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Sun, Nov 20, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Turning couch potatoes into real action heroes

THE GUARDIAN , MADRID

It feels so familiar. I'm in a nightmarish future with a penchant for dramatic lighting. I have been sent to a bizarre 31st-century prison, where a series of puzzles will help me crack the security system and escape. There are ventilation shafts to crawl down, secret doors, ladders, dead ends and hidden bonuses. Several such games are available on PC, Xbox, PlayStation and GameCube, and now in a three-storey building in Madrid.

As games become more interactive -- using cameras and dance mats -- Negone claims to be the world's first immersive interactive game. Its Spanish creators, Differend Games, have spent four years and 16.3 million euros (US$19.2 million) developing a gaming experience that feels like a cross between The Crystal Maze, Laser Quest and Half-Life.

It works like this: each player has a wrist console that looks a little like a scuba-diving computer. The screen contains your score, your character's health and a list of tools obtained in the game. You select your mission (there are four individual missions and two group ones, ranging from "inoculate the virus" to "steal the secret weapon") and difficulty level. Security guards then escort you to your cell.

Immerse yourself

The game then becomes fully immersive, with a wonderful level of detail. Each of the more than 20 rooms has its own theme, and the adrenaline pumps hard as you explore the space -- shooting down slides, climbing ladders or diving into a pit of small plastic balls.

Sometimes it is like a giant adventure playground for adults.

But it is not just about running around. Every time you see a screen, you place your wrist console beneath it. This activates your helper, one of four pre-recorded characters from an underground hackers' group. On the screen, they set you a challenge -- a memory challenge or logic puzzle answered using the buttons on your wrist console, or something more physical, involving the room.

Correct answers mean a score boost, and a tool that will help you complete your mission; incorrect ones soon add up to you being condemned to a punishment cell -- and expelled from the game.

As you play, the screens send you to different doors throughout the building, satisfyingly unlocked by your wrist console, leading to what could be a room filled with laser lights or an enormous bank vault (the building's former use).

Although other players are in the same space, each person plays a unique game, and is sent on a different route. According to Negone's creators, only 5 percent of players make it to the end on their first go -- and they still won't have seen all the rooms. One game lasts between 45 and 90 minutes, and its database remembers players through their unique nicknames. Every time you return, at least 60 percent of the puzzles and the maze are new.

"What we've invented doesn't exist anywhere else," says Jorge Juan Garcia Alonso, one of the few e-commerce entrepreneurs in a country where Internet usage is among the lowest in western Europe.

He was co-founder of Kelkoo, the European price-comparison Web site bought last year by Yahoo for ?321 million (US$551.5 million). With his sister Silvia, 34, he also founded Netjuice, a new-media business, and from there created Differend, to realize their dream of making a real-life videogame.

Jorge Juan, 39, is a financier with a banking background; Silvia creates the design and technology, alongside dedicated teams in Barcelona and Madrid.

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