In virtual escape room games, a chance to solve lockdown mysteries — and save the world from coronavirus

Welcome to a new crop of escape rooms, set in the COVID-19 era and played virtually in groups ranging from 2-20 over WhatsApp and Zoom calls.

Barkha Kumari June 23, 2020 10:53:56 IST
In virtual escape room games, a chance to solve lockdown mysteries — and save the world from coronavirus

Even as most of us have little to no control over the coronavirus pandemic’s narrative out in the real world, there is a parallel universe where you do have a chance to save humanity from this invisible nemesis. There too, the clock's ticking.

Welcome to a new crop of escape room games, set in the COVID-19 era and played virtually in groups ranging from 2-20 over WhatsApp and Zoom calls. Just like their physical versions, these virtual escape rooms too require you to solve codes and puzzles to complete a final task or make a great escape in the time allotted. And with birthday ‘parties’, reunions, team-building exercises and weekend catch-ups with friends and family all taking place online, these games are proving to be a popular accompaniment.

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In The Covid Lab – End of the Pandemic game by Mystery Rooms, you have 90 minutes to find a coronavirus vaccine hidden in an underground lab. According to the plot, certain files suspiciously buried in the year 2000 make a mention of the COVID-19 virus that has the world in its grip today. "If the files mentioned the virus, they must have mentioned a cure as well and that's what you need to hunt down," says Sapna Bhutani, one of the directors of the chain of Mystery Rooms, explaining the game’s premise. Once you book the game, you receive a secret letter from a scientist over email.

Mission Timeline by Mumbai-based Clue Hunt is also about the race for a cure. But here the setting is futuristic and the time limit just 60 minutes. The narrative tells us that India’s Underground Defence Lab has developed a time machine and is looking to recruit secret agents to travel to the future and bring back an injection that a Japanese institute developed to kill the virus. The game doesn't name the COVID-19 pandemic, but of course, we know. "We deliberately didn't use the word COVID because we don't want to belittle the current situation or offend the medical world," explains Ketan Chhatpar, Clue Hunt’s co-founder.

Not just the contagion scenario, Clue Hunt has pivoted three games on the lockdown situation. In one, a billionaire has been murdered; in the second, a dictator has disappeared; and in the third, the Kohinoor diamond has gone missing. But how did this happen when everybody and everything is in lockdown? Agent, that's your case.

The Lockdown Game by Mumbai-based No Escape takes the crime scene many notches up. The premise here is that COVID-19 has affected more than 50 percent of CID field agents at a time when Mumbai is also facing a terrorist attack. So they need virtual detectives to go into the terrorist hideout and defuse the time bomb before it's too late (there’s a 60-minute time limit). "Initially, we wanted to make a full-on coronavirus -themed game that would traverse from China to Italy but people in my circle suggested otherwise. They said they wanted to take their mind off this pandemic’s uncertainty," says Presley Fernandes, who co-runs No Escape.

All of these online games are riveting and interactive — think imagery of a tense laboratory, ominous sounds, threatening reminders, selfie challenges, a few hints and some insights about how viruses work.

How do you play these games remotely, given they require so much teamwork? It's simple. Form a team and choose a captain. Now the captain's job is to liaise with the team over video calls and submit the final answer on WhatsApp or a web portal, wherever the game is being hosted.

In virtual escape room games a chance to solve lockdown mysteries  and save the world from <span class=coronavirus " width="640" height="362" />

Posters for COVID Lab and Mission Timeline

In virtual escape room games a chance to solve lockdown mysteries  and save the world from <span class=coronavirus " width="640" height="362" />

(Above and below) Creatives for Lockdown Game

In virtual escape room games a chance to solve lockdown mysteries  and save the world from <span class=coronavirus " width="640" height="362" />

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The idea of taking escape rooms online was necessitated by the lockdown and the intrigue around the coronavirus crisis was too omnipresent to skip.

Says Chhatpar, "We launched Mission Timeline as a fundraiser for the PM Cares Fund on 19 April. Almost 180 teams signed up and we raised Rs 18,000 in one hour." The game was supposed to be a one-off but took on a life of its own. "Two days later, we started getting random messages from people in Dindigul near Jabalpur, and even Austria, asking for answers to Clues No. 5 and 8. Which is when we realised that some participants had leaked our game — our intellectual property — to unregistered people. We wanted to take legal action but the damage had been done."

Since their game had gone "viral", Chhatpar decided to go with the flow and launched Mission Timeline officially a week later. Today, his team hosts this virtual game at 6 pm and 10 pm daily and "has had over 18,000 players so far — from Indore to Singapore and Australia".

Ditto with The Covid Lab — End of the Pandemic. "From running eight slots a day in the first week of May, we now run 24 slots on weekdays and 48 slots on weekends. Since it's a virtual game, it's crossed borders and has been played by people in the US, Canada and Australia," says Bhutani.

While participants from Mumbai, Indore, Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad and the Indian diaspora overseas has logged on for these games, “We've had Canadians, Australians and Singaporeans play the game too,” says Fernandes about Lockdown Game, which at the moment is open only at 6 pm on weekends.

A spokesperson from BookMyShow confirms the trend that "more games in this genre are being created", while citing another example — Pandemic Escape by Stem Box.

In virtual escape room games a chance to solve lockdown mysteries  and save the world from <span class=coronavirus " width="640" height="362" />

Participants completing challenges in various virtual escape room games

Players can be found across all demographics. Some parents are signing up their 10-year-olds to develop their critical thinking and visual deduction while others are using these games for birthday parties for their children. Families are catching up across cities and continents because Ludo and Housie are now too mainstream. Seventy-year-old grandparents are more than happy to play Sherlock. HR departments have found a new employee engagement activity.

Then there are mystery hounds like friends Ronnie D’Costa from Mumbai and Waseem Somjee from Pune. "We played Lockdown Game against four other teams, who had more members. Still, we ranked second that day. We were so happy. We were curious to see how escape rooms can be played virtually and how you can incorporate the pandemic theme in it," says D'Costa, a 31-year-old brand marketing manager.

Not everybody is here to “beat” the pandemic. Mumbai-based industrialist Varun Bubber says he and his wife Amrita “were looking to try something new over the weekend. We came across Mission Timeline and got two more couples to form a team. That's it."

Are people playing these games to escape from reality and look for a happy ending? The hosts can't say as they don’t get to interact too much with the participants. And what happens to these escape rooms once the pandemic is over (whenever that is?) "I am working on more versions of this game and more slots for now," says Fernandes.

Barkha is a freelance journalist. She tweets @Barkha2803

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