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Úll 2017 Escape Room - Part One

I just got back from Úll 2017, running my second Apple-themed one-day pop-up escape room. I was asked by many attendees to go into some more details about how I put these rooms together, designing the props, puzzles and storyline. I'll start with my favourite prop from this year's edition, the Infocom game The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

It had occurred to me that the sorts of things you say to Alexa, Google Home or Siri have a similar sound to the things you type into Infocom games. "Turn on the lights", the first command you need to make any progress in the Infocom's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is something people say to Alexa all the time. I decided to design a "testing machine" for a future Siri-enabled Apple Home product that would have eight buttons on it, all to input sayings that would test different aspects of Siri's capabilities. There could be a separate puzzle that involved testing an Apple Home device, but then I could also use the same hardware to have an Infocom puzzle as well.

I didn't want to use a real Infocom game, as this would be too restrictive in what buttons I could use and what puzzles I could foist on the players. If I was going to create an Infocom game from scratch, what better one to create than the infamous lost game, Milliways, also known as the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Andy Baio has an incredible deep dive into the history of the game, but I opted to use none of the text from the partially completed drafts of that game.

I spent about a month working on the text of the game. It needed to meet a lot of criteria:

  • It had to start where the last game left off, on the ramp of the Heart of Gold.
  • It had to be playable with only Siri commands.
  • And those Siri commands would need to be ones I can use as the basis for a separate puzzle.
  • It had to have a clear goal to get to for this puzzle to work inside an Apple-themed escape room.
  • It had to roughly follow the storyline of Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
  • It had to be funny.
  • I decided the hook back into the Apple escape room would be that Apple was working on an iPhone with a vantablack coating, and needed a good marketing word to describe it. In a memo to the players, Tim would say he recalled there was an excellent word to describe something so incredibly black in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and could you find it for him. Naturally, in the book, there's no such word, but in the game, there would be.

    I strongly wanted to start this game with the same puzzle as the first game, namely, you start in darkness and have to turn on the light. Not only would this be a nice nod to the first game, but it's a really excellent example of a Siri command. This posed a problem, as how could I start the game both in darkness and on the ramp of the Heart of Gold? This is what I came up with:

    At this point I could have just had Arthur ask the computer for a nearby restaurant (just as you'd ask Siri for one), but I didn't offer that prompt until you first checked out the entry on Civilization in the Guide, in order to show off that wonderful Douglas line about the How, Where and Why phases all civilizations go through.

    At this point, I was stuck with two problems: movement and inventory. The verbs used for these in Infocom games are "go" and "take", but these are the two sorts of commands you generally don't give to Siri. I came up with "Go West", which will start playing the Pet Shop Boys song on the speaker in the room, and "Take a few Z's", which dims the lights in the room in preparation for a nap. I can now have Arthur moving west throughout the game (but not any other direction), and pick up the "Z" credit cards that Zaphod has carelessly dropped on the ground.

    If you forget to pick up the credit cards, you need to restart the game, as there's no way to "Go East".

    I needed one last weird command to deal with actually looking at Hotblack's ship. I figured Siri is supposed to be good with context, and that if you asked it for some nearby restaurants, and it gave you three, it would be able to parse "Look at the third one".

    And now you have the great marketing word for the really black new iPhone. I coded up the game using HTML, CSS and JavaScript, and made it look as close as possible to the Apple II Infocom interface. I had fun coming up with ways for the player to accidentally die if they choose the wrong button to press. I ran the software on my 17" MacBook Pro, with the screen poking out of an Ikea box, along with the eight buttons to play both the game and to test Siri with (in a separate puzzle I'll explain later).

    You can see from the underside that I hooked up a MAME arcade kit to the MBP, with the buttons just translated into keystrokes that the JavaScript will pick up on. The Restaurant game will only show up on the MBP screen when the floppy drive is plugged into the front of the unit, with the Restaurant floppy disk inside it.

    I ordered a white USB floppy drive on Amazon, and to make it more Apple-y, I changed the connector to USB-C. To accomplish this, I had to open the unit, cut off the USB-A cable sticking out, and solder on an official Apple USB-C adaptor. I decided to hide the floppy drive in a trash can in the escape room labelled "A Thousand No's". I'm really proud to own the world's only USB-C Floppy Drive.

    All that was left was to hide the floppy somewhere in the room, and what better place than a proper Infocom game box itself.

    I justified that it could still run on modern hardware by adding the phrase "and later" to the list of Apple computers it's compatible with. I tried, but wasn't completely successful, in matching up the colours and lines on the side.

    Inside, I made two feelies, little doo-dads that Infocom would include in the game box for fun (and sometimes for copy protection). Naturally, all of the pages in the little book of verb tenses after Future Semi-Conditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional are blank, to save on printing costs.

    Here's the original and the sequel together at last.

    I'll be writing more blog entries in the upcoming weeks detailing the rest of the escape room. If you're not familiar with this web site, other than hosting my blog, it's a quick reference guide to Apple's keynotes, broken down and searchable by products and presenters. It's best to jump to the main screen, where you can see all the keynotes in a nice table, and filter them by topic, presenter, or how much swearing there was. Here's some blog entries for some of those keynotes that you might find interesting:

  • A cameo by Douglas Adams
  • The worst font ever in an Apple keynote
  • A stolen surprise