Time Run and the real-life Crystal Maze are the latest immersive games to offer fans escapism

In the 1990s, 'The Crystal Maze' was popular with millions of people – from the comfort of their own homes. Now, hardcore fans can attempt the show's tests, and similar challenges, in person. Genevieve Roberts steps up

Game of zones: Time Run’s Luna Fox
Game of zones: Time Run’s Luna Fox

Minutes after ringing an east London doorbell, I find myself standing, along with three friends, in an Edwardian laboratory. Professor Aubrey Defoe, dressed in his early 20th-century waistcoast with pocket watch, asks us to help him to save a powerful artefact, "the Lance of Longinus", for pioneering scientist Luna Fox. By safeguarding the lance and stopping it falling into nefarious hands, we'll secure the future of the human race. It's a weighty task. We're told that a robot, Babbage, who is "prone to being distracted by goats", will help us along our way. Then, we're propelled through a time-travel portal, and we set off on a chase that spans multiple rooms (and time zones), in an adventure that mixes immersive theatre with Doctor Who and Indiana Jones. Yes, it's all a dream – or nearly…

Time Run is part of a new style of game – played out and about rather than at home – which is swapping parlours, boards and computers for professional actors, high-level technology and huge, theatre-like sets.

"We're enhancing traditional entertainment – we've created something totally new," says Josh Ford, who, along with his friends Ben Mason, Sheena Patel and Nick Moran, came up with the idea. "Players have to be able to lose themselves in the details of a fully realised world. It's not enough to create, say, a Paris World Fair-themed environment; you have to create a fully realised pavilion at the World Fair. There can be no single moment that shatters the illusion." This required considerable help from the sports and entertainment agency Doyen Group, which co-created the game.

Dashing through the meticulously designed rooms, I feel pleasingly baffled as I try to follow clues and solve puzzles, often getting lost in the logic. I'm glad of the common sense of my teammates – and the clues from Babbage. I feel guilty at the times I've laughed at television contestants who seem confused by seemingly straightforward tasks in game shows. Faced with a stunningly simple-looking jigsaw, it turns out I'm far from speedy on the uptake.

Crystal Maze's Medieval Area

Time zips by and the buzzer marks the end of the game. We fail to complete the final puzzle. Our mission is unsuccessful. "I don't want it to end," my teammate Jess says as we leave. Despite our failures, we're all hooked – reliving decisive moments long after the portal has closed.

Then there is also a real life Crystal Maze about to launch in Kings Cross, north London. The game – much loved by children of the 1990s whose childhoods were accompanied by the sound of Richard O'Brien's harmonica playing – stays faithful to its television incarnation with skill, mental, physical and mystery puzzles in the Aztec, Industrial, Medieval and Futuristic zones, which need to be cracked in order to win crystals. Instead of reprising their role as viewers, people are booking tickets to compete themselves.

It was 28-year-old actor Tom Lionetti-Maguire who had the idea of bringing the game to life. There is, he says, "a massive appetite for live experiences", fuelled by technological advances. "The original crystal dome on the programme was filmed out of sequence. Production staff worked underneath it, moving around fans to keep afloat the gold and silver tickets that contestants raced to catch, in the hope of grabbing more than 100 gold tickets [with one deducted for each silver caught] to win a prize. That wasn't an option for us," he explains. Instead, he has worked with the special-effects company Artem to create a dome fit to be played in daily and in real time, and he and partners Dean Rodgers and Ben Hodges at the production company Little Lion Entertainment have recreated more than half of the original challenges (though walking the spinning plank, an Aztec zone favourite, has been ruled out by health and safety). Teams of eight take on the tasks, and there is the opportunity to offer advice to teammates – and to decide whether to buy them freedom or leave them locked in rooms if they lose track of time.

Tom had been working on immersive events including Secret Cinema when he came up with the idea to stage the Crystal Maze. Crowdfunders raised £500,000 in eight days towards his campaign to make it a reality. While tickets cost £63, he compares it to the price of West End shows. "Imagine a theme park indoors," he says. "We've created a truly immersive experience." If Time Run is anything to go by – more than 12,000 players, paying from £29 each, have competed since it opened last year – Tom's Crystal Maze will pay dividends.

'The Crystal Maze' presenter Richard O'Brien holds aloft one of the coveted gems

These games don't rely just on carefully crafted sets, though. In some, real-life streets provide the backdrop. HiddenCity treasure hunts take place in Brighton, Manchester, London and York, while one events company offers a version of The Apprentice based around Camden Market in north London. At the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, wannabe secret agents can play "Spy in the City", using GPS devices to take part in a high-stakes covert operation around the neighbourhood. The game was designed by former spooks.

Citydash is closer to home. Team members have to find keys hidden around London by cracking cryptic clues – all while being pursued. The current theme is Escape from Wonderland, so players meet guests, including the March Hare, the Cheshire Cat and the Caterpillar, at the Mad Hatter's tea party before hurtling around the streets. The Queen of Hearts and her henchmen are hot on their heels.

Gwyn Morfey, 35, started designing one-off games for his friends in London in 2006, which soon grew into regular events with a fan base. A year ago, he quit his job as managing director of a web development company to concentrate on Citydash full time. "I played a lot of games, but love running around in the real world, too," he says. The storytelling element is crucial: "Stories should be centred on players, and should feel accessible. People don't want to just be passive participants, they want the game to be about them." Some players are so enthusiastic that they wear hydration packs and compete repeatedly in a bid to increase their success – but they're in the minority. "We get gamers, runners, sportspeople, puzzle people, Alice in Wonderland fans."

At Time Run, Josh Ford believes that immersive games are only going to become more popular – not only because they are a remedy to the digital world but also because they offer a form of escapism. "The key is indulgence," he says. "These games let you experience moments you're never likely to encounter in everyday life – and give you the chance to be the best version of yourself."

Time-run.com; inthehiddencity.com; spymuseum.org; citydash.net

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