Audio was used throughout The Owl Job as means of communicating story, puzzles, information and hints. In this section we’ll show the many ways we used sound in the hopes that you can build upon this in making your own sightless escape rooms.
- The voice activated assistant
- Delivering clues & information
- Checking the time
- Hint system
- Audio puzzle types
The Voice Activated Assistant:
One of the key aspects of this game was the voice of the smart home assistant called Hermes. His digital voice was the first thing that players heard as they entered the escape room: “Welcome home, Mr. Lee.”
Players would then be asked two questions by Hermes: “what is your home security password?” (a question that players would inevitably fail and would lock them out of the security settings for 60 minutes, thus giving the context for the time limit) and then Hermes would ask: “would you like me to resume playing music?”
These two questions establish that players’ can interact with Hermes through voice controls. This would be important, as voice activated controls were a vital part of the game.
Delivering Clues & Information:
As players found certain objects in the game, Hermes would recognise and respond to the players picking up the object. On a technical level this just meant the game runner would press a play button an audio cue. In this world the SmileTech company seemed to produce everything – including Hermes. He always had something to say about other SmileTech products.
“SmileTech SmartBook detected. Would you like me to read you the story?”
“Thank you for the purchase of a SmileTech SmartSafe. Please enter your 7 digit code.”
It was important that Hermes wasn’t just a dry method of delivering information, but felt like he was a character who expressed something about the world in which the game took place. For instance if players talked about just carrying out the safe instead of figuring out how to open it, Hermes would say: “Please remember your SmileTech Smart Safe will automatically self-destruct if removed from the geotagged location of [Your House.]” A little bit of humour and personality goes a long way.
Checking the time:
Throughout the game, players could ask Hermes how much time was remaining. (And even unprompted he would announce at regular intervals: “X minutes remaining.”)
During our games we found there was an advantage to players not being able to see the clock. For instance a group that had gone overtime, but was a couple minutes away from finishing could be given extra time without them realising it, keeping them in the flow of the game experience. Of all our game runs, we only ever had one group not finish the game in time – and almost all groups finished the game in between 50-65mins.
Rather than just radio the game runner, players could use the voice activated system to call the Locksmith for hints. (Players were told about this hint feature and how to make calls during the pre-game briefing.) If players asked for help, hints, the locksmith or anything similar, they would hear the sound of a phone ringing, followed by the voice of a man with a thick Brooklyn accent who was happy to help.
It was important to not only make the hint system feel ‘in universe,’ but also a bit fun and like extra game content. With his charming accent and exuberant attitude, the Locksmith would assure players they could call him anytime: “Mr Lee, you call me anytime you need help. I charge double at this hour so I’ll just put this on your tab, OK?”
It was another fun way to ‘rob’ poor Mr. Lee – and was a good way to keep the energy going if players’ got stuck.
Plus since the hint system was being run by the smart home assistant, Hermes could ‘pretend’ to mishear players who were struggling – but not asking for help by saying: “I’m sorry, did you say call Locksmith?” This was a good way to check in with players and ask if they wanted a hint without breaking the fourth wall.
The audio was a big part of communicating the story to players. Players are playing the role of burglars with the aim of finding and cracking open the safe. Upon entering the home they’re greeted by the smart home assistant, who refers to all players by the homeowners’ name: Mr Lee.
Over the course of the game you listen to Mr Lee’s music, you go through his voicemails and emails and get a sense of who he is. A lot of details were left ambiguous, so players’ some decided that Mr. Lee was a jerk who was worth robbing. Others took pity on him and decided to leave family heirlooms like his grandfather’s medals behind – of course they still took the cash. It was important to make the game not just about Mr Lee, but about what the players do to Mr Lee. At the end of the day, the players are the protagonist.
In addition to the smart home assistant Hermes, players heard many other voices in the game: Mr Lee’s sister, an audiobook narrator and eventually Mr Lee himself. This was to avoid the game feeling too monotonous and small.
However you don’t want to overload the players’ with too many lines of dialogue. Our general rule was to keep any dialogue clips short – 30 seconds at most. People are here to play after all, not listen to a radio play. Plus if players need to re-play an audio clip they don’t want to wait forever to get to the actual clue part.
We found it best to keep most of the writing functional, with a bit of personality peppered in. Moments like Mr Lee’s sister finishing her voicemail message by saying: “call me back, OK? I miss you” goes a long way with very little.
The audio system allowed for an escalation in the story in the final act of the game. Shortly after players had opened the safe the phone would start ringing. “Incoming phone call from: Mr. Lee” announced Hermes, connecting the call automatically.
Players now had the opportunity to speak with Mr Lee, who was played by an actor using pre-recorded lines. “My name is Mr. Lee and you’re inside my house. My SmileTech app was pinging me to say that my safe had been opened – so it sounds to me like you’re trying to rob me.”
Players finally heard the voice of the man they were robbing. We had enough dialogue responses so players could be as rude or as polite to Mr Lee as they wanted. Some groups would even try to convince Mr Lee that they weren’t burglars. If successful, Mr. Lee would apologise for the mixup, but the police were already on their way and they’d sort out the confusion. Regardless of how the conversation goes, Mr Lee lets players know that the police are on their way. In this final act players had to figure a way to escape with all the loot that they’d gathered over the course of the game. If they failed (and only one group did) then the final sounds they would hear would be police sirens outside, a knock on the door and a deep voice saying: “Open up, you’re under arrest.” Hermes would acknowledge the police override and it was game over.
Thankfully most players figured out the final puzzle, which is described in more detail later in the next section.
Audio puzzle types:
Audio puzzles are relatively rare in traditional escape rooms, which is another reason why we wanted to do away with sight and see what puzzles emerged. We tried to have a decent variety of puzzles including props that made sounds, voice activated systems and clues hidden within sounds.
There was a large object tied to a rope hanging near the kitchen area where players were likely to bump into it. Upon bumping into it, it would cause the chimes that were connected to the other end of the rope to jingle on the other side of the room. The solution was for one player to jiggle the rope continuously, while another player located the sound of the chimes. Hooked onto the bottom of the chimes was a key! The chimes were also suspended over a table, so that if the key happened to fall off, they would clatter loudly onto the wooden table. The hook was curved such that this was very unlikely to happen, but it was still an important consideration just in case.
Audio as orientation:
Players could find a children’s book that Hermes’ offered to read for them. The story described various animals finding their way home. “Rabbit your house lies to the north. Cat – you live with elephant, so just follow after him.” It was directional code – but the trick was to figure out which way north was. The story contained an important clue: “listen for the sound of running water.” The running water was actually the leaky fridge in the kitchen area on the right side of the room. This was a good use of an ambient sound effect that had been playing the entire time, giving it new meaning via a puzzle. Plus the leaky fridge sound also provided something to further help orient the players in the room in general. The sound was achieved via a hidden speaker planted at the rear of the fridge.
Voice activated puzzles:
The final puzzle of the game required players to answer security questions in order to reset the smart home password and unlock the front door.The first security question was: “what is your favourite musical artist?” It required players to remember that Hermes asked if they wanted to resume playing music at the start of the game. (In order to make sure players’ didn’t miss this important hint, Hermes would sometimes ‘mishear’ players and as “I’m sorry, did you say: play music?” if players ignored this prompt at the start of the game.) Players could then ask Hermes to play the music again and ask what was currently playing. I was quite fond of this puzzle as it leveraged real world experience of how we use voice commands on our phones.
The second security question was: “in what year did your grandfather die?” This was a different kind of puzzle that required players to go through Mr. Lee’s emails and voicemails to figure out the answer. The existence of this system was made known to the players by Hermes announcing: “New email received. You have 2 unplayed notifications.” This came shortly before Mr Lee phoned the players to inform them the police had been called.
The structure of this puzzle would be very familiar to anyone who played ‘found phone’ games like A Normal Lost Phone. Players would go through the email and voicemail messages and piece together the information within to figure out what year Mr Lee’s grandfather died. This was also an opportunity to give a bit of flavour to Mr. Lee’s character, who was actually selling his grandfathers’ war medal on an online auction. Whether this means Mr. Lee was strapped for cash or just didn’t care about family was left up to the players. We also kept the maths very simple: players just had to add 4 years to 1956.
Finally players got to assign a new password to the smart home security system. Some groups would use this opportunity to be cheeky. If the password was too vulgar, Hermes would say: “Rude word detected. Please choose a more Smiley™ password.”
If players persisted trying to assign a rude word as the password, Hermes would ‘randomly’ generate a new password for them, which would be ‘goodmanners101’