Encounter: Vienna Noir

Discovering an adrenaline-fueled form of entertainment

Another site in the universe that is Encounter | Photo: vkontakte.ru

It’s 2:00 in the morning, and I’m sitting in a beat-up VW Golf outside an abandoned orphanage on the outskirts of Vienna. The volume on the radio is turned way down and my friend is frantically tapping the steering wheel, his eyes straying towards the flickering lights inside the compound.

“I told them not to mess with the lights! They should have been done by now…” he mutters to himself. He lights a cigarette and looks at his watch for what seems like the hundredth time in the past five minutes.

The back seat is littered with all sorts of items – a can of spray paint, a crowbar, a laptop, flashlights and a backpack containing god-only-knows what. The phone rings; ‘Valdemar’ almost jumps in his seat. He quickly picks up and speaks in a half whisper, nearly pushing the iPhone into his mouth.

“They are running out of time. We might have to interfere. All right, 10 more minutes. But that’s it. We can’t afford to break with the plan.” He hangs up and looks at me. “Pass me that crowbar will you…” he says, offering a sheepish smile.

This is not a scene from a gritty caper flick. ‘Valdemar’ and his band of bored bureaucrats are competing in an active urban sport ominously called “Encounter” – a game that involves competitions of all sorts, from photo hunts (taking photos based on preset tasks or conditions) to the so-called “combat,” where teams roam the city in search of clues that can land them in the strangest of places.

Created in 2001 in Belarus by Ivan Masliukov, Encounter has gathered a cult following of daring devotees. It quickly became a franchise, as the license to host games is easy to acquire. “Encounter is played by about 300 thousand people in 11 countries, the organizers say,” wrote the Russian magazine Komersant in 2006. It had become a trend.

As for me, well, first it was only rumors, then I started noticing sly glances and half nods my friends were giving each other. Then I noticed that about every three months they would show up covered in bruises and scratches that they were reluctant to talk about, but clearly cherished. Had Vienna started its own Fight Club? So I remained on the sidelines, lacking the drive to get involved. Then ‘Valdemar’ asked for help in hosting a game, and I agreed, having at last a valid excuse to satisfy my curiosity

So after putting on a disguise and sitting in a café for two hours, waiting for the teams to solve riddles, leading them to me for the next clue, I jumped into the VW and raced towards the abandoned orphanage, where the main action of the game was taking place.

Stumbling in the dark barely keeping up with ‘Valdemar’ I watched him casually climb a fence, ignoring the “no trespassing” sign as approached a row of boarded up windows. A sleeve over his mouth he spray-painted the letters “EN” in bright red on a wall – a sign that the players are on the right track. The orphanage towering over me, I saw the peeling paint expose the rotting carcass of the house. The wind carried muffled echoes of the players inside, trying to figure out their next move on into the nearby forest, as the full moon shone over shards of broken glass scattered by the large metal doors covered with police tape. A chill ran down my spine, making the hair on the back of my head stand on end. This is something you see in a David Lynch film. Munch’s Scream somehow came to mind. I finally forced myself to snap out of it and focus on holding the flashlight steady.

“Don’t worry, we prepped everything for the game,” said ‘Valdemar’ sensing my uneasiness. He turns to face me and lights another cigarette. “Lest they stray from the route we created, everything will be fine.”

And just as he says this, I notice two patrol cars slowly closing in on the orphanage, lights flashing, sirens wailing. I freeze and switch off the flashlight. Valdemar wheels around: “Crap…. Um… Lets get back to the car, we gotta warn’em…” The other two architects of the game are already waiting for us by the VW.

“We are pausing the game till it|s safe,” one whispers. “The teams are laying low.”

The next thirty minutes are phone calls and cold sweats, while the cops hunt for the players inside the massive compound. My adrenaline is spiking, even though I’m idling in the car, paper cup of coffee in my hands.

“Lets move this to HQ,” Valdemar finally proposes. “There is nothing else we can do here.” A bitter relief washes over me in a cool and massive wave, and I understand that even though I would happily go for a beer right now, the experience of this scene, and being a cog in this wheel of fortune will change my outlook on entertainment forever.


A special thanks to Valdemar Hornmann.

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