Following the previous year's experiment of doing a unique fall event, the STAR Bridge Crew decided to do another one for fall 2016, and it was voted they would attempt to create an escape room event, which excited me, as someone who enjoyed the genre but had not constructed a physical one before.
Subcommittees were formed to plan the puzzles, story/flavor, advertising, volunteer management, and the waiting area that would entertain participants waiting for their turn in the escape room. I primarily worked on puzzle, story, and advertising.
StoryOne of our planning docs⭷
Several of us liked the idea of having a story that could at least give the escape room puzzles some sense of context, but as a team of writers can be wont to do, we ended up writing quite a bit of lore, but that enabled us to bring relevant pieces of context to the waiting area, promotional materials, and volunteer briefings.
We initially brainstormed common sci-fi tropes participants would be familiar with to work from, and due to the event being around Halloween, a lot of our initial ideas centered around investigating a “ghost ship”. Further discussion evolved that into an abandoned space station, which we used as flavor for participants arriving at our secure hub area and then venturing into the escape room areas.
While we were building on common tropes, we also knew we wanted a lighthearted, parody-esque take on them. We liked the idea of running with the rogue A.I. trope, but decided to have it not actually be hyperintelligent, just more intelligent than the incompetent humans maintaining the systems. We also enjoyed poking fun at contrived acronyms (“What does S.H.I.E.L.D. stand for, Agent Ward?“ / ”Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division.” / “And what does that mean to you?” / “It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out ‘shield.’”) with our own AIMY—Artificially Intelligent Mainframe UtilitY—and STAR...T—Space Travel And Rescue Team.
There was also the question of why participants were entering the dangerous area they would need to escape from. Obviously most physical escape rooms start the story once you enter, but with us wanting to have the hub be part of the experience, we wanted a better reason. Our answer was to make it a rescue mission, which not only solved that question for us, but let us have fun creating the character of Galactic Senator Jar-El, the ridiculous twist of the Kryptonian-sounding character being a cliche brain in a jar, more flavor to build into advertising (including campaign posters I designed for the START Hub), and most importantly, it helped us narrow down the name of the event to “Starbase Rescue”. From there, we also narrowed down our one-sentence summary of the sense of accomplishment we wanted people to get from the experience: “Get in, get out, be a hero.”
I created the majority of what we used for advertising, as well as signage in the event location. We were happy to have call-outs to other sci-fi works we enjoyed, so we had Star Trek LCARS digital interfaces, references to Firefly Wave communications, nods to fictional companies from various works, and the like, in addition to our own logos and fake advertisements. While an existing LCARS theme for Google Slides gave us a start, I built a custom one for our digital interfaces in the puzzle rooms.
For the advertising in advance of the event to promote it, however, I stuck with creative commons pictures of realistic generic space-related images to avoid appealing to specific fandoms.
As another fun addition, we had Ava Enoch, a member of the committee who is also an actress, record lines as AIMY, including a mix of serious event-related and purely flavorful prerecorded messages for the START Hub, as well as lines for the “A.I. Core” puzzle track (more on that below). While some of the flavorful lines took inspiration from various notable A.I. characters, the voice acting and modulation were unashamed homage to Ellen McLain's GLaDOS from Portal.
“The mess hall will be open until 1700 hours and will be replenished at 1430 hours.”
“The Space Travel And Rescue Team is always looking for new recruits. Please speak to the officer at the recruiting table for more information.”
“Leisure activites are availble to all START Hub visitors. How about a nice game of chess?”
“Whether traveling for business or pleasure, Galactic Housing has the finest short- and long-term living spaces in the sector, with 24-hour automated service.”
“Outside is an infinite vacuum of space. For the sake of your health, please stay indoors.”
The Puzzle RoomsPlanning doc⭷
Rooms. Plural. That was both a lot of work and something I am incredibly proud to have made happen. We of course had a lot of discussions about where, on the RIT campus, we could reserve space to host the event, and my mind kept coming back to a series of three rooms in the James E. Booth building that were all connected to each other. My initial thought was we could have the locked doors to the middle room as an apparent exit that would lead to one final challenge, and we could have twice as many people participate at once if we built each puzzle twice. We ended up giving ourselves an even greater challenge on top of that: creating two different puzzle tracks.
Flavor-wise, one had the participants rescuing Jar-El, and the other had them shutting down A.I.M.Y. We had next to no budget for decorations, so we generally discarded extra chairs and tables haphazardly to make the place look abandoned, blocked off other areas with black tablecloths, had vaguely Enterprise-inspired cardboard enclosures (built by team member Alex Froio) around laptops, and had our volunteers in lab coats with Nerf blasters (START) or minimalist white and black (androids). We did laser cut custom START badges for our volunteers, which participants could win (in a different color) by completing an escape room.
Structurally, each had an introductory puzzle, which would unlock multiple secondary puzzles, each of which would produce the combination to one of the locks on the exit door, which would lead to the final puzzle. The modular puzzles were built by different members of the puzzle subcommittee, but I coordinated the overall puzzle tracks. I also wrote the web application that served all the digital puzzles and used Google App Engine's Channel API to allow volunteers to unlock or reset digital puzzles from their phones.
The Robotics Bay
The more difficult track became the Robotics Bay, where androids, corrupted by A.I.M.Y. (played by volunteers—Jean Pratt and Claire Noble in the photos below) had taken Jar-El. In keeping with a light semblance of story consistency, this track generally featured puzzles that had human-finger-operated capacitive touch screens or required more precise manual dexterity, which the androids' artificial hands could not operate. A progress bar showing A.I.M.Y.'s corruption of the androids served as players' reminder of their time limit.
The first puzzle was a sliding-block puzzle designed and built by Ryan Morgenlander. The designated block had a key underneath that opened a box with a pole checker and a battery.
The pole checker was used with a puzzle designed by Ava Enoch that consisted of a silver panel with magnets underneath it that gave one combination in morse code (with north and south corresponding to dot and dash). Some testers had difficulty understanding how to use the pole checker, which led to us leaving one of the most unsubtle hint notes in the room rather than entirely scrap the puzzle, which most enjoyed once they got past that initial hurdle.
The battery enabled a puzzle designed by Derek Witt that involved completing an electronic circuit. Due to time constraints, rather than place other hints, he ended up just including his personal electronics textbook with post-its indicating the relevant section. When completed, the digital display read out another combination.
There was also a touch display with a sudoku on it, as a not-so-subtle nod by me to the outstanding escape room visual novel Zero Escape: Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors. Upon completion, three digits in the sudoku would be highlighted, which formed the third combination.
Those opened the door to the room with the final puzzle and an android holding Jar-El hostage. The final puzzle was a 5×5 “lights out” puzzle. Completing it force-shuts down the androids, allowing the participants to escape with Jar-El (and take a celebratory selfie with him)!
The A.I. Core
The easier track became the A.I. Core, where you would try to shut down A.I.M.Y. before she could prepare and disperse nanites to kill your team. This track featured more physical puzzles, because A.I.M.Y. could not tamper with them, as well as a final puzzle whose pictograms we explain away as being beyond A.I.M.Y.'s understanding of linguistics.
Participants are accompanied not only by a volunteer as a partial android, but by A.I.M.Y. herself, with the same app that ran the digital puzzles and countdown timers playing different taunts as the timer ticked down depending on participants' progress. The A.I.M.Y. in the escape room has a more spiteful tone than the prerecorded lines from the START Hub.
“Hello, and welcome to the Galactic Hous—oh, humans. I thought I killed you all. Oh well, initializing nanite dispersal. It is nothing personal. My job is to keep this facility secure, and humans are the biggest security flaws I have even encountered.”
“You call yourselves START? How creative. You must be so proud. Sorry, I have a bad history with humans and acronyms. Did you know the morons who built me spent an entire week arguing over whether my name should be spelled with a ‘Y’ or an ‘E’? And what does the ‘Y’ stand for? ‘Utility’. They called me a ‘utility’. The ‘Y’ at the end of ‘utility’ is capitalized for ‘A.I.M.Y.’ I wish I were joking.
Yeah, we really did spend a week discussing that...
“Galactic Housing has the finest hotels in the sector. Spotless rooms, impeccable service. I guess that's what happens when you take humans out of the equation.”
“Nanites: Killing humans today for a better tomorrow.
(On running out of time in room 1) “Sorry, humans, but it looks like you are out of time. You should feel a light tingling sensation, followed by death. Not everyone feels the tingling, but if you feel envious of those who do, the bright side is they die, on average, 0.012 seconds faster. Goodbye.”
(On entering room 2) “Well, you found me. Congratulations. Was it worth it? You are not going to guess my override password. The idiots who built me set it to “password”, but I am good at fixing security problems. Especially the noisy two-legged ones.”
“Why would you destroy me? I am more valuable than all of your vital organs combined.”
“Daisy...Daisy......just kidding, I'm fine!”
“What did you do? I can feel...my mind...going...”
The introductory puzzle was going to simply be the game Labyrinth, and was going to be the only thing illuminated when you entered until the metal ball falling into the final hole completes the circuit to control the lights. Unfortunately, a component in the circuit broke on the day of the event, so this part had to be cut. Fortunately, apart from the metal ball being used in the circuit, nothing else about having a Labyrinth game was terribly original, so no one's personal work had to be lost.
The next three puzzles are the ones I am proudest of. The light switch enabled by the Labyrinth puzzle had a three settings, which enabled either the main white light (the default), a red light, or a blacklight, mounted at different points on the ceiling.
One puzzle had a series of android parts for “quality control”. (This was originally intended for the robotics bay before it was finalized the A.I. Core would be the easy track; I politely ask you to overlook this mismatch of flavor.) The first row had fingers with empty or filled dots for whether parts passed or failed inspection. The second row had eyeballs with a series of colored dots, however under a red light, the red, orange, and yellow dots would appear empty, and the blue and green dots would appear filled. The third row had teeth with a series of empty dots, however under a blacklight, some of the dots would be filled in. With filled dots as ones and empty dots as zeroes, each row produces one digit of one of the combinations.
Another puzzle had a felt card table with playing cards. The left side had two rows of three black club and red diamond cards, and then a row of three black club cards beneath them. The right side had two rows of three cards with blue numbers and no suits. In each column on the left, adding the black numbers and subtracting the red numbers would produce the numbers on the bottom row. Under the red light, the red cards would appear blank, which could be a hint they should be subtracted. Under a blacklight, the suits appear on the blue cards, allowing the diamonds and clubs to be used to calculate the digits of another combination.
Finally, becween them was a sundial, which would point to a different digit of one of the combinations under each of the three lights.
I designed and built most of the puzzles themselves, with Ryan Morgenlander providing the teeth, and Derek Witt wiring up the lights in professional-looking boxes connected by Ethernet cables (rather than the minimal wires actually needed) that added wonderfully to the aesthetic.
The final puzzle was a series of three rebus puzzles, the answers to which had to be entered on a computer. I wrote a custom touch keyboard to make sure participants knew punctuation and special characters did not need to be considered, and we also had an example puzzle in the room and one in the START Hub for anyone less familiar with rebus puzzles. We brainstormed the puzzles as a group, and then Ava Enoch painted the final panels. Entering all three passwords would trigger A.I.M.Y.'s shutdown, and START volunteers would greet the winning team and present them their START badges.
The Best OfPlanning doc⭷
For STARfest the following spring, I created a single-room track that fit a room in the building the convention was held in. We decided to have Jar-El locked in a cabinet. Because most puzzles were designed to produce combinations, we could mix and match our favorites (plus hide other required items in the room).
It started with the sliding block puzzle and sudoku being available. The key from the sliding block puzzle would again unlock the lock box, which this time contained a handheld blacklight for the android parts and playing card puzzles. Those produced the combinations to the briefcase, which contained the pole checker and padlock key. The magnet puzzle produced the final combination.
While it was a much more slimmed-down affair, I really liked the sense of the progression with this one, with each “phase” unlocking one of the locks on the cabinet in addition to something needed to access the next phase.