater Companies and Dinner Theaters
Food Service Contractors (Boda Borg does have food on site.)
While some of these seem pretty far off base (Spectator Sports? Support Services?), I can see why “Amusement” seems like it could fit.
The Amusement business operates at a scale escape rooms do not. At an amusement park, arcade, or similar attraction, many people consume entertainment at once. These businesses rely on a high volume of customers at once, and high throughput.
Escape rooms are more intimate. When I think about the staging, performance, effects, interactions, and especially the scale, escape rooms belong in the entertainment category of theater.
We aren’t big fans of categorization and labels, but we are in favor of contextual clarity.
Theater is a context Americans (and people anywhere in the world, for that matter) broadly understand.
That’s the place where you go in person to take in a story that is set on a stage, realized through performance for an audience, and augmented by lighting, sound, and effects.
Escape rooms have something unique to offer beyond traditional theater. That’s why they are new and different. However, it’s the element of theater within them that gives them their staying power.
And when an escape room is staring down the barrel of a… government form with only broad entertainment categories, an escape room is most certainly a theater.
SCRAP was the first escape room company and over the years we’ve played many of their games. We’ve loved some of their games; others were not to our taste. However, we have been deeply impressed and respectful of the level of innovation that SCRAP has produced.
As a company, SCRAP has invented more escape room formats and twists on the concept than most escape room companies have combined. Outside of Japan, we only get to see a fraction of their innovations.
In this interview, we talked with the SCRAP Global Team about player preferences and their thoughtful approach to game design.
We took this opportunity to ask all of the questions that we have accumulated over years of playing SCRAP games. Some are deep and heavy questions… others are surface level. Our hope is that all of them help our community better understand this seminal company in their own cultural context.
REA: Before we begin, we have a question that we’ve been wanting to ask for years. Is it “SCRAP” “Real Escape Games” or “REG”? In the U.S. we usually just call you “SCRAP” but we see you using all of these brand names.
SCRAP Global Team: SCRAP (SCRAP Co., LTD.) is the name of our company, and “Real Escape Game” (acronymed as REG) is the brand name for our games. Therefore, it is accurate to say Real Escape Game produced by SCRAP.
The reason why we have the brand name is because while many of our games fall under the category of an “escape game,” we do have a couple of other games that don’t. Besides Real Escape Game, we have other brand names such as Real Stealth Game, city-wide puzzle hunts, and others that don’t fit the criteria of an escape game. Although, many of these different styled games are available only in Japanese, which is why we prefer to use Real Escape Game to collectively represent us outside of Japan.
We’re excited to learn a bit more about your other game types too, but before we do, let’s start with a bit more background. When was SCRAP founded?
SCRAP was founded in Japan in 2008, and in the U.S. in 2012.
How many escape games has SCRAP produced over the years?
We produce more than 150 game titles each year.
Each year?! Wow. We had no idea. How many escape games is SCRAP currently running?
In Japan, we have 16 physical stores nationwide which are currently running more than 100 room-type games in total. (Some game titles are run across multiple locations). This number does not include our non-room type games such as city-wide puzzle hunts and other unique collaboration events held at venues outside our stores.
How many SCRAP games are currently playable in English?
In total, 13 of our game titles are playable in English, with 2 of them currently available for online play.
Audiences: Japanese & American
With your experience, what are the differences between player expectations in Japan and the U.S.? What makes a successful game in Japan? What makes a successful game in the U.S.?
We believe that fundamentally, players from Japan and the U.S. (and other countries as well) wish for very similar things, for example:
A game that is meticulously crafted to take players on an emotional ride, and reaches its climax at the end
A satisfying story
In particular, we found that our American players like the following:
An action-packed experience
Interaction with our actors/ staff
Venue decoration/ ambience
They require more than just information on a screen to immerse into a story. The overall atmosphere of the room is more important.
On the other hand, our Japanese players like the following:
Elaborate and tricky gimmicks (eureka moments)
A puzzle that takes more than one step to complete (complexity)
More than the ambience, our Japanese players were more impressed by almost-impossible-to-solve puzzles and plot twists.
Are there design elements that you feel Americans do not appreciate in your designs? Why do you think that is?
We have had the luxury of running our games over 10 years in Japan and 8 years in the U.S., and we have definitely seen some obvious differences. From our experience and extensive customer feedback, we found that compared to our Japanese players, our Americans players are less likely to appreciate the incredibly low success rate, the final plot twist at the end that usually tricks more than 90% of our players, reusing certain game materials and clues (i.e. having to go back to a previous puzzle to solve a later one), and clues hidden in the storyline or introduction sheet.
These are all elements that our Japanese players love and pull them back to challenge our games again and again. Although it sometimes does not resonate as well with our American players, we don’t see it as a negative thing. It is very interesting to learn how to resonate with a different audience, and to find the balance between keeping our style and adjusting it for our American players.
We believe we have put that into practice with our more recent games.
REA: We agree that you have. We’ve watched your games in the U.S. change over the years to become more approachable to these American preferences that you’ve outlined.
In addition to game design, we’re really interested in puzzle design. When you translate a game from Japanese to English, how much do you have to change the puzzles, story, and mechanics to match either local culture or different linguistic structure?
It largely depends on how language-specific the game is when originally created in Japanese. For example, in the past, we had not considered offering the games in English, resulting in games extremely reliant on the Japanese language and culture, making them more difficult to convert into English. However, recently, our team of creators is more aware of this issue, and tries to come up with puzzles that do not require language or specific knowledge (such as the history and culture of Japan). This results in puzzles that rely on symbols, simple math, shapes, colors, and logical puzzles that can be easily localized, and which anybody can solve.
Of course, language puzzles can be extremely fun and clever, so we try our best to include some where the puzzle mechanics are similar to the original Japanese puzzle. The company has also formed, in more recent years, a new division that specializes in translation and localization of the Japanese games, to work closely with the Japanese game creators and improve the quality of the games offered in English.
Besides puzzles, we rarely make drastic changes to the storyline of the titles we decide to localize. If the storyline is heavily based on Japanese culture/ knowledge, we simply choose not to localize that title.
Are there puzzle types in Japanese that cannot be translated into English? If so, can you explain this?
Yes, there are plenty! Just like how English wordplay and puns are almost impossible to explain in Japanese, the Japanese language is very versatile when it comes to its linguistic characters.
In the first place, Japanese has 3 different sets of alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. This gives us so many more ways to play around with words. One word can be presented in all 3 different forms, so we can create a puzzle where players have to convert a word to its equivalent in a different alphabet set to solve it. This cannot be done in English.
Also, a word can have multiple meanings. We utilize this a lot in our puzzles. For example, Japanese verbs usually have more than 1 meaning:
“Dachi no inochi wo kakero” translates to “Bet your life on your comrade,” where the verb “kakero” means “to bet.” However, “kakero” can also mean “multiply” in terms of mathematics.
So most players, due to the context of the sentence, will assume that it reads as the former: “Bet your life on your comrade.” However, what the puzzle actually requires you to do is to “multiply the lives of your comrade” (where you can find the word for your comrade’s “life” hidden among some text.)
We have played most of the escape games that you have produced in the U.S. We are big fans of your work because you try new things, even if we haven’t enjoyed all the games. Whether we love or dislike a SCRAP game, we have noticed patterns and a certain symmetry that exists in your escape games. What would you say is the essence of a SCRAP game? What makes a SCRAP game a SCRAP game?
Our English catchphrase is “Arrive a Player, Leave a Hero.” This is because more than just solving “puzzles,” we place value on our players being immersed inside a story from beginning till end. Our focus is on how we create an experience for our players to really feel like they’ve become a hero who defeats the demon king, a phantom thief who steals a precious jewel, or a detective who solves an unfathomable crime.
This is what drives us to experiment widely with vastly differing concepts. Apart from making the puzzles highly interactive for our players, we are constantly finding new ways for our players to experience to the fullest the feeling of being the main character in a dramatic story.
You have created some incredible new escape room formats such as the projection mapped table game (Spellbound Supper) and the time loop game (The Pop Star’s Room of Doom). Can you tell us about other game formats that you operate in Japan, but have not brought to the U.S.?
Real Stealth Game – Instead of escaping, players have to infiltrate a venue and complete their given mission while avoiding guards (real-life actors) and booby traps! It’s like playing an arcade game in real life where your remaining time decreases if you get shot by the enemy. We have English versions of this type of game available in Japan.
Theme Park Games* – An entire theme park is used as the game venue after operating hours, usually at night. The capacity can go up to thousands of participants playing at the exact same time. Players will receive a game kit and can play individually or in groups, solving puzzles and clearing check points within a fixed time period. We have not had an English version of this type of game yet.
Mystery Mailbox – With a game kit in hand, players walk around one of SCRAP’s game facility’s common areas to pick up clues and solve what secrets lie behind a mysterious letter. This game style has no time limit and can be played leisurely. It is especially good to challenge while waiting to play one of our room games, extremely family-friendly, and often done in collaboration with an IP title. We have English versions of this type of game available in Japan.
City Hunt Puzzle – Our most well known city-wide puzzle hunt is Tokyo Metro – The Underground Mysteries. This is a puzzle-solving game played while walking through the streets of Tokyo. Held annually since 2014 in collaboration with Tokyo’s largest metro network, we have offered the game in English as well since 2015, for our English-speaking audience living in Japan as well as tourists to Tokyo. It’s a full day activity that takes between 4-7 hours (depending on your skills), and takes you to both popular and hidden spots around Tokyo.
Immersive shows with puzzle solving elements* – Detective Conan at Universal Studios Japan. Players attempt to solve a crime while interacting with real-life actors. Some sections involve watching a theatrical performance by these actors as part of the story.
*Please note that these brand titles in English are not official as we do not have English versions of these games.
We’re especially curious about your Theme Park Games. Are physical elements of the theme park used in the gameplay/ puzzles? How is this style of game similar to or different from the stadium games we’ve seen the U.S. (i.e. Escape From the Walled City)?
Yes, physical elements unique to the theme park are used. Often, players have to ride the park’s attractions to get points, solve puzzles, or find clues. Sometimes players can enjoy the game after the theme park’s operating hours. It is an exclusive experience to enjoy the theme park’s facilities after it has closed to the public.
One example of our theme park games is a regular collaboration with one of the largest theme parks in Tokyo. We have done big name animation series like One Piece and Hunter x Hunter (Japanese only) for this year with them. Operated in a similar style, the game collaborations with this theme park are conducted during operating hours. Players get a game kit and enjoy the park rides alongside nonplayers who are just there to enjoy the theme park rides. The players will know what clues to look out for (as prompted in their game kit), and the clues and rides do not affect the general public who are not players.
An example of the other kind that is conducted at night after operating hours is a zombie-themed game that is held at multiple theme parks in Japan, where everything in the theme park is reserved for players only. This game has been put on hold for now due to COVID-19.
Above, you haven’t talked about the ballroom-style games we’ve played in the U.S. What are your goals for ballroom-style escape games versus single team escape games? And how does this vary by market?
Our single team escape games (Category: Room-type) are designed to attract beginners/ new players, as it is less intimidating to participate in and easier to imagine what the experience will be like. Once they have experienced our classic escape room, ideally they will develop interest in our other content and attend our ballroom-style escape games (Category: Hall-type).
While not true for all our games, our Room-type games are a good mix of original SCRAP titles and collaboration with IP titles, while much more of our Hall-type games are collaboration with big IP titles. This is because a large-scale event has more impact and is more appealing to famous IP titles. These collaborations help bring in a new set of players who are fans of the IP title. Therefore, we attract a lot of new players through our Hall-type games.
Another interesting trend we observed is that our Hall-type games are extremely popular in Japan, but are not so well received in the US.
REA: Because the IP titles are so successful at drawing in new players, and because (in the U.S., at least) the Hall-type games travel to cities that don’t have your room-type games, the audience seems to be largely new players. We never considered that these were designed for returning players, but we think that’s partly why they didn’t stick in the U.S. We certainly assumed the reverse when we reviewed these games.
How has SCRAP changed to face the challenges of COVID-19 and 2020?
As with all other escape game companies, we had to close our physical stores for a large part of the pandemic. To make up for this loss, our creators rushed to produce content that can be enjoyed online. Besides creating remote online versions of some of our games, we also started to produce goods like puzzle kits that can be ordered and delivered to your home. When everyone was strictly advised to stay home, these game kits allowed players to play with friends, family, and colleagues over the phone or video call (each party needs to have a game kit) without having to go to a specific location.
We also created a completely new game concept (direct translation: Escape from the Silence) where players attend our physical event venue, but no one is allowed to speak (including staff.) This was thought up as a way to reduce the spread of the virus through verbal communication. (Of course, everyone is also required to wear a face mask to participate.) The entire venue and game is conducted in complete silence, and players have to act out, gesture, and communicate through sign/ body language to solve the puzzles. It is a very bizarre thing to witness, but it was a hit with our Japanese players!
We love this concept and we haven’t heard of anyone else doing this. How many players is it designed for? How often do you run it? Is this something you would continue running once it’s safe to gather in person again?
It is designed for 2-4 players and it runs everyday. While it was developed to be played during the pandemic, we believe that this game would still be very enjoyable even after it is safe to gather in groups again. We will definitely continue to run it, depending on the demand.
In our opinion, Escape From the Alien Research Facility was an especially successful online escape game. What have been some of the challenges that you have encountered adapting your game designs to a global audience on the Internet?
Surprisingly, once the game was redesigned to work online and remotely, we didn’t have that many problems delivering it to our global audience around the world, content-wise. It was a very pleasant surprise!
We did struggle with the time difference in attempting to offer our game to as many countries as possible. There were times our staff had to operate the game at 2am, 4am, and 7am in the morning in Japan.
Also, since our game would now be available to literally every single country in the world, we were more careful in selecting words that could be understood not only by Americans, but globally, especially for players whose first language isn’t English. We had to compromise on some standard American terms such as the word “burner,” which meant different things in American English and British English. We decided to go with a more universal, easy-to-comprehend language even if it sounded a little strange to our American players.
Another challenge (which later turned into enjoyment) was allowing players to interact more with the game staff. It required our staff to be flexible and able to give quick-witted responses to questions and requests outside of our game manual. However, we observed that these extra unscripted interactions gave a personal touch to the game experience and our players loved it.
REA: While we only touched on these select 2020 adaptations in this interview, we know you have more in store for us players. We’re excited about Escape from the Lockdown: The Strange Village (review coming soon), your new online game format that was created in response to the pandemic, specifically to play at home with no time limit. And of course, we’re looking forward to the new ways you’ll invent for us to be the heroes next.
We’re thankful to the SCRAP Global Team for their thoughtful answers and willingness to honestly reflect on their work.
As an American, SCRAP feels a bit like an iceberg in that we only see a small portion of the company’s creations in our part of the world. So much of what they do is inaccessible to us.
As one of their gamemasters said to us in an online game, we look forward to a day when “the world isn’t cursed” so that we can visit Japan and play some of these games in real life.
Athens is known for a pronounced style of escape rooms, that I can only describe as epic… but not in the high-budget blockbuster sense. Rather, the Athens escape rooms combined a specific set of traits to deliver exciting, memorable adventures.
If you’re booking an escape room trip to Athens, I recommend a group of 4 people.
Embrace an atypical schedule for a few days. Some of these games are long, which means you won’t be fitting tons of escape rooms into each day, and you’ll have less flexibility in the scheduling puzzle. Also, many of the companies only operate on evenings and weekends, but they offer bookings that start as late as midnight.
Accept that horror games have shaped this market and challenge yourself to play them, even if they aren’t usually your preference. Just make sure one of your teammates is bold enough to be the teammate who always goes first into the unknown.
The Virtual Escape Jam is an event hosted via the internet for anyone who loves playing, designing, and learning about escape room-style challenges and puzzles, all while meeting new people and having a blast!