Turning the Zero Escape games into reality: an interview with the game runners of SCRAP

Real-life room escape games are fast becoming the next big thing. We spoke with two of the people helping bring them to the States.

A few weeks ago, editor-in-chief Laura Michet and I paid a visit to Real Zero Escape, a brick-and-mortar room escape game based on the Zero Escape series (999, Virtue's Last Reward, and the upcoming Zero Time Dilemma). Our team had 60 minutes to solve a series of locked room puzzles, each of them artisanally hand-crafted by the good folks at SCRAP. After the game was over (we failed, by the way), Laura and I lingered for a few minutes in the lobby to speak with two of the game runners, producer Doc Preuss and Willa Lim, director for SCRAP's Real Escape Room Los Angeles operations.

I've long been fascinated with room escape games, and I was interested in hearing more about how folks like Preuss and Lim got into the business of locking strangers inside of scary puzzle rooms.

What follows is our conversation held over several weeks in email, lightly edited for brevity and clarity. A quick disclosure: I had actually met Lim years before through a mutual acquaintance, but I had no idea she was involved with the company prior to my attendance. It was a very pleasant surprise.

ZAM: So how did you get involved with SCRAP?

Preuss: I was working at a gaming company when I saw someone post online about one of SCRAP’s games in San Francisco. I had played the Zero Escape games by that point, so I was familiar with the concept. I got a small group of coworkers together, and we attempted our first escape (and failed). The experience was absolutely addicting. I played more of their games, and by luck of some mutual contacts, ended up helping run Real Escape Games on weekends. My commitment and responsibilities increased over time, and before I knew it, I was working full time on some really amazing projects.

The flyer for Real Zero Escape, currently running in Los Angeles The flyer for Real Zero Escape, currently running in Los Angeles

Lim: [A friend of mine] happened to be the director of the New York branch of SCRAP. He told me they were looking for temp staff for their Escape from the Walled City, the Attack on Titan-based Real Escape Game while it was in Los Angeles. I had a really amazing time and loved not only working the event but working with the team. Sometimes I still can't believe I have the coolest job.

Are there any notable differences, in your opinion, between how these games are run in the States versus Japan?

Lim: The amount of support and love for SCRAP in Japan never ceases to amaze me. We have two television shows, over 20 locations, a Japanese Idol group and many extraordinary collaborations with theme parks and other game companies.

So, to answer your question, the difference in running the rooms is based on how much potential SCRAP USA has to grow. There sounds like there is an [extremely high] production value in some of the Japanese rooms but I think especially with Real Zero Escape we are on the same track.

When developing a room escape, what do you find works or doesn't work?

Preuss: We go through a number of failed prototypes while developing games, but the baseline question is always "is this going to be fun for players?" Our games require teamwork and communication, which means that a group of six can do just as well as a group of 10 (which we have seen happen numerous times). We design challenges around the expectation of a full team, but we never require it. If needed, we will modify some procedures for smaller teams.

Lim: From my small amount time with this company, I find what works for developing a room is a lot of flexibility and even more playtesting.

What is the playtesting process like?

Preuss: We typically run alpha and beta tests for our games. Alphas are internal only, and betas are usually open to the public. In our messaging, we are very upfront about the possibilities of bugs arising during a beta test and offer the tickets at a discount. Without fail, we find numerous game elements that we update and improve based on the beta feedback and our own observations.

Could you describe in a bit more detail how you brought this particular game, Real Zero Escape, about? You mentioned pitching it first to Zero Escape's North American publisher, Aksys, and then once you had the go-ahead from them and developer Spike Chunsoft, how did you set about adapting the game for a real room?

Preuss: One of the first steps involved choosing who to include from the games, and how they affected the storyline. We made sure that everyone felt it made sense in terms of the Zero Escape universe. From there we had to identify a number of core concepts and experiences from the games, then carefully choose the ones that could be translated into mechanics and gimmicks for the room.

Spike Chunsoft provided us with a [wide variety] of visual and audio assets. We couldn’t have done it without them!

One of many (many, many) story forks in Virtue's Last Reward. One of many (many, many) story forks in Virtue's Last Reward.

One concern I had going in was that this would be a single room escape, when (as you and I know) the beauty of Zero Escape is that it's a long succession of room puzzles. So I was thrilled to see this game had multiple phases to it. Is that unusual for the sorts of games SCRAP runs?

Lim: Actually, many of our games naturally have that kind of succession. [It's] often referred to internally as "The Twist." We want players to change gears and to never stop thinking in different ways.

"We want players to change gears and to never stop thinking in different ways." - Willa Lim, Los Angeles director for SCRAP

Preuss: [The layout] all depends on the theme of the game. If it makes the most sense to have everything contained in a single room because of story, gameplay mechanics, or theming reasons, then we’ll go ahead and do that. Both our room-style and hall-style event games have had single and multi-room setups based on the needs of the games, whether that means checkpoints where you can receive items or a secret room that holds a story secret needed to progress. The 60-minute time limit does rule all in the end, so we determine expected timing for milestones and rebalance the game if we see any major issues.

Was there anything from the Zero Escape games you really wanted to adapt but found that you couldn't, for reasons of safety, expense, practicality...?

Lim: A pantry filled with shelves and shelves of food. Also a talking punny-rabbit. Oh and murder.

Preuss: So. Many. Things! One of our favorite concepts for the space had us basically replicating certain settings from both 999 and VLR, but we eventually had to face the reality that both time and budget were against us. Those same design constraints led us down a new path to an original concept, though, and I’m really happy with the balance that we reached. I hope everyone who comes to play feels the same way!

Oh, and having 28 different endings would have been the coolest thing ever, but that wasn’t exactly realistic. [smile]

The pantry in Virtue's Last Reward, which may've served as inspiration in an earlier iteration of the room escape game. The pantry in Virtue's Last Reward, which may've served as inspiration in an earlier iteration of the room escape game.

If you're in the Los Angeles area (or planning to visit) and interested in checking out Real Zero Escape, there are still plenty of tickets available through the end of July.