Last Friday, Kevan, Holly, Josh and I journeyed to the end of the night as part of the 2007 Hide and Seek Fest, a city-spanning pervasive game, free to all 100+ participants because it was sponsored by a charitable foundation and Gideon Reeling, who may or may not exist.

We showed up at a condemned warehouse in Wapping at 7:30 pm, carrying cones of fried potato, with very little idea of how the game was going to be structured. There were ostensibly 100 of us, the “runners,” and 10 of the organizers, or “chasers,” to begin with. Runners got a red-and-white striped safety-tape band tied to one arm, and a red ribbon to put in their pockets; chasers started out with the red ribbons already on. One of the chasers was on spring legs with robot grabber arms. We were not entirely convinced they were playing fair.

We also got maps of central London with instructions on where to meet our contacts; those getting all six signatures would, at the end, get a handmade t-shirt. Each of the contacts was within a specific safe zone. Outside such zones, getting tagged meant you switched out your runner tape for a chaser ribbon and became one of the enemy. Josh spoke openly of his desire to make such a switch from the first five minutes of the game. It is perhaps difficult to explain why this landed him the de facto leadership of our little group. Mostly it has to do with decisiveness.

We split off from the other ninety-six humans and walked from the starting point to the first checkpoint (in an alley amidst curry restaurants) and the second (buskers playing Bob Dylan next to St. Paul’s); despite lots of eye-darting, walking backwards and mild panic at the sight of anything red, we didn’t actually see any chasers until we were nearing the third. The contact was in the basement of a pub in an alley, and the alley was the safe zone. Our acquired paranoia served us well here, as we assumed chasers would be lurking near both mouths of said alley. Josh wandered up to check while the other three of us hid in a bus shelter across the street. He disappeared behind traffic.

“Hey, is that Josh?” I said, just as a figure in a dark sweater came pelting back down the street. Four red ribbons followed hotly. Kevan, Holly and I slipped into the alley behind them. Josh would later inform us that the chasers’ faces when they glanced back at us were worth the effort.

He got away from them and met us downstairs, where a blind poet was stamping our signature sheets with green thumbprints (it was crowded and he took forever, so I tried to sneak my own thumb onto the inkpad, but it turned out he was not really blind). Having seen chasers in action, we were now even more paranoid, and ran from the alley exit to a bus stop (public transport waiting-places were also mini safe zones). I was the only one to see the ambush sprung on the man who walked out just after us. It was like one of those documentaries where the springbok does not get away.

The fourth checkpoint was a matter of walking into a phone box and having it suddenly start ringing; it was the last one we would all make together. We had passed the Zombie Inflection Point (ZIP). Despite all our watchfulness and circuitous routes, the available chasers had simply begun to outnumber the runners.

Have I mentioned how BIG this game was? The walk from the start point to the curry zone was 1.4 miles, and by the time we were approaching the fifth checkpoint in Hyde Park, we’d gone over ten; we’d taken a couple buses but were too paranoid to try the Tube. It was also after 2300 hours, and rainy. Holly had been running errands all day and had not sat down since around noon. This is probably why they got her first.

Jogging away, grieving for the loss of Code Name Cakebaker and knowing that she had already become one of them, we remaining three decided that stealth would no longer avail us: we had to make a frontal assault on the main park gate. Josh entered first and was immediately savaged. Kevan and I got in on the ruse that I was a chaser on his tail, but that didn’t last, and before long we had a pack behind us. We split up in the darkness, and I escaped my pursuers by simply running the wrong way until they got tired and gave up. I would later learn that Kevan had almost successfully peeled off and hidden behind a tree, until Josh turned back and found him.

I was now alone in a huge and very dark urban area at 11:30 pm. I had made it into the inner-park safe zone, but I had little idea where the remaining checkpoints were, and less of how to navigate to them. I was definitely the worst choice for lone-survivor status.

Clinging to the idea that the contact people were somewhere on the south bank of the Serpentine, I wandered back and forth until I ran into Paddy and Nora, who had survived entrance to the park by the considerably smarter avenue of hopping the fence. They had also rolled up their armbands into little strips and linked elbows to further conceal them. All about subtlety, Paddy and Nora.

Despite initial wariness until I had demonstrated my survivor armband from a safe distance, they let me tag along with them to the contacts (Russian dancers), who informed us that there was no safe zone around the final checkpoint. It was after midnight; we had to hop the fence again to get out of the park. I was lucky that they let me follow them again, this time onto the subway to Waterloo Bridge.

We left the Waterloo Tube station, our last vestige of safety, and climbed the entrance to the bridge; we descended to the semi-flooded beach. We could see the organizers who had sent us off from the warehouse standing amidst cameras and floodlights next to a moored party boat. Between them and us, red-beribboned, wearing an evil grin: Josh.

I swear I am not making this up.

The footrace away from the checkpoint, and the subsequent double-back, took just about everything I had left in me; the organizers were shouting “ah, let him go” by the time I started my final sprint, but only Josh knows whether he did or not. Either way, I made it there untagged and got a handshake for my trouble. Paddy and Nora, happily, had slipped in while I led the sentry away.

That is pretty much the whole story; I didn’t get a t-shirt (either the announcement was a joke or they ran out before we straggled in) but I don’t really care. We’ve all been sore and stiff-legged for two days.

If anyone ever asks me again why I wanted to move to London, I now have a very succinct answer.

Update 5.14.2007 1141 hrs: Kevan has made a mental leap farther than me and worked out that Gideon Reeling (or “giddy and reeling”) is a pun on the name of Punchdrunk, an avant-garde interactive theater company that is apparently quite good anyway.