In this second post on the Escape Room Project, I am explaining the design and production process of the puzzles that I focused on. Initially, I had several ideas for tasks and puzzles to include in the room; you can read about the rest from the Failed/Incomplete Attempts section below. Eventually, I decided to focus my time and energy on one of the puzzles I chose, which is the Mini Zen Garden. Later, I included the Cosmic Calendar to the game, and connected it to the Mini Zen Garden, in order to have my puzzle output a date.
Within the first week, I started imagining tools to lock out information from the players without using any actual locks, boxes, safes or padlocks. Escape Room was our last physical game project for the term. I figured I was going to spend a lot of time on my computer in the near future, so I wanted to work on a very tactical, toylike puzzle for this project.
Mini Zen Garden
I enjoy playing with sand and digging. It feels like hunting treasures or discovering an archeological artefact. As a child, I also liked looking under the stones in the garden and in the beach to encounter some new things such as little insects. I thought about bringing these feelings in an escape room, in an attempt to present the players a different point of view than conventional escape room objects and surprise them.
Zen Buddhists practice making rock and sand gardens for meditative reasons, aiming simplicity and perfection. I knew that there were portable, small versions of these zen gardens, which someone could keep in their office or home to play with and relax their minds. When we had our orientation in the 3D workshop, the idea came to my mind. I could make a simple mini zen garden and a sand brush tool, place some stones on the sand and hide clues deep in the sand or under the stones.
I wanted to test the idea first, before investing the time to make a sand garden in the wood shop. I made a prototype from a paper plate, cous-cous and fork. I utilised the tokens in the classroom as rocks. I hid patterns under the tokens and under the sand. Since sand and stones would have a pale look and feel, I thought about hiding colourful mandalas inside the zen garden to add some joy.
It seemed to work fine, so I went to the 3D workshop to build a mini zen garden box and a sand brush tool. In my first visit to the wood workshop I finished making the box with the help of the staff. The next week, I went back to the workshop to make the tool. To collect some rocks, I went to a short trip to the sea side in the weekend.
I was planning to have a pattern matching puzzle, so I searched for some mandalas. I tried to come up with systems to code the output information using mandalas. The mandalas could represent a letter, syllable or a number. My major issue at that point was that I did known what type of an information was supposed to come out from my puzzle. I had to wait for the team members to finish making their puzzles, and I could know then, when we start connecting the puzzles to each other.
First output we thought about my puzzle was a number code. Each mandala was going to represent a number, and as the players find them, they were going to order them based on their sizes to come up with the correct number sequence. I play tested this version of the puzzle multiple times with students in the class. It worked OK, they understood that the sizes of the mandalas were different from each other and they needed to be ordered. For a while, I could not come up with an elegant way to prepare the mandala key (a chart which show the meaning of the patterns).
After the other team members were nearly done with their puzzles, as assembling the puzzles into a game, it came to the point that my zen garden puzzle needed to output a date, a month and day. We decided to name the CD's for the listening puzzle after months in a year, as if the voice records are the daily logs of the scientist. The players needed to find out which CDs they needed to listen (month), and which track on the CD they needed listen (day of the month).
Since I had to output a date, I decided to make a calendar which included the mandala patterns. I wanted to keep the calendar design as compact as possible, and I was going for a circular design for a mystical look rather than having a classic rectangular calendar. I searched the internet and juggled between ideas for a while, and then I decided to have mandala patterns only representing the months in the calendar, and use another symbolism for giving out the information of the day. While researching and scamming thorough different types of calendars, I thought showing the day with moon phases might be cool and supply me the circular calendar design I was wishing for.
I came across a cosmic moon phase calendar of 2017, and constructed my calendar design based on it, using Adobe Illustrator and some free vector images that I found online.
I hid two large black tokens inside the garden. I sticked patterns at both sides of the tokens. First token was under a rock, slightly covered by the sand, so that if a player lifted the rock he could see that there was something hidden under it. The token had the sun and moon symbol (the one on the calendar) at the front to lead the player to the cosmic calendar, and the full January mandala at the back (the calendar has half mandalas, the token had the full version). The players had to match the pattern on the token and to the one on the calendar to find the correct month. I hid second token deep in the sand, so that the players had to mess the zen garden with the wooden tool, in order to find it. At the front side of the second token there was a image of a full moon, and at the back it was written "Full Moon" to make it obvious. I thought about not having the writing, but I did not want them to get stuck and loose time on my puzzle, since there were already more complicated puzzles and connections they had to make within the game. Basically, the players would find the month then count the lines (representing the days) until the full moon in January, the correct answer was 12 January.
I got the fine sand for the complete version of the puzzle from a friend. She had a bag of desert sand, and she did not need it any longer.
My puzzle was complete, at least I thought it was until I tested it with a few people. The play-testers were not examining the calendar in detail, they were counting recklessly, in such a way that I did not assume. Originally I did not write "1" on the line they should start counting. I thought they would check the line they should to start counting by counting the whole month of January (31 days, 31 lines), but most of them did not count thoroughly and started to count from the next line, which was the second line they should have counted. I wanted this to be part of the puzzle; I wanted the players to observe the details, but the cost of the mistake was too high in the game. They needed to listen to the right track to finish the game, and there was very limited time to discover that they got the wrong date because we did not have a proper feedback mechanism in our escape room game. Eventually, I decided to write a small "1" on top of the line they should start counting the days of the months. People discarded the 1s, because they seemed linear as if they were a part of the long line, so I tweaked the style of 1s and made them more visible. Lastly, I turned the whole calendar changing the location of January to make the "1" on the line more visible to the players.
The final version of the puzzle worked fine most of the time. When we ran the escape room, there were still some players discarding the "1" and counting 11 instead of 12.
Final images of the Mini Zen Garden and Cosmic Calendar:
I found a white toilet towel box in the classroom, which had a key. When opened up, it looked expansive and reminded me of the medical containers where they keep blood samples or organs. It also reminded of an incubator. Then I thought about a recent exhibition on bird eggs and nests.
Dr. Finkel (the scientist that the players are inside the mind of) could be an explorer. He liked going to safaris, collecting rare eggs, or these eggs could be belonged dinosaurs which he used in his studies to come up with the formula for the cure.
My plan was to empty some eggs, paint them to cool colours and put a small note inside the egg. The players would need to break the egg shell in order to reach to the clue. I emptied eggs successfully, and inserted notes inside these eggs. I tested the incubator idea with eggs in class. Jon, one of the students from the other team (Team Prime) broke the egg and reach to the note. He was happy with the feeling of the task, he said it was very tactical.
I found some fake eggs to accompany one real egg which needed to be broken by the players. The player was to identify that one of the eggs was real, and he/she needed to break it to reach to the clue.
The problem generated when I tried to spray paint the fake eggs. The real eggs looked fine when painted but the fake ones were impossible to paint, the rubber material which they were made of did not keep the paint on. Since I have spend plenty of time already on this task, I decided to cancel it, and focused on my main idea.
2- Origami Cootie Catcher:
In an attempt to hide information without using locked objects, I thought about making a origami cootie catcher, which is also known as a paper fortune teller. It was possible to hide information inside the cootie catcher, if we could tell the player how to interact with the cootie catcher.
When people play with it, usually one person presents the other some options to choose from and he/she moves the cootie catcher based on the choices that the other person makes. I thought that this type of interaction with the toy would need a lot of instructions given to the escape room players. I wanted to give them a puzzle which felt natural to interact with, I did not want to tell them how to play/use a certain object, thus I gave this idea up as well.
3- A puzzle inside water:
I desired having liquid inside the escape room. Whenever I go to the professional escape rooms, I see that the designers go very safe and they do not include objects which can spill or break. The game objects are secured to their locations. This looks like the smart and easy thing to do, but consequently the rooms feel dull and unnatural. I thought if we had a puzzle which included a container with liquid inside it, such as an aquarium or something similar, it would add a cool feeling the atmosphere of the game.
I searched the internet for toy aquariums, sea monkeys and toys which reveal inside water (the top coat of the toy dissolves in the water). The toys took a long time (40 minutes and more) to dissolve and reveal, so I eliminated the idea. If we had a sea monkey container, the players could count the sea monkeys; but the sea monkey eggs needed time to hatch, it was risky and I was not sure how some players would react to the game objects which are alive... Affordable toy aquarium options were ugly which included uglier plastic fish, so I decided to gave up on my liquid obsession thinking of the limited time we had.