“All right, we’ve got 27 minutes left. I think we can do this,” I shout.
Twenty-seven minutes to escape from a pirate ship. Well, not a real pirate ship, a miniature mock vessel that takes up most of a tiny room…here on the 10th floor of a Hong Kong high-rise.
“Yes! All right, OK,” I say. “So we have a door that’s going to open here.”
I’m playing a real life escape game called Freeing HK. You and your teammates are locked in a room and have 45 minutes to get the heck out of there. How do you do that? By solving a bunch of logic problems. My teammates and I just figured out that the phrase “the combat trace of the warriors” had something to do with the four skeletons that lie at our feet. I’m sworn to secrecy, so I can’t tell you the numbers we entered into a lock that opened another door and got us one step closer to freedom.
“It’s like a little trap door that’s sort of opening in the wall here,” I say. “So we’re going into another room. A darkened, freezing cold room. This room is freezing cold.”
The Origins of Freeing HK
Our pirate-themed room is just one of many at Freeing HK. There’s a macabre vampire themed room, an “old China” one, even a space that transports you to the good old USA. The mastermind behind this imprisoned fantasyland is Raymond Sze, 21. He started the company last November after suffering something of an existential crisis while at college.
“Someday I think my life is repeating,” he said. “Because I just, you know, go to school and have exam, midterm test. So I just want to create something different.”
Like so many other young Hong Kongers, Sze likes playing virtual escape games on his smartphone. So he wanted to create, “a real experience that can let people come in and play it. Rather than, you know, ‘click,’ with different themes, storylines and music.
“Like you are the main character in the movie,” he said.
Except you’re not really the main character.You’re more like part of an ensemble. You can’t play Freeing HK by yourself. The rules are you have to play with at least one other person — so you work as a team. It’s a Chinese-style collective thinking approach that’s become a big hit with 18-to-35-year-old Hong Kongers, but is decidedly more difficult for me and my friends who haven’t used this side of our brains in nearly a quarter-century.
Back in the Pirate Room
After entering the dark, cold room, we’re left shining a flashlight on a box of gold coins, a pocket watch with missing numbers and a few laminates with random ship objects on them.
“Oh here, here, here,” I say. “You match them up and the only one that’s missing is the last number. Maybe. Or something.”
We’re supposed to somehow get five numbers out of all this which will unlock yet another door but we’ve been stumped now for ten minutes.
Out of desperation I just make up a bunch of numbers.
But no dice.
Since its launch in November, Freeing HK has become a phenomenon in this former British colony. What started as a four-person operation, now has over 100 employees. They’ve expanded from one location to three. And more than 30,000 people have played the game.
“You know, Hong Kong people, actually they’re bored,” Sze said. “When you ask them what will they do in this weekend, they will just answer you, ‘Oh maybe go shopping, watching movies.’ Their entertainment choice is very limit. So if there is something exciting and interesting they have very high demand for it.”
But boredom isn’t the only thing that attracts young people to the game. According to Freeing HK’s Eddy Lau, these types of escape games — whether virtual or real — strike a chord here because it gives people a chance to escape from the city’s demanding work environment.
“In Hong Kong every time you feel pressure, every second,” Lau said. ”And in [Mass Transit Railway] and other transportation you find some break to relax yourself. And game is best way for them.”
And for Lau’s friend, Bronson Chan, 21, successfully escaping a room is kind of an ego boost. It makes him feel smart, despite the fact that he didn’t excel in Hong Kong’s hypercompetitive school system.
“So when I come out of the room, like when I success, I feel like I got my grades all straight A’s,” he said. ”It give me that feeling so it’s good.”
Back inside the pirate ship room, my teammates and I couldn’t feel less intelligent. We finally solved the gold coin-laminate puzzle — OK, that young whippersnapper Eddy Lau gave us the answer — and now all we have to do is count the number of fish on a wall, and we’re free.
We enter the code into a lock, and we successfully escape the room with seven minutes left on the clock. We’re happy to get out. We’re hungry, tired and suffering from a, well, collective headache. Freedom never felt so good.