A couple of weekends ago, I got to participate in Memori: a live-action escape room hosted at the State Library of WA. You see, it’s the Libraries 125th anniversary this year, so they were looking for unconventional ways to engage the public, and created this experience in conjunction with a local game consultancy company called Games We Play.
Fortunately, having played an escape room before, I had a bit of a rough idea on what to expect going in. However, given the temporary nature of this project, as well as the integration of WA History, the team involved had to really think creatively to work within their limitations and budget they had been assigned. This included several unique components which involved roleplaying, narrative and puzzle designs that were inspired by stories from WA history.
From those who were able to attend, the general consensus was that is was a fascinating experience! The problem, however, is that Memori was only running for a limited time, so we reached out to Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie, a lead on the project, to tell us about it, how it was received, and to discuss other pervasive games Perth can look forward to.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Kate. It’s been an exciting couple of days!
Kate: Thanks for having me! I’m a fan of the site and everything you’ve done for the local game scene, so I am honoured to be here. Most of my games debut in other cities because Perth is only just starting to get excited about pervasive games (the last one, Space Trek was in Melbourne earlier this year). I’m thrilled to finally have a game debut in Perth that I can share with everyone!
As a Perth-based game designer, could you tell us about you and your company, Games We Play?
Kate: Games We Play is a game consultancy that specialises in custom games and playful workshops that are not only fun and push creative boundaries, but also make the world better. I started out by making experimental and pervasive games about eight years ago as part of a non-profit I co-founded with David Fono (who also worked on this project) called Atmosphere Industries. We made games for games festivals such as Hide and Seek, Come Out and Play and Indiecade.
Our work, in particular “Gentrification: The Game” got a lot of traction and even won a bunch of awards. I found myself getting a lot of requests to do custom games and playful workshops, which I was doing largely on my own. The scope of the projects I was starting to work on also started getting larger, so I started Games We Play earlier this year. I run as a cross between a social enterprise, consultancy and an art collective, and have a great group of people who I can bring in, depending on the needs of each project. I’ve always worked in the non-profit/educational/social enterprise space, so the focus of Games We Play is to work with those sort of organisations to help them use games and playfulness to meet their goals in a fun, engaging and creative way. I think MEMORI is a really good example of what we do best.
It’s been a big year for the State Library of WA, could you tell us how you got involved with them?
Kate: As well as Games We Play, I also run the Games and Interactive program at FTI, which recently moved to the State Library of WA. Part of the reason for the move was that the library has been doing a lot of innovative outreach work, as well as moving into the digital space. Having FTI in the building, I think, helped to further support that mandate. The library approached us about doing something as part of their 125th anniversary celebrations that would bring in different people to the library and help them to engage with the libraries materials in a new way, so it seemed like a perfect collaboration between FTI’s production arm, Excalibur, Games We Play and the library.
The project you just wrapped up was “Memori” – an escape room. Why did you go with this idea?
Kate: My background and passion are pervasive games — that is games that are played in the physical world, often enabled by technology. I’d been wanting to do my own escape room for a while, and to my knowledge no one had yet done one for education or in a library.
There was also so much that could be done creatively in terms of adding a strong narrative that fits with the gameplay, which I don’t think escape rooms have done well yet. The goal of the project to tell stories from WA history using materials the State Library’s collection also seemed like a really good fit for a narrative escape room. Harry Lee, the puzzle designer on this project, had been talking for a while about collaborating on an escape room, so this was the perfect opportunity for us to create something that was educational but also expanded what escape rooms are and can be.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, could you explain how a typical escape room plays out?
Kate: In a typical escape room, you are put in a room with a bunch of other people, and to escape you need to solve a series of puzzles. It’s like a live-action puzzle room, for anyone who has played the digital version — it’s the same sort of concept. All the escape rooms I know of are done as commercial enterprises, with a storefront and 3 or more different rooms for customers to play. They really vary in terms of production quality. I’ve seen escape rooms with smoke machines, lasers and secret passageways hidden in coffins and I’ve seen others with just a collection of stuff clearly bought from an op shop.
We did things a bit differently in a number of ways, both by adding in a strong narrative (which I’ll talk more about soon), but also with the use of puzzle boxes, which were designed by Harry Lee and built by the amazing Allan and Chris McSevich. We had three of these boxes, each of which contained a rather interesting physically based puzzle which required pieces spread throughout the room to solve. The blue box, for example, contained a pulley mechanism — with a key on one side and a basket on the other. Players had to gather materials from the room and figure out how to get those materials into the basket through an inconveniently located slot in order to get the key out.
A key difference with your game was the use of narrative and roleplaying, how did that work out?
Kate: For the first time it was done, I think it worked out pretty well. It was a challenge to make sure the overall story layer fit with the puzzles and the WA stories, but I think it all came together pretty well. Most escape rooms have a theme but not a strong story, so you might find yourself in a murder themed room, trying to solve a murder, but being given clues as to who the murderer was as you unlock safes or other areas, which really doesn’t make much sense and requires the player to suspend their disbelief.
We constructed a narrative around a top secret research lab called BAISMENT (located in the basement of the library) that was recruiting new employees to run their MEMORI project which extracts memories from everyday objects. As a test to see if they were worthy to work for the lab, they would have to go inside the MEMORI device and “decrypt” memories (i.e. solve puzzles). We had two rooms — a waiting room, and the MEMORI room itself. Players came into the waiting room, were briefed and then blindfolded and taken into the MEMORI room, which was explained narratively as actually entering the interface for the MEMORI device where they would interact with memories from WA history directly, which had been previously extracted by the lab. We told players that since memories are products of the often surreal and cryptic human mind, decrypting them was much like solving puzzles. So, in order words, players had to solve puzzles to advance the game and discover more bits of the story, both about the MEMORI project (hint: like most fictional top secret labs, they were up to some questionable activities) and about the WA stories.
As players solved puzzles, they were not only given access to more pieces of the WA stories, but they were also delivered more of the MEMORI story – primarily in the form of the lab director, Dr Harold Acker’s secret video journals which we put in 5 DVDs hidden in the room.
We tied together the different game layers (puzzles, stories) with a chat backend, created by David Fono, that took the form of a giant screen and a keyboard that players could use to interact with us. It was themed as the system backend to the MEMORI device, complete with green text, a black background and old school modem sounds. We used this to help players with hints without breaking the fourth wall. It was also the place where Penny, one of the characters in the game communicated with players about some of the WA stories while also trying to enlist their help against Dr. Ackers.
Education was also the goal, could you tell us about using stories from WA history in the game?
Kate: Rebecca Meltcalf, who worked with me to write the stories in the game, as well as heading up the research component, told me she had a great time going through all the material. We settled on three WA stories — the story of Sam Issacs and Grace Bussell and wreck of the Georgette near Cape Naturaliste, Audrey Jacob, the murderer on the dance floor in Perth, and Faye Howe, the lighthouse girl on Breaksea island who helped sailors communicate with their families just before they went off to war.
There were three corresponding puzzle tracks which related to each of these stories, each with its own colour. For example, the Faye Howe track was yellow and contained puzzles relating to lighthouses and the sea, such as using semaphore (which is how Faye and the sailors communicated). The track also contained photos of the lighthouse and Faye herself, from the library’s collection, as well as some fictionalised letters between Faye and a friend that told her story. If players solved all the puzzles, they were treated to the postscript of each of the stories, so for Faye they learnt about her later life being a rather kickass lady who was warden at the Fremantle prison.
There was a time limit, but you also included a guaranteed conclusion. Why was this important?
Kate: Most puzzle rooms have the win condition of solving all the puzzles to “escape.” Since our project was a bit different, both in that we wanted a stronger narrative, but also that we wanted to make it interesting and fun to a variety of player types. In the last 10 minutes of the game, players are given access to the final Dr. Ackers’ DVD, which basically revealed his entire plan. Through the chat interface, players are then given a choice between two paths and then 3 minutes to debate which path to take. The two choices were designed to encourage philosophical and moral debate, particularly around the nature of memories and the making of history, while also providing a satisfying ending to the narrative and the experience, regardless of how far the team had reached with respect to the puzzles.
We understand that every game session was slightly different, could you tell us how it varied?
Kate: A big part of pervasive games, at least for me, is iterating and adapting to players using improv and role-play. Throughout the game, the chat interface allowed us to adapt and change the experience for players based on what we observed. We also had a camera with a two-way mic in the room which we used to see what players were up to. At one point, Harry was even pretending to be a computer and players were interacting with him accordingly. I also got a kick out of randomly yelling scary things at players through the two-way mic.
How to do you feel the project went overall? We’d be really keen to see some player statistics!
Kate: I was really really happy with it. We poured our blood sweat and tears (and a few all nighters) into it and it really paid off. We were sold out for the entire weekend and had an extensive wait list, with many people asking us to run it again. SPOILERS: We had 15 teams and over 100 players. 74% of players picked Penny and — destroyed the MEMORI device. The rest chose the morally ambitious Harold Ackers and his plan to erase all negative memories.
Are there any other exciting Perth-based game projects we should look forward to in the future?
Kate: I’m currently working on an augmented collectable card game with Weerianna Street Media up in Roebourne that is designed to teach kids in the community about Aboriginal governance rules. I’m working with Wez Lamont on it, and we’re currently in beta for the card component (I’m writing this on a plane up to Roebourne to do a playtest with the kids), and we’re hoping to start development on the augmented online component shortly, which will link back to the cards via QR codes or something similar. I’m hoping to do another public physical world game next year too, so stay tuned!
If you live in Perth and enjoy pervasive games, we highly recommend you follow Kate on Twitter: @oceanpark, or, alternatively, you can jump over to following websites for more info: memori.org.au and gamesweplay.com.au.