Mirror Mirror: Time Travel with a Steampunk Flair
Gillian Grace is trapped in a pocket universe of her own making. Her only life-line is a special interdimensional mirror that connects back to the lab that left her stranded in time as it hurtled into the present. Due to the mirror’s prototypical quality, it only occasionally works as intended; during these moments we see Gillian speaking directly to players and giving them context for their adventure. Most of the time, however, sound fails to travel between dimensions. To circumvent this, Gillian steps within view, breathes fog onto the glass, and writes clues to help players who have lost their way.
Or at least, that is how I decided to explain away Gillian’s selective ability to talk during the experience, as well as solve the problem of how to get pre-recorded video to communicate dynamic messages on a case by case basis.
The Escapery’s “Curious Case of Gillian Grace” is a technical milestone for metro-Atlanta escape experiences and one of my favorite projects to date.
Out of the gate, “Curious Case” was different from anything The Escapery had ever done before. Unlike most escape rooms on the market, The Escapery previously shirked the “TV-clue prompt” paradigm in lieu of clueing solutions much more immersive for players. For all prior rooms, Escapery game masters communicate in character over phone lines, radios, or are actively present within the game world itself. This focus on immersion is core value we share. But a major design challenge presented itself in pre-production for “Curious Case”. Founders Marc & April Simmons wanted a room that could be game mastered simultaneously with their other more involved experiences. For a little industry background, most escape rooms have only one or two people running several games at once. The Simmons’ were hoping to leverage this business tactic to help streamline operations, so “Curious Case” was designed from the outset to function concurrently with other rooms.
Because of this slightly hands-off approach, the TV-clue prompt solution became the obvious choice for real-time communication between players and their game master. And still, we didn’t want to lose The Escapery’s signature touch of having a human character guide the experience. In collaboration with The Escapery’s General Manager, the brilliantly imaginative BJ Shaffer, he and I created Gillian Grace to be a near-constant companion for players.
There was only one problem: Gillian’s world is early 20th Century scientific revolution with an alchemic and steam-punk flair, making any TV within the play space a giant, anachronistic eye-sore. Taking this into account, I decided that encasing the TV in an ornamental mirror would offer a fun and surprising illusion; one that became crucial to the multi-dimensional narrative.
A lot of care was put into how and when Gillian’s cut-scenes where integrated into the “Curious Case” escape room experience. Her introduction and subsequent verbal assistance come at moments of player success; Gillian offers congratulations to validate player efforts, while also ushering them into a new set of challenges.
I developed a custom cueing system responsible for activating relevant puzzles, playing audio and video, as well as publishing the dynamic mirror-clue writing generated from the game master at runtime. The application uses a serial connection to communicate between all of the room’s puzzles, which interface from their own Arduino’s to a singular Arduino Mega PCB that finally speaks to the Unity-based software. Video output connects to a vertical 1080p LCD screen hidden in a two-way plexiglass mirror hung above the fireplace. Sound is pushed through a mono ceiling speaker.
The real-time fog writing system uses several techniques to accomplish the appearance of Gillian entering the window frame, blowing fog onto the mirror surface, and using her finger to etch out clues to struggling players. At it’s base, we have a clip of Olivia Dean as Gillian walk into frame and mime-exhale on the mirror. On the Unity side, I have a large, translucent fog sprite that animates in time with this clip. As the fog appears, I use a screen-space shader (an algorithm that changes the look of what is displayed on screen) to blur the Gillian video, drawing focus to her writing and hiding the fact that the clip is being ping-ponged back and forth to give the impression that she is standing in place while writing. Once fogged, the system dynamically animates a static cut-out of Olivia’s hand and forearm, moving her finger from one letter to the next. The letters themselves are animated sprite sheets (think of these like frames in a cartoon animation) generated in After Effects CC. These sprites are used to mask the main fog sprite, making it appear as though parts of the fog are being wiped away. This approach allows any video clip or image to be displayed behind the fog - an incredibly flexible solution. Once finished, Olivia steps out of frame, leaving the message indefinitely until the game master clears it or a puzzle success cues a cut-scene. The final effect is a fairly believable illusion, especially considering the small production window for the project.
Tech Unseen Is Tech Well-Implemented
“Curious Case of Gillian Grace” is chalk-full of impressive technology, but what I love most about this room is that each effect integrates seamlessly with the player experience. Gillian pops up and interacts with her world which ripples through time to affect the present. She directly addresses you, unlocks containers and opens doors; like a phantom, these actions reciprocate in physical space, bluring the lines of reality within the confines of the “Curious Case” set. For a moment, the TV screen behind a two-way mirror transforms from a banal piece of hardware into a portal into another dimension.
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