I Spent Saturday Trapped in a Stadium, Solving a Puzzle With 500 People

Game participants "dedicate their hearts" while waiting for instructions on how to save humanity.EXPAND
Game participants "dedicate their hearts" while waiting for instructions on how to save humanity.
Katie Buenneke

As the sun sets over the concrete wasteland that is a stadium without a sporting event, eerie ambient music echoes through the speakers and across the field at East L.A. College. An emcee of sorts, sporting khakis and a green cape, emerges, telling the 500 or so people lined up on the field that they are humanity's last hope. If they can forestall the forthcoming invasion of giant humanoid creatures known as Titans within the next 60 minutes, then the human race will live to see another day. 

In real life, of course, none of this is true — this group is actually the third to tread these fields today, and Los Angeles is just another stop on the tour of Escape From Walled City, a sort of video game in real life. These types of games are popular worldwide, and gaining traction in America. (See our story on L.A.'s Escape Room.) This game is branded as a Real Escape Game, and produced by SCRAP, a well-established company in Japan whose games have had more than 3 million participants worldwide. About 50,000 of them have been from North America, mostly in San Francisco, where SCRAP has set up its U.S. headquarters. But Escape From Walled City, a game integrated with elements from the popular manga and anime series Attack on Titan, is its first foray into Los Angeles. 

Two cosplaying fans in their Survey Corps gearEXPAND
Two cosplaying fans in their Survey Corps gear
Katie Buenneke

The conceit of this game is that participants are members of the Survey Corps, a special exploratory branch of the military in a walled, pseudo-feudal European society. The Titans, malevolent giants who enjoy eating humans, are attacking the walled city, the last bastion of humanity, and the members of the Survey Corps need to awaken the Titan Eren, a human who can turn into a Titan, in the hopes that he will do his Titan thing and save the day.

After a brief introduction to the rules of the game (including an oft-repeated mandate to not post any clues or solutions on the Internet), the game starts, and the players are released to run after the clues, scattered around the stadium. We were armed with a pamphlet containing parts of the puzzles to be solved. The first challenge: Fill a 7x7 square with the answers to the clues placed around the field. One letter from each line of the puzzle is a letter in the seven-letter password, which we needed to show the guards in order to access the second challenge. 

Participants work out the answer to the first puzzle.EXPAND
Participants work out the answer to the first puzzle.
Katie Buenneke

The game requires minimal physical exertion (mostly to physically find and read all of the clues), but the real challenges are mental, and encourage teamwork. I joined a team with a few YouTubers from East Los Angeles and West Hollywood. They'd seen more of the anime series than I had. But while familiarity with Attack on Titan is definitely helpful, it's not required to solve the puzzles.

The game is definitely much easier as part of a group, with everyone bringing a different way to solve the clues to the table. A tactic that works to solve one clue won't work to solve the next one. We worked through the first three puzzles pretty quickly, sometimes figuring out the password Wheel of Fortune-style, when we had a few of the letters for the word, but not all of them. We finished the third puzzle with about fifteen minutes to spare, and we were confident that we'd finish the game and emerge victorious.

The second challenge: a crossword puzzle of sorts, with clues scattered across the bleachers.EXPAND
The second challenge: a crossword puzzle of sorts, with clues scattered across the bleachers.
Katie Buenneke

We were wrong.

As the stadium speakers boomed with footfall of the approaching Titans, we were stumped. The final puzzle was by far the most difficult. Thinking outside of the box is key for most of the challenges, and attention to detail is important. But to solve the last puzzle, the players must follow some pretty convoluted steps to finally wake the Titan Eren and survive the Titan invasion. If you skip some early clues or fake your way through earlier puzzles to save time (like my group did), that will definitely come back to bite you in the butt.

As the Titans drew nearer and a placid and pleasant female voice (why is it always a placid, pleasant female voice?) informed us of how little time we had left, we fretted, throwing everything at the wall, but nothing stuck. We tried things, not knowing why we were doing them, and we found what appeared to be answers without knowing how or why they were correct, or what they meant. We worked until the clock chimed that our time was up, but we didn't figure it out.

I wasn't too upset, though — I'd had fun, and while I think of myself as a pretty smart person, as the game organizers explained how to solve all of the clues at the end, I was able to recognize that there was no way I was going to solve this puzzle. I (perhaps too cheerfully) accepted my fate of being eaten alive by a toothy Titan with a creepy perma-smile. 

Titan Eren, waiting to be awoken.EXPAND
Titan Eren, waiting to be awoken.
Katie Buenneke

I'm sure it would have been easy enough to cheat—after all, we were surrounded by hundreds of other people, all shouting out answers to their teammates, and some of the answers must have made it to the internet by now—but that would have spoiled the experience. I won't lie, we did receive some crucial help from a kind stranger who came up to our team and said, "Hey, this is how you do this part," but that felt more like camaraderie than cheating.

While I wasn't part of the fittest worthy of survival, to paraphrase Charles Darwin, plenty of others woke Eren and made it to safety — about 15-20 percent of the participants solved all of the puzzles, and "won" the game. That number is higher than the success rates for most of SCRAP's other games — Real Escape Game designer Kazu puts the success figures for those games closer to 10 percent. He says that they "designed these games to be slightly easier," since they knew there would be more beginners participating in this game due to both the scope of the game (500 participants vs. a dozen or so per round in their other games, which are about escaping a room, not a stadium/city) and the crossover with Attack of Titan.

Though Escape from Walled City has packed up to go to the Bay Area in April for the last stop of this tour (for now), SCRAP hopes to bring its room-based games to Los Angeles this summer, in downtown or West L.A.


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