Neon Genesis San Francisco

The Sunday before Labor Day, I got the chance to play through Real Escape Game x Evangelion, a one-weekend-only event in San Francisco’s Japantown. Inspired by the largely Japanese “escape the room” genre of Flash games, SCRAP Co.’s Real Escape Game purports to be the real-world equivalent. And while it was far from my favorite alternate reality thing of all time, REGxEVA was a wholly unique and pretty rad experience.

Full disclosure: I know pretty much nothing about Evangelion. I watched the show for, like, a second in middle school, but almost a decade of life happening between now and then has managed to force all those memories out of my head. There are giant robots, right? And a depressed young boy as the protagonist? And a blue-haired girl and a red-haired girl and some Biblical stuff in there and whoops that’s literally everything I remember about EVA. Luckily, one of Real Escape Game’s organizers reassured me that no EVA knowledge was required for the event, so it didn’t end up mattering all that much.

Honestly, the game itself doesn’t really fit neatly in the alternate reality game descriptor. Unlike most other ARGs, Real Escape Game is a highly dense and time-limited experience. The prototypical ARG experience involves weeks (or months!) of mixed media scrounging, hunting and guesswork. Unlike those, REG gave us little more than a slickly-produced packet of disconnected, slightly-Evangelion-tinged clues before letting us loose on a couple of blocks of the city for an hour.

And I’m not gonna lie: it was kind of exhausting! While most of SCRAP’s past Real Escape Games have remained loyal to the Flash game format by taking place in enclosed spaces, Sunday’s EVA event was “Mystery Hunt Style,” meaning the game’s already cryptic clues had been scattered all over Japantown. As players, we had to split our time between mentally arriving at solutions and physically arriving at solutions, and an hour of that can take a lot out of you.

Luckily, the actual puzzle-solving aspect of REG is a blast. The riddles are vague enough to be puzzling but usually made sense after a little bit of serious consideration. There was generally a consistent internal logic to the riddles we were tasked with decoding, and the whole thing was tied together in a way that kept you uncovering clues but minimized backtracking. With rare exception, it was fair, which is crucial for something like this to be enjoyable. As you’d expect from a 60-minute game, there was a palpable uptick in difficulty after each solution, but the difficulty curve was still steady enough that we never felt ripped off.

Until the end.

So one idea SCRAP Co. leans on pretty heavily is that this whole thing is supposed to be super challenging. “If you are a person who likes answering riddles, solving complex puzzles or just generally smart and looking for a challenge, this event is for you,” says the official website. They proudly tout their low-but-not-quite-zero completion percentages; only six of the original REG‘s 150 participants made it out, and last weekend’s EVA event featured an “Escape Rate” of 10.86 percent. Which is fine, I think! The Flash games serving as Real Escape Game’s impetus were deliberately and often inscrutably challenging – so much so that you can’t Google “Escape Game” without Google suggesting a walkthrough. So when my fellow escapee Miguel Concepcion and I ran out of time right as we arrived at one of the final puzzles, it wasn’t the end of the world; we accepted our failure, escorted ourselves to the solution room, and had the whole thing explained to us. No problem!

The thing is, no amount of logic or deduction could have accounted for the game’s final twist. SCRAP has asked me to avoid dropping specific spoilers, so I won’t talk about exactly what happened, but let’s just say this: in standard Japanese game fashion, Real Escape Game x Evangelion had a secret sort of “true ending” that a meager two percent of players managed to achieve. It’s hard to explain why it was cheap without giving anything away, but I think it’d be fair to describe it as deceptive, unfair and, uh, totally not a puzzle. Wired’s Chris Kohler, who actually managed to make it all the way to the game’s ending, described the final twist as “a giant pile of horseshit.”

I didn’t have a victory pulled out from under me, so I wasn’t quite as soured by the ending as Kohler. Still, the “twist” put a slight damper on what was otherwise a pretty fun way to kill an hour. There’s honestly something profoundly satisfying about solving a puzzle and being rewarded with an actual, real-world location to search for clues. It’s a totally separate feeling from anything you’d get from a videogame; piecing together hints and discovering new places offers a distinct and very tangible sense of accomplishment, one that you couldn’t really get from an Xbox achievement.

For an hour, Real Escape Game turned Japantown into something like an actual, physical Fez puzzle. And while Real Escape never quite managed to make us feel like we were living in the world of Evangelion, on at least three or four occasions, it made me and Miguel feel like geniuses, which is an accomplishment in my book. Whether the experience is worth your 30 bucks is up to how much you like feeling like a character from Zodiac. Me? I like that feeling a lot.

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Nick Robinson’s favorite website on the Internet is probably Twitter. If you wanna hang out with him there, you can find him at @Babylonian!

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