Escape Room Project – Dr. Finkel’s Mind

Researching and Brainstorming

In preparation for our escape the room project, I played an escape room called ‘Lady Chastity’s Reserve’, made by Handmade Mysteries. It was different to other escape rooms I have played in the past since it had a slight interactive theatre element to it (there was an actor who was very involved in the room).

I liked that the theme of the room wasn’t to escape (like usual escape rooms), but instead you had to find a wine bottle before the time ran out. The room was decorated well and it was interesting to explore and interact with the props. I enjoyed being surprised with new areas or challenges (trying not to spoil the game). However, there was too much ‘seeking’ in my opinion. By that I mean that there were times where only 1 or 2 people were working on a puzzle, whilst the remaining people wandered around touching every object and trying to figure out what they could be doing to help. Overall, I did enjoy the experience. In the end, we found the wine with only two seconds to spare!

When it came to making our own escape room, our starting point was to come up with a strong theme to base our room and puzzles on. We eventually decided on the following theme: Every person in the world has been infected by a life-threatening virus. Dr Finkel has managed to figure out the cure. However, he has been involved in an accident and is now dying. The players are placed into his mind to sift through his memories and find the formula to the cure. He can only be kept alive for 30 minutes so the players must do this before time runs out!

After we decided on a vague theme, we had a lot of discussions and brainstorming to form the details of our story. At this point, we even came up with a twist that we could subtly ingrain into the narrative to make things more intriguing for the players.

There were some concerns within the team about the twist and whether it will work or whether it would overcomplicate our room and confuse the player. It is hard to implement complex ideas due to the fact that the room must be completed in 30 minutes. With such a short amount of time, would players even pay attention to our narrative, or ignore it entirely? In the end, we decided that we wanted to give it a try and test which would be the case (since the narrative and puzzles are separate, we could always change it if it doesn’t work). The many discussions were important to clearing up any doubts in the team and making sure we were all on the same page.

We have a lot of options when it comes to the atmosphere and theming of the actual room. We had some ideas on how we could emphasise the fact that the players are within Dr. Finkel’s mind. For example, we could use screens to simulate Dr. Finkel’s eyes and allow the players to see the world outside his mind (although we would have to test the practicality of this idea). Since Dr. Finkel is a scientist, we can have scientific decorations and props, but we can also add personal touches such as photographs of his loved ones, since you are exploring his memories. Of course, we could also use lights and sounds to add to the atmosphere.

For the actual puzzles, we decided to each focus on a particular puzzle which we can then bring together at the end. Thematically, we can come up with any puzzle if we find a way to link it to his memories, so we have a lot of freedom. There were some interesting topics brought up by my teammates relating to the senses (puzzles using sounds/ scents/ touch etc). Also, we plan to include information in different media formats such as files on a computer, as well as traditional paper clues. It will be interesting to see which direction the puzzles and room overall will take.

Creating Puzzles

After more brainstorming and discussions, each member designed their own puzzles to be placed in the escape room. As far as we could, we also tried to create prototypes of these puzzles which could be tested individually.

A lot of work went into deciding which puzzles we would keep out of the many ideas we had, and figuring out how to put the puzzles together. We tried to form the flow of our room, creating diagrams using paper and on the computer.

Initial Flow Diagram:

Final Flow Diagram:

My Puzzle

My initial idea was to create a puzzle using thermocromic ink. If you cover a document with this ink, you can then reveal the information under the ink once more simply by touching the paper.

There are two ways I could use this trick in the room. The first one would be to hide the document with the information somewhere the players would never even think to touch. Then the player will receive a clue telling them to touch a particular area, only to be surprised by the sudden reveal. The second way to use it could be to have the document visible instead of hidden, but the correct information could only be obtained if the players touch in certain locations of the document.

In our room, we have puzzles which involve senses (puzzles involving listening and smelling), so I thought it would be nice to add the sense of touch to the room to tie in with that theme.

The left image shows the ink packages which arrived. The thermocromic ink was mixed equally with binder and simply applied to the surface with a brush.

A lot of work went into deciding which puzzles we would keep out of the many ideas we had, and figuring out how to put the puzzles together. We tried to form the flow of our room, creating diagrams using paper and on the computer.

Due to some unforeseen problems with obtaining the ink, I was unable to produce the puzzle I was envisioning and had to create a backup puzzle instead. Instead of being used in a puzzle, the ink was simply used on the name tags which were on the bottles. The player could touch the tags to see which bottle belonged to which woman (tags can be seen in the right picture above).

My backup puzzle was based on the molecular model kit we obtained:

For the puzzle, I gave the player a few models such as the one seen above, I also gave them a document to refer to. The player has to connect the models to the particular diagrams (on the document) by looking at the number and position of the connections. By doing that, they can figure out which letter = which colour, and consequently which letter = which value. After they have done that, they must then find the value of the biggest molecule on the page by summing the letters (using the information they have just obtained). The output is a two digit number.

The images below show various iterations of the puzzle/ document:

The information was printed on a document which matched the others in the room. When testing this puzzle individually, most people figured out the answer (although some did find it a little confusing or unclear).

However, when the puzzle was placed in the actual room, the majority of players found it far too challenging. The time pressure and the added stress of obtaining many puzzles and clues at once were too much. It was also made more difficult because the puzzle was regularly being confused with another puzzle (the Element puzzle involving a periodic table) which also involved chemistry and made use of elements and colours.

It was necessary to make the puzzle simpler.

Instead of giving a clue that the players should find the value of the biggest molecule, we simply made it very clear what their goal was by highlighting it and emphasising that the molecule was the key. On another iteration, we clarified that the output was a two digit number and further emphasised where the colours on the document were meant to be used by adding an arrow (as the players were trying to use the colours elsewhere).

The changes were not enough and the players still became confused between the molecular and periodic table puzzle. One point was that both puzzles involved colours. Therefore the Element puzzle was reworked to be simpler and remove colours entirely. We also printed a black and white periodic table to take out confusion. Even with those further changes, the molecular puzzle was still confusing to some and the team believed that an entire rework of the puzzle was necessary.

First of all, I removed all the unnecessary (unused) diagrams on the document. It did take away some of the searching element of the puzzle (trying to find which diagrams match the models), but it makes the connection between the models and diagrams much clearer and easier to understand. The models were placed right on top of the document to make that connection even stronger. Additionally, we added some examples of what each molecule would be worth when the key is applied, aiding their calculations greatly.

The concept of the puzzle changed slightly – instead of having to find the value of a given molecule, we are now giving them a certain value and they must find the molecule which matches that value. The molecules which they must calculate are on the wall and all correspond to a particular scientist (whose name will be used in the next puzzle).

This puzzle caused a lot of problems for our room throughout testing. It is a shame we didn’t have the opportunity to test the last iteration further, but it was nice to see that the team who got to test it actually went straight to interacting with it instead of putting aside because it looked too confusing (like the other teams did)!

I think that even after all the simplifications, there will still be people that don’t enjoy it due to the very nature of the puzzle. At the same time, there will be players that enjoy the problem solving and calculation aspects of it. Overall, I believe that it’s important to add a variety of puzzles to the room to account for different players’ tastes. I am glad we worked on this puzzle and improved it along the way.

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