Meet Mitchell Clifford, the Creator of The Murder on Hemlock Drive | Interview

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An exciting new crowdfunding campaign in support of the murder mystery video game “The Murder on Hemlock Drive” is about to launch, and we caught up with the game’s creator, Mitchell Clifford, to find out more.

 

Mitchell Clifford

 

Mairi: Hey Mitchell, it’s great to meet you! Please introduce yourself.

Mitchell: Hi! My name is Mitchell Clifford. I am a multimedia artist from Cincinnati, Ohio.

Mairi: And is this the first video game you’ve created?

Mitchell: Yeah, this is my first video game. So my, my background is in electrical engineering, but I’ve always had an interest in the stories that people tell each other and how do you can use technology to enhance those stories.

Back when I was in high school I was really into animatronics, things like the Dark Crystal and Jim Henson stuff. So when I went through college my main focus was electrical engineering. I mean, you’ve gotta make money somehow, right? But I focused on getting into a school with a great art program. This let me do both.

From here, I’m self-taught. I have some background in coding from the engineering, but learning video game engines, that part is all new to me. I really got into game design when I started attending conferences for VFX, they often showcase a lot of video games and art installations. I’m fascinated with how people tell engaging stories through multimedia and non-traditional formats. Interactive technology is great.

 

 

Mairi: Totally! But what about you, what are some of your favourite games?

Mitchell: From an early age I started out with the Pokemon games. I played Pokemon Yellow and I couldn’t for the life of me beat it. Like, I raised a Level 70 Pikachu and always ran out of money. The funny part is, I finally beat the game years later in college. Haha!

More recently my favourite genre has become puzzle games. I’ve loved playing Gris, Superliminal, Monument Valley… Games like that!

Mairi: How about murder mystery games?

Mitchell: Well, the murder mystery genre is very interesting because my writing a mystery into The Murder on Hemlock Drive came from the storytelling point of view. My first job out of college was really boring, but it let me listen to audio books for hours and hours. At first, I was reading through all of the new Nancy Drew Chronicles because they were all at my all free on my app. Then I got into Agatha Christie, went back to Sherlock Holmes – I read everything I could!

They were such an important part of my life I wanted to make one of myself. I’m not going to compete in the literary field- haha no. But I did want to bring fun and interactivity into stories like this with a video game.

Mairi: And so The Murder on Hemlock Drive was born! How did you go about writing the story?

Mitchell: Sure, so when it came to writing the story, I was inspired by an Agatha Christie book called Towards Zero. It’s such a great way to write these stories. The murder is 0.0 and then everything branches out from there. So I’ve kind of started from there: Here’s the murder! Then working the story back, like how did all these people get here? And then once I have that, I can be like, well how do you solve that? How do you like untangle the mess that happened back here and then have a conclusion?

 

 

Mairi: Will the game just be on PC, or Consoles too?

Mitchell: To begin with, it’ll be on itch.io and steam. The goal there’ll be PC Linux and potentially Mac too. The whole time I’ve been working on the game I’ve actually been imagining it as a tablet or mobile game, so that’s the next step for me. It depends on the interest.

Right now there’s technical demo available on itch.io. It’s got your basic mechanics, the look, the feel, and the music too. I’d definitely encourage people to try it out if they’re interested! It gives you a real feel of the game. I’ve been using local Cincinnati based artists for the illustrations – Evan Verrilli makes the illustrations, and Ethan Kimberley and Katie Carson produce our music.

 

 

Mairi: And if the crowdfunding is successful, what’s next?

Mitchell: We have some stretch goals too. If it does really well, we’ll be expanding our team – I’d love to bring on someone to do more animations for the game, and we can add more levels and expand the look and the feel. It’s been quite hard as a solo game developer. Right now I’m not a full-time designer, my time is split between lots of activities. So even one more person would give us twice the capacity to make the game even better for launch. Expansion stories would also be really fun if the crowdfunding goes really well, there’s so many different stories I want to tell.

Mairi: And finally, what are you hoping the game will achieve once it’s launched?

Mitchell: Haha, well I don’t want to like put too much on it, but I’m hoping that it will be an interesting experience. There’s different character traits and different ways to solve it. So once you solved it, you really feel like you figured it out on your own.

I built in a couple of newer elements, like this risk system, you have to push people for answers, but if you push people too much then it’ll come back to bite you. Perhaps the killer will be alerted you’re on their track, or perhaps people will just feel like you’re an asshole and won’t want to talk to you anymore.

But yeah, I’m really just hoping it’s fun. Even if small amount of people play and really enjoy it, that’ll be good!

We thank Mitchell Clifford for taking the time to be a part of this interview!

If you want to keep up with The Murder on Hemlock Drive, check out the website hemlockmurder.com and Mitchell’s Itch.io page here.

Build Your Own Escape Game Artefacts! Part 5

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Have you ever wanted to build your own escape game artefacts using low voltage electronics? Look no further! In the upcoming months, look out for a short series of articles on how you can approach creating small, but effective artefacts for your own game designs.

Previously…

In part 4, we have our basic countdown timer product. Part 5 will look at potential bonus features you can add to your product to make it even better!

You Will Need

Fundamental Equipment

1x Arduino Uno (or open-source copy)
1x Arduino Uno USB connector
A laptop or desktop computer
A download of the Arduino IDE
A power adapter for the Arduino Uno (see part 1 for guidance)
4x male to female dupont cables (1x red, 1x black, 1x yellow, 1x blue)
2x male to male dupont cables (1x black, 1x brown)

Specific Equipment

1x TM1637 4-digit, 7-segment display timer – (Look here for examples)
1x Emergency stop button with locking mechanism when pressed – (Look here for examples)

Extra Feature #1 – Stop & Reset Button

Picture this. You’ve got 5 seconds left on the clock in an escape room, and you’re about to stop the clock just in time by hitting a big red switch. Sounds amazing right? Let’s make it.

Red – 5V -> VCC
Black – GND -> GND (Timer)
Yellow – Pin 2 -> CLK
Blue – Pin 3 -> DIO
Black – GND -> Button Pin
Brown – RESET -> Button Pin

If this diagram looks unfamiliar to you, please revert to the original one in part 4. This is merely an addition to that. Depending on which type of emergency stop button you have purchased, it might have either 2 or 4 pins to connect. This will be a case of trial and error; swapping the dupont cables to different pins to achieve the desired result.

The desired result will be the timer freezing once the button is pressed and subsequently, locked in (again I stress, buy a locking mechanism button!), and when the button is twisted to unlock, the timer should reset back to 60:00.

Extra Feature #2 – LOSE At The End Of The Countdown

Picture this. (This one isn’t so fun). You’ve got 5 seconds left on the clock in an escape room and you’re about to stop the clock just in time by hitting a big red switch… but you don’t make it quick enough and in place of the timer, you see LOSE. Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

Sounds um, less amazing…right? Let’s still make it.

Included in the <TM1637Display.h> library which we are already using for our timer, you can add up to 4 characters on the display before or after the countdown.

Here, I will show you how to show LOSE, once the countdown has reached 00:00.

Above, is a diagram of the 7 segments a single display character can hold, alongside a letter (A-G).
First off, we need to work out what segments we need to display the word LOSE. Feel free to work it out yourself, or look below for the solution.

L = Segments D, E & F
O = Segments A, B, C, D, E & F
S = Segments A, C, D, F & G
E = Segments A, D, E, F & G

Now that we have our segments worked out per character, we need to:

  • Declare these in the code we already have
  • Create a function called void lose()
  • Add a condition for it to show once the display shows 00:00

Declaring The Segments

Add this code in your // Display function:

const byte LOSE[] = {

SEG_D | SEG_E | SEG_F,
SEG_A | SEG_B | SEG_C | SEG_D | SEG_E | SEG_F,
SEG_A | SEG_C | SEG_D | SEG_F | SEG_G,
SEG_A | SEG_D | SEG_E | SEG_F | SEG_G

};

void lose()

In between the void setup() and void loop() functions, add the following:

void lose() {
display.setSegments(LOSE);
delay(1000000000);
}

delay(1000000000) – holds the LOSE message on display for approximately 277 hours, when activated – ie: long enough!

Adding The LOSE Condition

In your void loop() function, add the following after the first of 3 right curly braces (}):

else
lose();

Test Your Code

Now is time to check your code is error free. Click on the tick in the IDE. If that is error free, now click the right facing arrow button (with your Arduino Uno connected to your computer) to load your updated code in. You may want to temporarily change your timeLimit to 10 seconds for swifter testing.

If you receive an error at any point, please use my troubleshooting tips in part 4 as a starting place to fix your bug.

If you are feeling brave, you could even try to change LOSE to show a different set of characters – eg: STOP.

If you are feeling even more brave, try putting a 4 character message before the countdown begins.

End Of Part 5

That’s all for now, for the time being. I hope this has been fun for you to build! I’ll return later this year with a new project, but for now, take care!

Crowdfunding at a Glance: How to raise money for your escape room with crowdfunding

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In addition to my role as writer at The Escape Roomer, I’m the Head of Community and Theatre at Greenlit.com, a British Crowdfunding Platform designed for and by creatives.

 

Greenlit launched in 2019 with a mission – to be the very best place to crowdfund your creative project. Originally, we concentrated on film projects; our success means we’ve expanded to support all kinds of creative work.

Making a film, a game, a play, an album is hard. And the big crowdfunding platforms offer little help – your work gets lost among the hundreds of gadgets and products. At Greenlit, we only deal with creative work and people, and we want your project to succeed.

 

We would love to give advice to any escape rooms who may be interested in crowdfunding, so here’s our sheet about crowdfunding at a glance:

Crowdfunding at a Glance

This sheet covers:

  1. How much can I raise?
  2. What’s my timeline?
  3. Making money
  4. Your pitch
  5. Common terms

 

Some exclusive crowdfunding tips for The Escape Roomer:

  • Use your backers! It’s a great idea to have experience rewards, so why not use your backers as Beta Testers? Remember, they’re already invested (literally and figuratively) in your success.
  • Shout it out! Make sure people feel appreciated for backing. Giving them a shout out on social media helps make them feel special AND boost your reach. A real win-win!
  • Upgrade it! Have different stretch rewards so people know exactly what their money is going towards. Entice them to give more so they can get more!

 

 

If you’re interested in crowdfunding, you can reach out to me directly at grace@greenlit.com!

Build Your Own Escape Game Artefacts! Part 4

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Have you ever wanted to build your own escape game artefacts using low voltage electronics? Look no further! In the upcoming months, look out for a short series of articles on how you can approach creating small, but effective artefacts for your own game designs.

Previously…

In part 3, we created real code out of our pseudocode and placed it into our IDE. Part 4 will involve testing both the code and the connections between the Arduino Uno and the TM1637 timer component.

You Will Need

Fundamental Equipment

1x Arduino Uno (or open-source copy)
1x Arduino Uno USB connector
A laptop or desktop computer
A download of the Arduino IDE
A power adapter for the Arduino Uno (see part 1 for guidance)
4x male to female dupont cables (1x red, 1x black, 1x yellow, 1x blue)

Specific Equipment

1x TM1637 4-digit, 7-segment display timer – (Look here for examples)

So Far…

  • We have planned our objective:

We want to code a timer that counts down from 60:00 minutes to 00:00 minutes.

  • We have designed our coding workspace (IDE) to have 4 functions or ‘containers’.

Library, Display, void setup() and void loop().

  • We have written our code in the workspace.

Next, we will connect our hardware components, power up and test the artefact!

Setting Up The Hardware

Go ahead and use your dupont cables to connect the Arduino Uno and the TM1637 display timer like so.

Red – 5V -> VCC
Black – GND -> GND
Yellow – Pin 2 -> CLK
Blue – Pin 3 -> DIO

Make sure the dupont cables are snug when connecting. Next, take your USB connector and connect the one end to the Arduino Uno and the other into your computer. The power on should light up on the Arduino Uno; the computer may take a few minutes to download any required drivers, and should let you know when it is done.

Testing The Code

Open up your IDE with your code from part 3, and go to
Tools > Board > Arduino/Genuino Uno
then
Tools > Port > COMx (Arduino/Genuino Uno) – The x will be a number of the Arduino’s choice.

Next, click the tick button, right below the file option. This will check the code for any errors.
If you have any errors, you will need to troubleshoot them. Two good starts to this would be:

  • Checking that your code is identical to that presented in part 3.
  • Pasting the error description into google and see if any of the forums have already answered/resolved the issue you have.

Should the code be error free, it should show a message starting

Sketch uses x bytes (x%) of program storage…

Once you see that message, go ahead and click the right-pointing arrow button, next to the tick button. This will transfer the code to the Arduino Uno and subsequently, the TM1637 display timer.

Should this be successful, the TM1637 timer should light up and start counting down!

Testing The Countdown

One other thing I suggest testing, is if the countdown stays at 00:00, when counted down entirely; ie: no further counting, or no counting up for that matter!

There are two ways you can do this. The easiest but far longest way is to wait until the timer has counted down from 60:00 then check its status. The better way is to temporarily change the timeLimit to 10 seconds, then check. How to do that however, I’ll leave for you to figure out.

Remember, if anything isn’t doing what it should be doing, try my two suggestions for troubleshooting above.

Testing The Power Adapter

Whilst the USB connection powers the Arduino Uno perfectly well, it is highly unpractical to have the artefact permanently connected to a potentially large and bulky computer. Here would be a good time to plug your power adapter (remember to take out the USB connection!) into the Arduino Uno and see if the desired results are the same.

End Of Part 4

At its most basic (but certainly useable), you have your escape game countdown timer artefact programmed and working! Nicely done! Part 5 will look at bonus features you can add to the countdown timer for further usability.

Thanks for reading and see you next time!

The Escape Roomer Interviews: Professor Puzzle

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Earlier this year Professor Puzzle, the UK based puzzle game company, launched one of the snazziest looking escape games in-a-box we’ve seen in a while: Danger in the Deep. Set on a submarine, players are instructed to “navigate your way through the deserted sub, crack the shutdown code, disable the warheads, and locate the enemy agent. All in two hours!” You can read more about what to expect in our latest review, or head directly to Amazon to pick up a copy for yourself!

 

 

We recently had a chance to catch up with James and Elliot, two of the game’s creators to find out more about themselves and what exactly goes in to creating a game like Danger in the Deep. They’re both incredibly busy working hard on designing some fantastic looking games for the future and so we’ve tried to limit this interview to just a few key questions about their most recent game, Danger in the Deep. Though believe me, I could pick their brains for hours!

 


 

Meet James, Game Designer at Professor Puzzle

Mairi: Hey it’s so great to meet you both! Please could you introduce yourselves?

James: Ooh, shall I go first?

Elliot: Yeah, I mean I’ve never heard you say your name-

James: It’s James Smith, and we’re not just colleagues but actually long time friends as much as it pains Elliot. Haha! I’m the game designer for Danger in the Deep, so I wrote the story, designed the puzzles, and so on. I joined Professor Puzzle about two years ago, I spent the first summer tweaking a couple of their existing games, but Danger in the Deep was the first time I got to work closely with Elliot!

Elliot: I’m Elliot Humphries, a senior designer at Professor Puzzle. I’ve been with the company for over 10 years, from back when we were just a couple of guys in a room above a warehouse selling metal and wooden puzzles. But over the course of those 10 years we’ve grown from 4 or 5 people to well over 50 of us now! I’ve been involved in the design for a long time, but the escape room games only began around four years ago. That’s what I’m focusing on now. They’re pretty cool because they take the “Puzzle” part of the Professor Puzzle brand but make them a bit more relevant for the modern consumer compared to the puzzles we created 10 years ago.

 

Meet Elliot, Senior Designer at Professor Puzzle

Mairi: Oh wow, a long time! How did you both get into the puzzle game industry?

James: Me? Definitely not a typical trajectory. I graduated from studying Classics at university… So I’m responsible for 100% of all Greek and Roman references in Professor Puzzle! Then I worked at my local council for about 7 years, and another local council after that. I’ve always been into games, and one day Elliot suggested I come to work for Professor Puzzle. Back then the company was just beginning to focus even more on the escape room games. The thing that appealed the most was the writing aspect of it. So making something that’s not just a pick-up and play game, but a whole story you’re experiencing through the game. That’s sort of inherent in escape rooms in general and I wanted to take our boxed escape room games in that direction.

Elliot: As for me, I joined Professor Puzzle right out of university. I used to live in this small town called Shepperton and that’s where Professor Puzzle first started. The team was a five minute walk up the road, which was basically the other side of town! I started out helping with filling out invoices, helping at the warehouse, and then it became more and more about the design. I very much fell into it but it aligned so well with my sensibilities and that’s what’s kept me here for so long!

 

Mairi: Cool! And what kind of games inspire you both?

James: I’ve played a lot of Exit and Unlock games! They’re consistently good and very concise – I think my first one was the Pharaoh’s Tomb. But beyond escape room games I play a lot more video games than I do book or tabletop games to be honest. One of my biggest inspirations behind parts of Danger in the Deep was a fantastic video game by Lucas Pope called Return of the Obra Dinn. I think it’s the best puzzle game since Portal. Now I don’t want to give away too many spoilers but one of the puzzles in Danger in the Deep which I call the “Chain of Command” puzzle was inspired by Return of the Obra Dinn. Originally that puzzle was going to be the big finale, but as we came up with more ideas it evolved away from that and now it sits comfortably in the middle.

Mairi: How about you Elliot?

Elliot: Same actually, I’ve done a lot of the Unlock! games and I find those really fun. I do those with my wife and they’re not too hard, not too easy, nicely in the middle! Haha forgive me, I’ve got a little left over brain fog from covid, so the thought of doing one of the more difficult puzzle games out there and expending the brain power needed to solve them terrifies me!

Elliot: One game that really jumps to mind is again, like James, a video game. It’s It Takes Two – from a co-operative angle I thought that game was amazing, and I think that’s something we try to put into our games too. We want to give players stuff they can do together. We’ve even written the words “Collaborative Escape Game” on the box! As you know there’s three books in Danger in the Deep and players have to work together collaboratively as they work through all the information – someone has one piece of the puzzle and another person has another piece of the puzzle, and so solving Danger in the Deep requires a lot of collaboration and communication.

Elliot: From a design side haha, I don’t know. I’m probably the worst (or the best) at pulling inspiration from lots of places and putting strange visual references in these games and hope nobody pulls me up on it!

James: Elliot’s also got a reputation for sneaking himself into every product in the Professor Puzzle line! If you look closely you’ll probably find a photo of Elliot in there somewhere!

Elliot: Haha yeah, there’s only a small handful of games where I’m not in them in some way.

Mairi: Yeah I spotted those, are all the photos of the crew members in Danger in the Deep your colleagues?

James: Mostly! There’s one or two who were stock photos. Originally that puzzle was going to be illustrated, but then Elliot came back with a “What if we do a photoshoot?” It was unfortunately in the middle of the COVID lockdown, so we had some challenges there. The crew members you see in the game is everyone we could get into the office.

Elliot: I ordered a load of boiler suits too, all mediums and large, then two of the guys who I asked to come in are six foot four and they didn’t fit in anything!

James: In the end it was a ‘each person in front of a green screen’ sort of thing. Everyone’s a colleague except for two of them, the commander and the captain, they were stock images-

Elliot: Stock images, but they were your body! I just put an old man’s head on James’ body and no one could tell!

James: Haha, I’ve got the body of an old man!?

 

Danger in the Deep Puzzle Design – Before and After!

 

“If we put a detail into the game, there’s a reason!”

 

Mairi: So tell me more about Danger in the Deep! Where did the idea come from and how did you bring it to life?

Elliot: Ooh, big question! So with any new game we really start with the rough idea then start making loads of lists and ideas. We had the central idea for a submarine, so we knew we wanted a blueprints or a map, then it was a case of thinking “Ok, what is in a submarine and what can we make puzzles out of?” We come up with a quota for how many puzzles and what we want out of them.

James: We always start big and need to cut it down so that we’re left with the best stuff!

Elliot: From there we build a narrative flow diagram which is useful in allocating the story beats, such as where puzzles happen, and making sure it’s evenly paced. A flow diagram is a great visual way of telling how and when things interlink. Over time we build up these really crazy maps!

James: It can be a mess for a while but it gets better. It’s super important to establish that theme right at the start too. So it’s not just the setting. We began with ‘submarine’ but there were so many directions it could have gone. It could have been like you’re on the HMS Belfast in London and you’re stuck on it for example. The angle we went with was inspired by James Bond with a dash of The Incredibles as well. That vibe can really inform the puzzles that go in the finished game, so when you go “it’s a spy thriller on a submarine” you’re not just looking at mechanical wiring puzzles, you can have decoding puzzles, you can shutdown nukes, and use gadgets to investigate and interact with the submarine.

Elliot: From a physical standpoint as well, when we were designing Danger in the Deep we had a specific box format to work to with the internal tray fittings the same as the Starline Express and The Grand Hotel. So we thought “what can we do with this?” and started to think about all the things we could fit in and hide into the space.

James: One of the key things for us to to make sure everything has a purpose as well. That’s something we did with this game, a lot of the little details in the booklets and on the box give clues as to how to solve puzzles. There are many puzzles in there that can be approached in different ways too. One player may not pick up on all the details, but if we put a detail into the game there’s a reason. I won’t give any spoilers so let’s just say there might be more than one way to solve a puzzle!

 

Danger in the Deep – Behind the Scenes

 

Mairi: What’s coming next for Professor Puzzle?

Elliot: We finished work recently on a new game set in a Gothic castle called “Curse of the Dark“, or as I like to call it, it’s internal codename which James absolutely hates is “Spooky Castle

James rolls his eyes and laughs.

James: So, many of our upcoming games follow a similar format, they’ll be tile based, have a scratch off symbol hint system, have a series of books, and a big centrepiece- like the blueprints. Curse of the Dark is a much bigger game. In Danger in the Deep there are 22 cards, in Curse of the Dark... Let’s think… There are about 60, 65 odd cards. So it’s big, really big! We’re really proud of it!

Mairi: When is Code Spooky Castle– haha I mean Curse of the Dark due to release?

James: We hope we’ll have the finished product back from the factory by April-May time, but it should be in stores by late May.

Mairi: Any others?

James: There’s also a kids escape room game launching this summer set in an aquarium, for ages 8 – 12, again I can’t give an exact time but very soon!

 

Elliot & James with their upcoming game, Curse of the Dark!

 

“Make games you’d want to play, make them good and be proud of them.”

 

Mairi: Okay final question, what advice would you give to somebody who wanted to create puzzle games like yours?

James: Big question! So I suppose we both kind of fell into this ourselves, but my biggest advice would be simple: Just make stuff!

Elliot: I’d also say it’s really important to make things you’d love, or games that you’d want to play. With Danger in the Deep we really wanted to create this game, but a few people had some uncertainty about the theme. We were like “I don’t know if this is going to be a success, but look we’ve got this really good idea and if you let us make this it may not sell well but it will be good.” As a creative person, you obviously want things to sell really well, but more importantly you want them to be good.

James: Yeah absolutely. Make games you’d want to play, make them good and be proud of them. One more thing I’d add is that our first versions of every game were on Word documents and Excel. They’re just scribbles, drawings on a whiteboard or silly cartoon people doing poses. Point being, you don’t need the best tools or funding or a factory to produce your game, your first version can be on paper and card and whatever you can find around your office. Don’t be afraid if the first version is rough. Nobody, certainly not us at Professor Puzzle get it right the first time. You go over your game with a fine-tooth comb and keep improving it.

Elliot: Yeah nobody springs into the world fully formed and makes a perfect game the first time. And if they have then they’re incredibly lucky and they probably won’t be able to replicate that effort the second time round. So yeah, just get out there and make stuff with confidence!

 


 

A huge shout out to James and Elliot for taking the time to chat to us. If you’re interested in checking out Danger in the Deep, you can head to Amazon – don’t forget to leave a review!

 

The Murder on Hemlock Drive – Murder, Mystery & Intrigue

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Hey everyone, I am Mitchell Clifford, a mystery novel fiend and game designer working on a new adventure game, The Murder on Hemlock Drive. I am so honored that The Escape Roomer has given me the chance to tell you a bit about my new game! The Murder on Hemlock Drive is a murder-mystery, adventure game built around deduction and risk. I want to make you feel like you are stepping into the pages of an Agatha Christie novel full of lies, intrigue and little gray cells.

Here’s a brief teaser of the story: The year is 1928. You are invited to a New Year’s party by a friend that you haven’t seen since childhood. It seems strange, him reaching out after all this time, but you’re intrigued. You travel to the small town where his family estate sits. You never suspect your night of partying will be the stage for murder! 

The Murder on Hemlock Drive – Screenshot

How does this game transport you into the world of Agatha Christie?  One of distinguishing characteristics of an Agatha Christie novel is how the detective solves the mystery by looking beyond the clues and into the psychology of the people involved. In my game, I put character interaction first. In order to solve the mystery, you have to get to know the characters, find out what makes them tick, and maybe then they’ll reveal to you their secrets or become your ally. But don’t worry my classic adventure game fans– there will be plenty of puzzles to solve and codes to decipher along the way!

One of the hang ups I have with mystery games is that they don’t give you many choices. You start out as a generic detective,  find a piece of evidence until the game tells you you’ve got it all and later the game prompts you with an obvious place to use that evidence. It feels more like the game is doing all the deducing for you. Before this game even begins, you are given the opportunity to assign varying levels of  3 character traits to your protagonist: charisma, class, and intelligence. These traits shape how they interact with the other characters and puzzles throughout the game, and it will be your job to determine what information is important and what is a red herring!

The Murder on Hemlock Drive – Screenshot

Charisma

A “charismatic” detective is one that everyone may like but not everyone takes seriously. Think of Nancy Drew, Blanche White or Miss Marple. These detectives are down to earth and know how to listen and understand people, but they get underestimated by villains and authorities alike. As a charismatic protagonist, you will be able to pick up gossip and other characters are more likely to let their guard down around you. However, characters that prefer credibility, like the police, won’t tell you everything they know.

Class

A “classy” detective is one that has more privilege when interacting with others. Think Hercule Poirot or Parker Pine. As a classy protagonist, you will be able to learn more information from people who consider themselves of a higher class or who are authority figures, like the police. However, your status as a member of the higher class restricts which characters will be forthcoming with information. Be aware that deference from people below your station may hide secrets. 

Intelligence

An “intelligent” detective has the upper hand as they explore the world, observing and manipulating the environment. Think Sherlock Holmes. As an intelligent protagonist, you will observe people and make deductions about who they are and what they’ve done. Catching people off guard often yields clues that you wouldn’t get otherwise. However, you’re out of luck if the subject is outside the field of forensics. You’ll have to try hard to not come off as a jerk.

The Murder on Hemlock Drive – Screenshot

Assigning character traits isn’t the only choice you’ll have to make in this game, there are also a variety of different ways to influence conversations between characters. Items you’ve collected can be used as a gift or bribe, you can also  push for answers and call people out on their lies. But, these choices also come with consequences — the more brash you are, the more you alert the murderer. Be careful or you might be killed yourself!

To demonstrate how all these choices work together, I will break down the initial puzzle of the game. (Skip this paragraph if you don’t want any spoilers!)  

As the game starts, your character arrives on the last train of the evening and you are tasked with finding a way to your childhood friend’s house. Depending on the combination of the 3 character traits you chose, the solution of the puzzle changes dramatically. For example, if you chose high levels of class, the solution is to walk past everything to the train station attendant who will call a taxi for you. As a classy protagonist, you have an air of authority around you that makes people step in line. If you chose high levels of charisa, you can gossip with the traveler in the station until he trusts you enough to give you the task of finding his suitcase. Exploring the station, you’ll find the only place that could hold the missing suitcase is a locked office. You then have to convince the attendant to give you the key to the office where you retrieve the suitcase. The traveler will then give you a ride to your destination in return for your help. If you chose intelligence, authority and persuasion are not your strong suit and you’ll need to find another way out of the station. Talking to the traveler will alert you to the fact that he lost his valet ticket somewhere in the station. Exploring will yield nothing except a locked door and a paperclip from some brochures. Talking to the attendant will give you a clue to where you can find a spare key to the locked office. Once you unlock the office, you will stumble upon the traveler’s locked suitcase that you will jimmy open with the paperclip you found and, voila, a valet ticket! Your way out of the station is secured.

The Murder on Hemlock Drive – Album Art

The Murder on Hemlock Drive is currently in its development stage. Right now  I am crowdfunding to raise money to commission new maps, character and sprite designs, music and animation. I hope you’ll consider supporting the continued development of my game by heading over to hemlockmurder.com/crowdfunding and making a donation.

While you’re there, you can also read my blog that details more of my murder mystery inspiration, watch the game trailer, and even download the demo. Hope you’ll make the classy, charismatic, and intelligent choice and join me on this journey! 

Build Your Own Escape Game Artefacts! Part 3

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Have you ever wanted to build your own escape game artefacts using low voltage electronics? Look no further! In the upcoming months, look out for a short series of articles on how you can approach creating small, but effective artefacts for your own game designs.

Previously…

In part 2, I spoke about the Arduino Uno microcontroller and getting to grips with the IDE. Part 3 focusses upon evolving our psuedocode into real code.

You Will Need

Fundamental Equipment

1x Arduino Uno (or open-source copy)
1x Arduino Uno USB connector
A laptop or desktop computer
A download of the Arduino IDE

Specific Equipment

1x TM1637 4-digit, 7-segment display timer – (Look here for examples)

So Far…

  • We have planned our objective:

We want to code a timer that counts down from 60:00 minutes to 00:00 minutes.

  • We have designed our coding workspace (IDE) to have 4 functions or ‘containers’.

Library, Display, void setup() and void loop().

Next we will look at what each of these functions will contribute to the objective, alongside adding some real C++ code to it!

Library

Libraries are files embedded to the IDE that add more functionality and ease of use. For our objective, we will be using just one library file; the TM1637Display.h by Avishay Orpaz. This file includes a series of commands that we will use in our code, to allow the Arduino Uno tell the TM1637 display timer what to display in real time.

First off, we need to pull the file into our workspace. We can do this by selecting

Tools > Manage Libraries…

Next, we need to install the latest version (v1.20), make sure you choose the correct file, I’ve highlighted below to help you navigate.

Because I’ve already installed it, there is no install button for me. One for you, should appear in the right hand corner once you hover your mouse over. Once this has installed, we need to return to our workspace and under the // Library comment, type in:

#include <TM1637Display.h>

This now sets us up ready, to tell the Arduino Uno (and subsequently the display timer), what to do.

Display

There are 2 things we need to set up in this Display function.

  • Declaring the clock and data in-out (DIO) pins.
  • Declaring the length of the timer (60:00 minutes).

If you look on the back of your TM1637 display timer, you will notice that you will have 4 pins to connect via dupont cables, to the Arduino Uno; CLK, DIO, VCC and GND.

CLK = Clock, DIO = Data in-out, VCC = Power, GND = Ground

Power and ground pins don’t need to be declared, just the clock and DIO pins. In other words, we need to tell the Arduino Uno what number pins on the digital side (see The Arduino Uno from part 2) of the microcontroller will be connected, to the CLK and the DIO. As a rule of thumb, we don’t use pins 0 and 1; they are for transmitting and receiving signals, and is best not to interfere with them.

For this exercise, we are going to declare pin 2 as the CLK and pin 3 as the DIO. Return to your workspace and under the // Display comment, type in:

const int clkPin = 2;
const int dioPin = 3;

TM1637Display display(clkPin, dioPin);

const = Constant, ie: non-changing
int = integer, the number of the pin (eg: 2)

Now that you have successfully declared your CLK and DIO pins, next; we will declare the length of the timer. It is to be pointed out that whilst the timer will display in minutes and seconds, the length of time in the IDE must be declared in milliseconds.

Return to your workspace, and underneath your CLK and DIO declarations, type in;

unsigned long timeLimit = 3601000;

unsigned = positive value numbers only, prevents the timer from going past 00:00
long = a number with a large value

3601000 milliseconds = 60 minutes and 1 second. The reason for the additional second is that it takes 1 second for the TM1637 display to power up after the Arduino Uno does.

void setup()

There is only one thing to set up in the void setup() function; brightness of the TM1637 display.

Within the void setup() curly brackets, type in:

display.setBrightness(4);

void loop()

Finally, we will add the code to operate the meat of the artefact; the countdown mechanism.
This will be fairly larger in volume, compared to our current codebase.

Within the void loop() curly brackets, type in:

unsigned long timeRemaining = timeLimit – millis();

while(timeRemaining > 0) {
int seconds = (timeRemaining / 1000) % 60;
int minutes = timeRemaining / 60000;
display.showNumberDecEx(seconds, 0, true, 2, 2);
display.showNumberDecEx(minutes, 0b01000000, true, 2, 0);

if(millis() < timeLimit) {
timeRemaining = timeLimit – millis();
}
}

I appreciate that this may look confusing and alienating, so I’m going to do my best here to relay that code into pseudocode.

unsigned long timeRemaining = timeLimit – millis();
This is declaring a large, non-negative, real-time number called timeRemaining which is equal to the timeLimit (which we’ve already declared) minus the time passed. Ie: The value of timeRemaining will reduce by one second, every second and will show on the display.

while(timeRemaining > 0) {
Whilst the timeRemaining figure is larger than 0

int seconds = (timeRemaining / 1000) % 60;
This is declaring the seconds part of the timer as an integer and is equal to timeRemaining divided by 1000 milliseconds (1 second). The % 60 prevents the timer from using a number in the seconds part of the display that is equal to or larger than 60.

int minutes = timeRemaining / 60000;
This is declaring the minutes part of the timer as an integer and is equal to timeRemaining divided by 60000 milliseconds (1 minute).

display.showNumberDecEx(seconds, 0, true, 2, 2);
display.showNumberDecEx(minutes, 0b01000000, true, 2, 0);
These are commands to tell the TM1637 display how to show the timer to us humans in a way that is readable.

if(millis() < timeLimit) {
timeRemaining = timeLimit – millis();
If there is more than 00:00 on the display, remove 1 second off the timer, per second.

End Of Part 3

Next time, we will be connecting the Arduino Uno to our TM1637 display timer and testing out our code!

See you next time and thanks for reading!

 

READ PART 4 HERE

Build Your Own Escape Game Artefacts! Part 2

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Have you ever wanted to build your own escape game artefacts using low voltage electronics? Look no further! In the upcoming months, look out for a short series of articles on how you can approach creating small, but effective artefacts for your own game designs.

 

Previously…

In part 1, I spoke about the fundamental equipment required to create your own escape game artefacts. Part 2 focusses upon the Arduino Uno microcontroller and getting to grips with the IDE; ready for creating an automated countdown timer.

 

You Will Need

Fundamental Equipment

1x Arduino Uno (or open-source copy)
1x Arduino Uno USB connector
A laptop or desktop computer
A download of the Arduino IDE 

 

The Arduino Uno

Above is a diagram of the Arduino Uno with three rails and a button in the top left-hand corner. The rails consist of a set of pins that can have dupont cables inserted into them.

Red – Power – This rail powers any components that are connected to the microcontroller, such as a LCD display or an electronic lock. Power can be distributed either via 5V or a lesser 3.3V depending on the component you are using. GND or ground is also important. In its simplest term, the 5V/3.3V pins are positive and the GND pins are negative, you need both for a component to power up.

Yellow – Digital – These are signal ports and via user code in the IDE, determines what they do for a component. For example, an LCD display would usually need two digital pins; one to display the clock numbers and one to process data in and out (DIO) via the microcontroller. This will be covered further in part 3. There is also a spare GND port on this rail should you need it; serving the exact same function as the GNDs on the power rail.

Blue – Analog – These can be substituted as spare digital pins and will work just as well. Their main use however, are for components that have more complex actions than just on and off. For example, a radio dial which could have multiple potential outputs, compared to an on/off switch, would be more appropriate for it to be patched into the analog rail. For the time being however, we will not be using this rail for our countdown timer.

Green – Reset – Probably the most important feature on the microcontroller. Pressing it resets the board and starts the code from its beginning. The equivalent of turning it on and off again without killing the power source. 

 

The IDE

 

As mentioned in part 1, the IDE is your workspace to tell the microcontroller exactly what you want it (and any connected components) to do. A new file will always show two functions: 

void setup() – a place to put any code, to run once at the beginning of power up.

void loop() – a place to put the main code, ie: what the microcontroller (plus components) will do.

These two functions will be the crux for our countdown timer artefact. Furthermore however, there are two more functions that we will be adding to complete the codebase; a library function and a display function.

 

Pseudocode First, Real Code Second

Before we start coding anything, we need to create a plan of what we want to code, then we can decide how we are going to do it. The what is best done as pseudocode first, in other words; plain English. We need to write down in clear sentences/bullet points, what our objective is and then, how we plan to do it. This step is extremely important, as it prevents misleading into unknown or unrequired territory, alongside saving time in the long run. 

First question is: what is our objective? Easy, I’ll provide this.

Objective: We want to code a timer that counts down from 60:00 minutes to 00:00 minutes.

Next, we need to consider what functions we are going to use in our code.
If you look in The IDE section of this part, you should find them.

Functions to use: library
                            display
                            void setup()
                            void loop() 

Think of these four functions as containers. We need to fill these four containers with code correctly to achieve our objective. 

Now, we can provide space for those four functions in our IDE workspace. 

 

Commenting Code

In your IDE workspace above void setup(), type // Library – you will notice that the text Library has gone grey. The // has “commented” any words after it. This means that the Arduino IDE compiler will ignore this code when loading it into the Arduino Uno. Commenting code is a super useful way to leave notes for yourself or other developers when planning and explaining parts of your code. 

Next, add a few lines using enter, and then type // Display – it should look like this:

 

 

This is a great start, you now have a clear template thanks to planning via pseudocode. 

 

End Of Part 2

In part 3, we will expand upon our template with real code, to automate the countdown of the timer.

See you next time and thanks for reading!

 

READ PART 3 HERE

Build Your Own Escape Game Artefacts! Part 1

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Have you ever wanted to build your own escape game artefacts using low voltage electronics? Look no further! In the upcoming months, look out for a short series of articles on how you can approach creating small, but effective artefacts for your own game designs.

Introduction

Why am I known as RussBuilds? Because I like to build things; particularly electronics, that lead to creating an escape game artefact; an object that can be held or handled, to solve and is usually hiding something like a key or a secret message to progress further.

I made 4 games over the course of the lockdown period, each involving multiple escape game artefacts, and Mairi right here at The Escape Roomer, reviewed 3 of them. (ENDGAME, AIRLOCK and CITIZEN if you are interested).

I discontinued these games in June 2021, however I would love to pass on some skills and insight into anyone who is considering making their own physical escape games, but doesn’t know where to start.

 

 

Part 1: Fundamental Equipment

What do I mean by fundamental equipment?

Later on in the series, I’ll be showing you how to build an escape game artefact. Fundamental equipment is the absolute basics you need for all artefact building; without these components you won’t get very far!

So without further a-do, let’s begin.

 

Microcontroller

A microcontroller is the brain of any artefact. It receives power and transmits signals to components, telling them to perform an action eg: unlock an electronic lock, show a message to the player etc. There are many microcontrollers out there, but the one I shall reference in this series, is the Arduino Uno.

 

 

Why this one? It’s the most popular one in the world, has tons of technical support for it and most importantly, is an open-source design. This means that the design of the Arduino Uno can be replicated by anyone. The Arduino Uno retails at around £20 per unit and this can get pricey, if you want to build multiple artefacts.

However! There are plenty of open-source copies out there that are up to a fifth of the price, making a project like this, much more accessible.

 

 

Also don’t forget to buy an Arduino USB connector, sometimes they are included but always check; you need one to connect it to a computer!

 

Power Adapter

You need a power adapter to power the microcontroller. The Arduino Uno outputs a maximum of 5 volts (V) to anything connected to it that requires power eg: an electronic lock or an LCD display. I personally use, power adapters that are rated between 5V and 9V and have an ampere (A) rating between 500mA and 1A. Combining these two figures (V x A) creates power, also known as Watts (W). If the power is too low, the microcontroller won’t be able power output components. If the power is too high however, you risk overheating/hot-to-touch components and very possibly; even frying the electronics inside…or worse causing an injury to yourself or others.

I do stress, that my usage of power adapters is merely what I personally use. I strongly suggest that you do your own research on what power adapter(s) you should use. Checking the Arduino Forums, may be a good start of information.

 

Laptop & IDE

For Arduino microcontrollers, you will need a laptop (or desktop computer) to connect and tell what you want it to do. The one I use for these projects, is a 10 year-old Samsung with 4GB RAM and an Intel dual core i5 processor. In other words, not fancy, in the slightest. If you have an old laptop lying around and you can power it up, give it a go, you may have given it a lease of new life!

Secondly, you will need to download the Arduino IDE (Integrated Development Environment) – this will be your workspace where you will tell the microcontroller what you want it to do, using C++ coding language. (Before you start panicking, yes there will be an entry in this series on introductory coding).

 

 

The Arduino IDE has regular updates and is supported on PC, iOS and Linux systems.

 

Dupont Connectors

Dupont connectors, connect the microcontroller to any outputs. The great thing about dupont connectors? They are cheap and easy to use. There are 3 types of dupont connectors that you will need;

  • Male to Male
  • Female to Female
  • Male to Female

 

Depending on what is connected to the microcontroller, it is best to have all 3 types handy, for all eventualities. Get assorted colours too eg: some red, some black etc; it’ll be easier to troubleshoot hardware errors later.

 

Connector Blocks

Connector blocks are plastic or rubber covered and are ideal for either extending or joining several dupont connectors together. If you are using radio frequency tags for example, connector blocks are vital, as radio frequency modules have multiple inputs that do different things. Connector blocks are usually bought in rows of 12 and can be easily cut down if you only need a few at a time.

You’ll also need a small philips or flat blade screwdriver to adjust the tightness of the blocks when the connectors are placed in.

 

 

End Of Part 1

Those are your fundamentals that you need before you can start creating your escape game artefacts. In part 2 we will look at the Arduino Uno in detail, alongside the IDE and some common coding syntax, you will use for a countdown timer artefact.

Read Part 2 Here

Thanks for reading!

 

Wordle & The Paradox Of Language In Escape Games

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Disclaimer! This is from Wordle 235, dated 09/02/22 and is not a spoiler.

I’m sure the majority of readers have come across Wordle, a 5 letter puzzle game where a word is presented daily to guess in 6 attempts. Then, once you find the word (or not), you can show your achievement of how few attempts it took on all social medias; with a pretty, spoiler-free “footprint” image of your playing history to boot.

A Quick History

Wordle was created by Josh Wardle, an American citizen, and subsequently has been bought by the New York Times as part of their games suite. Despite this, it is currently a huge hit in the UK. I am one of many who enjoys the daily challenge it presents. If you look at my Twitter page, the only things I presently post, are TER news and reviews (usually mine!) and Wordle results. Even my family, have a Whatsapp group called ‘Wordle Nerds’ where we post our results religiously and compare accordingly.

Wordle 235

On Wednesday, this week just passed, we British Wordle users were stopped in our tracks. As the answer to Wordle 235 was a 5 letter word in US English, but a 6 letter word in UK English. Cue twitter enragements. Including myself and my fellow writer Nick.

It was so poorly received, that a “British” version of the game; called Wourdle, was born; with its first word being, you guessed it, the 6 letter word in question. Even the British embassy in the US had their say!

There Is A Point To This I Swear

Ok… rant over. Some readers are probably thinking; “its an American-born game, just suck it up and move on”. But I disagree. If a game is so popular in the UK, surely the chooser of the daily word should be more mindful of our language differences? Also, according to his wikipedia page, Josh Wardle is UK born and spent time studying at university here.

Back in February, a similar issue occured with Wordle 207, however between then and Wordle 235, UK engagement has rapidly increased, hence the larger volume in outcry compared to previous.

My point is, that as game designers, we need to be considerate and respectful of the complexity of the English language when designing word-based puzzles and conundrums. I myself will hold my hands up in failing to acknowledge this, in my previous escape game AIRLOCK.

One of the puzzles designed, included a horoscope page from a newspaper that had letters circled, spelling out the phrase:

“Ten and three, focus on the tears and the spaces you see”.

Pages ten and three in the clue document; given to the team at the start in the game, had rips in them, highlighting the tears in the sentence above. The problem is, tears can be pronounced as tairs, as intended… or tee-ars; as in the tears of someone crying.

Guess what around 90% of teams initially prounounced it as…

Then, guess how long on average it took players to realise to pronounce it differently… about 7 minutes per team on average of a 60 minute timed game, lost on a pronounciation trap.

Whilst designing the game, I never considered the double pronounciation of the word. Now looking retrospecively, I feel it should have been signposted better, to evade the inevitable trap. Or alternatively, scrap the puzzle entirely.

In Conclusion

I feel as game designers, we need to cater to our audience fairly and not provide them with pitfalls to fall in, that can make them feel silly; intentional or otherwise. Hopefully the Wordle team have taken this on board; due to the reaction from Wordle 235, and as a result; create an experience that is universally fair, for all users of the confusing and goal-post-shifting English language.