For the escape room puzzle, I knew early on that I wanted to do something that utilised phones as a tool to find the solution. My original idea was using image recognition using the phone camera. However, this would have required a lot of research and did not seem feasibly possible given then time constraints. I instead opted to use QR codes which are detectable by most modern smart phones. When designing how the puzzle would function and what it would be, I tried to conceive where it would fit in a larger escape room and the narrative that larger escape room would convey. This helped me figure out what form the puzzle should take.
My escape room puzzle fits into a wider narrative that sees players as test subjects in a human experiment to gauge their intelligence created by an evil pharmaceutical company. This would allow further use of the ‘laptop as a hub’ idea and could see players attempting to solve the puzzles while a timer would be counting down to the release of poison gas would be released to kill them. Understanding the rooms narrative made the idea of what elements to include a lot more understandable.
I decided that I would create an application using Unity that would be the centre point of the puzzle. Running on a laptop, this would be the ‘hub’ that players would be required to come back to when they collect new parts of the puzzle. Designed to look like an early Windows operation system, players would need to input five keycodes to progress. To add a further level of complexity four of the keycodes would be colour designated, meaning they must be entered into the correct boxes in the correct order.
When thinking about what a fun and understandable puzzle would be, I decided a scavenger hunt style challenge would be something easily understandable and could fit well within the narrative construct of the wider escape room. By physically hiding the QR codes in pieces of physical media such as documents and posters, players would have to search the room for not immediately obvious pieces of the puzzle.
I decided to hide the keycodes in media that would progress the narrative. These would take the form of memos and promotional posters all relating back to the evil pharmaceutical company. In these I have placed the QR codes needed to unlock the laptop element and progress the puzzle. The four coloured codes are in documents that heavily hint to the colour that keycode represents. The fifth keycode I wanted to make a little harder to find. To do this I have split the QR code into four pieces and attached them to each of the four bits of media. By combining the four different bits of media players will be able to access the fifth code.
Testing the escape room puzzle, several things became overly apparent. Firstly play areas need to be highly curated and free of clutter. This is utterly essential, as the I noticed that players were getting sidetracked, as to the player, everything in a room could be an element of the puzzle. Having a “noisy” room full of objects not related to the puzzle creates a situation where people can get sidetracked by examining lots of different things. Worse still, something that has no relation to the escape room could be percieved at having meaning. This means that players spend time and energy on something completely meaningless.
My second learned lesson is that line of sight is a powerful tool. By sitting people at the laptop facing away from puzzle elements, players were not making the same mental connections as the players that were seated facing the puzzle elements.
Thirdly I learnt that difficulty is very difficult to get right. Elements I thought might be confusing, people actually solved quite easily. In the context of a wider escape room this wouldn’t potentially be as much of a problem, and I had intended this to be an early and easily solvable puzzle. However things like hiding the colour contextually in the posters were easily understood by players. This could definitely be improved by having codes hidden in text form instead of just QR codes, and having players read documents to find them.
I tried to implement the splitting of the final QR code as I had originally envisioned. This however did not work as phones could not read it and this significantly reduced the puzzles end difficulty. I solved this by hiding the final QR coded on the back of the laptop, however this wasn’t really keeping in context with the rest of the puzzle, and was very easily missed.
THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSIONS
I actually enjoyed creating this puzzle far more than I thought I would. The idea of coming up with multiple puzzles fitting into a narrative and theme definitely helped my initial creative block. I have learned escape room puzzles are heavily dependent on use of specially curated spaces to succeed. I think I utilised space to a reasonable degree, but I can definitely see how I could improve that moving forward. Also, after testing my puzzle, if I were to do it again, I would probably do a better job of hiding the codes, instead of relying solely on the QR code method I used here. I think it was an over estimation of the puzzle complexity on my part. Some elements failed completely, such as the final QR code. Though I think this could work elsewhere, in this instance it failed due to the way phones read QR codes.