Designing a lab mystery
“Good afternoon, investigators,” boomed the voice welcoming players into the shadowy, otherworldly scene. “This is a class R, section 8C containment situation.” Eerie string music with intermittent bubbling cauldron sounds plays softly in the background. “We can afford to expose you to the specimens for a limited time. You will enter the unauthorized home laboratory of disgraced chief scientist Ko Tanaka …”
The lab appears abandoned in haste, with NASA screensavers glowing on the computers, and blueprints, plant photographs and specimens strewn throughout the space.
Three Brown engineers and two computer science concentrators were among the class participants of the five-week Wintersession Design & Fiction class offered by the Rhode Island School of Design. The course was led by RISD professor Tim Maly, and was tasked with jointly designing and presenting a final project from a shared world.
“The class split into smaller groups early on, based on different things that people were interested in,” Reet Agrawal ’21 (computer science and visual arts) explained. “I was part of the user experience team which basically led discussions on how a user would interact with whatever we decide to create, and what the physical manifestation of our world should look like. We decided our goal would be to spark some emotional reaction within our viewers and we realized users would be more likely to be emotionally engaged with something if they are completely immersed in the experience. This is why we decided to move ahead with a very interactive and experiential outlet, like a game room.”
Professor Maly describes the course as exploring both the ways that fiction is used in design work, and how design work is used in fiction. The class examines scenario planning, user stories, and other narrative methods that are part of design practice. “Part of the joy of teaching this class is following [the students]where they want to lead,” he said. “When I offered the first brief, I had no idea that we’d end up making an escape room. Neither did they. The concept went through a lot of iterations before we landed where we did.”
Escape rooms are live-action, team-based games where players discover clues, solve puzzles, and accomplish tasks in one or more rooms in order to accomplish a specific goal in a limited time. Escape rooms require teamwork, communication and delegation as well as critical thinking, attention to detail, and lateral thinking. All of these things are magnified, however, on the team tasked with creating the clues and puzzles.
“As a user, it’s easy to skip details,” Agrawal said. “On the other hand, as the designer you need to care most about details. Like they say, good design is one that always goes unnoticed.”
Elizabeth Austin ’20 (A.B. engineering) agreed. “One of my focuses in the room was the lighting scheme effects,” she said. “On the day we invited guests in, I was the one operating those lights based on the cues I would hear from partici-pants. It was very intriguing to be the ‘man behind the curtain’ and seeing how both the technical and theatrical work was playing out.
“My engineering background came into play through managing those technical aspects of the room. Having a higher engagement rate in the room meant we had to create objects and effects that were responsive to different human behaviors and interactions, and easily resettable for the next group of guests.”
Nathan Amin ’19 (computer engineering), along with RISD undergraduate Lukas Gordon, developed the overall narrative of the story, tabbed “Greenhouse,” which included writing the script and producing video logs. The story behind the adventure is the mystery of three rogue scientists who stole extraterrestrial plant samples from NASA, and what happened to those scientists. The urgency factor was the limited exposure time with the plant specimens.
“We knew the world needed to be set in the future with space travel as a common occurrence. So naturally, our greenhouse became a greenhouse of space plants,” Amin said. “Our fictional scientists stole space seeds from a moon of Jupiter and grew them in a secret lab. We had to clarify the motivations of each character and build to a dramatic point where all three were forced to flee the lab, so investigators could come in and piece together what happened.”
Maly credits the Brown engineers with creating many of the mechanisms and resources that made the room come together. “The class is at its strongest when the team has people from a variety of backgrounds both culturally and disciplinarily,” Maly said. “The engineers are creative problem solvers, and the students from Brown who are willing to brave our somewhat incompatible scheduling to take a weird course like this tend to be willing to throw themselves at any problem with enthusiasm.”
“We spent a few hours every week in the Brown Design Workshop,” said Agrawal, “and a whole lot more near the final iteration of the room.” The fictional lab was located in RISD’s Industrial Design building, but many of the props were fabricated in the BDW, including an interactive map puzzle designed by Agrawal and Dennese Salazar ’19 (chemical and biochemical engineering), which served as a crucial piece needed to solve the mystery. Salazar also created interactive features for the Rapid Germinator and assisted in set design.
“Having access to a place like the BDW was key. Aside from the fact that I’m a manager and am trained there, it was much easier for me to have access to various machinery whenever I needed it,” Salazar said. “The map required heavy use of the laser cutters and a large open space to actually put the pieces together and paint them. It’s also a space where you can find people across all disciplines and backgrounds, which was super important for the user experience aspect. The game room was tested multiple times with beta testers, but the map itself had a logic puzzle component that needed to be tested and refined so that it made sense in the context of the room, and was solvable. In the BDW, we were able to go up to people and observe their approach and thought process as they solved the puzzle, which helped us immensely.”
Austin added, “For me, the biggest takeaway was hands-on practice. You very rarely get to build and design something of such magnitude for engineering classes, so it was really amazing to have the opportunity to apply my knowledge from so many different disciplines into a single massive project,” she said.
“As someone particularly interested in user experience design, I was able to first-hand learn how users interact with products created by designers and engineers, which made me in turn reflect on how to become a better creator,” said Agrawal.
“Design & Fiction is a course about how to make great collaborative group projects without falling back on a hierarchy or falling into ‘design by committee’ blandness,” Maly said. “It asks the students to move nimbly between leading and following and to find the right balance between making joint decisions and letting teammates get on with their work. This work can be exhausting and frustrating, but as students learn to develop their own team chemistry, the results are magical.”
Creating a topographic map
The puzzle map was created in the BDW by raster engraving plywood, cardboard and masonite painted with acrylic and watercolor paint.