In this first post on the Escape Room group design and development process, I am telling about the work-in-progress theme of the Escape Room, and later in my second post I will focus on the puzzles I created for the project.
Play-time: 30 minutes
Number of players: Must be 3-4
Project start date: 1 November Wednesday, 17
Escape Room running dates: 4 sessions of Thursday, 16 and 4 sessions on Friday, 17 November 2017
Room access time and date for set-up, decoration and game-testing: Wednesday 15 November 2017
1- Make people feel smarter than the game
2- Create a a world/space/narrative for the players to physically experience
3- Keep it all within the magic circle (telling the narrative, objective, rules, clues…)
4- Force people to collaborate, but not all the time
5- Give lots of simple puzzles instead of one complex
6- Pace the game (do not give access to all the puzzles at once, lock some up)
7- Balance out the game (see if you can add or remove challenges during gameplay without making them realise it)
As a class we divided into 2 groups of 6 as Room Alpha and Room Prime. I became a member of Room Alpha.
Before coming to the class, we brainstormed about the themes that could work for our room amongst each other. I was imagining about an asylum theme and a puzzle with straightjackets. Everyone came up with ideas to the class, and Ed had an idea about being inside a brain of someone significant. We liked it and started building from this idea. We came up with the basics of the theme within our first day of project. The same day, we agreed on the basic idea of our theme.
General theme of the game: Inside the Mind of Dr. Finkel
The entire population is intoxicated by a virus, and the players are send inside the brain (his psych) of a scientist (Dr. Finkel), who has discovered the formula to cure the population, but also he has been in a accident and about to die. The scientist has 30 minutes to live, thus the players are supposed to find the formula solving the puzzles playing around the room, and exit the room before the scientist dies.
Ideas on the physical space and the game room set-up:
We went to see the assigned room, where the game would take place. There was a large glass window looking at the corridor so we thought about covering the whole window and cutting out eye shaped holes to resemble the eyes of the scientist. We also discussed about placing screens at the back of the window, visible from the eye wholes, and reflect our (game hosts) image to the players inside the room through the eye holes / screens*. This video-talk system also would give us a channel to communicate with the players if they needed hints. We were not sure if all the stuff we imagined for the room would be possible given 15-days time constraint and limited resources.
Considering the fact that the room we got was a study room, which was mostly empty and looked like an empty office, we decided that the players would be send into ‘the mind’ of the scientist by psychic methods, so the metaphorical representation of the scientist’s mind would be his office. However, since the mind is complex and mysterious, there would also be weird objects in the room, which link to his subconscious and secret thoughts, along with regular office stuff.
Selecting the theme as ‘the mind of a person’ gave us a lot freedom as designers. The mind does not have limits so we could come up with puzzles and later connect them to the theme, as linked either to his emotions, his past or even to his madness. To start with we decided to come up with at least one puzzle idea each, and later work on connecting the inputs and outputs of the puzzles.
The common problem of most of the escape the rooms was having too many padlocks. They were easy and convenient to use but boring, so we wanted to stay away from padlocks as much as possible.
Case Study - Playing the escape room card game, Unlock! The Formula:
Ed brought Unlock! to the class, it is a series of cooperative card game inspired by escape rooms that uses a simple system which allows you to search scenes, combine objects, and solve riddles. The players are seated at a table using only cards and a companion mobile app that can provide clues, check codes, monitor time remaining, etc. We played it and managed to finish the game before the time ran out. The game has a clever design and very good flow. The numbers at the back of the cards are calculated in such a way that leads to locking and unlocking items (new cards) which serves well to the game's pacing.
We were inspired by the theme and atmosphere of the game. We also realised that since a card game was able to create an immersive experience with very little props, we could also do it in our escape room game.
The mobile application which shot clues, made sounds and worked as the timer also inspired our escape room game's computer program hint system (representing the conscious of Dr. Finkel) designed by Will on Unity.
Starting the design process as a team:
As this game was going to be a team-work creation, everyone had their own expectations or things they wished to try out. Will wanted to have some tech and sound in the game, and create a puzzle which takes multiple people to solve. Ed wanted players to play with their senses (i.e. smelling, as a sense which links to the memories of a person). Anita wanted to experiment with a special ink for discreet writing (an ink which reveals itself by heat). Ata sought for a scientific puzzle, taking into consideration the theme. Greg wanted to experiment with the unconventional ways of utilising regular objects (i.e. using an object for another cause rather than what it was originally created for). I wanted surprise the players with an original and playful puzzle, which is tactile and almost felt like a toy.
Of course there were some points we did not agree on. Team-work always demands compromise. A few members of the group wanted to have a narrative-focused game, meaning: they wanted to have a significant twist in the story, because they thought that the escape room games around lacked strong narrative so this situation damaged the immersive experience. The opinions in our group divided into half.
The twist** in the story meant that the secret service people (us, the game hosts), who recruit and send the mind agents (the players) into the mind of the scientist, were lying to the mind agents (players). The secret service people were bad people, so they wanted the formula of the cure for an evil cause. So, the mind agents (players) needed to figure out that we were evil and after finding the formula they need to destroy and avoid handing it in to us.
I thought addition of this piece of narrative was overcomplicating things. I did not want the twist nor a very strong narrative, considering the fact that it is a 30 minute game which should take us 2 weeks to design and polish. I believed that we should have focused on creating good puzzles and connecting them well enough to have seamless feeling game. I was also pro for minimising the usage of tech.
Eventually, we ended the discussion deciding to take a risk since we are students, and build in a narrative with the twist.
At the end of the project when we completed the room,
* we did not have the time to implement the eye holes / screens on the office window. Not having the eye holes also caused us to give up the communication channel with the players. The players were left alone in the room without human guidance. They could type some clues on the computer and receive riddles as hints, but they were not able to talk to us, and we were not able to talk to them.
** we did not have the time to include a proper 'narrative twist', so nobody understood that they needed to destroy the formula when they find it. It was not a problem because we made it so that the players win the game when they find the formula. Then they would get a choice either to Upload it or Delete it. If they ever understood that there was a narrative twist, they could delete it.