Doc Holystone's Box

July, 2019

“Dad, this year I want a Greenglass House themed birthday party.”

And with that, the challenge was set.

Everyone in our house is a great fan of Kate Milford’s books. Mysteries, ghosts, seafaring, and a bit of steampunk influence combine to create a world we all imagine visiting. However, figuring out how to capture that in one of our birthday adventures stumped me for some time.

An Interpretive Tale

Eventually my wife Beth and I settled on borrowing and building on ideas from the books instead of trying to directly recreate part of the world of Nagspeake. By the time we were finished, I had pulled in several others to lend their talents and we created something pretty unique that our daughter and her friends greatly enjoyed.

The characters and the stories they tell are a big part of the books, but coordinating actors to play parts was not something I wanted to do. Instead we brought the characters and their stories to the party through a magical box that channeled the characters and their stories to our living room.

Creating A Magic Box

As always, I had a few new technical goals I wanted to meet. Last year’s art heist game allowed players to make choices to drive the narrative, but that was custom software for the game. I wanted to extend the Director system used in most of my other projects to allow for event driven scene changes so the audience could control the story progression.

For the Greenglass House game, players would be presented with a box and asked to locate relics hidden in the room. When the correct relic was placed inside the box, the stories of Greenglass House would take over the room. I imagined something that was part video game, part podcast, and part theatrical performance.

I started with a Raspberry Pi and an RFID reader. I quickly learned that my soldering skills are quite lacking, but with the help of a friend, was able to finally get the reader properly connected to the Pi.

All the components were placed in a small wooden box, along with a battery large enough to power the equipment. I attached the reader to the back of a false bottom and placed that over the top of the electronics.

The RFID reader has very limited range to read the tags, especially when there is wood or other material between the reader and the tag. Using the image transfer technique I first learned for The Last Pharaoh, I placed a target on the false bottom directly over the reader so players would know where to put the relics.

The Director system allows for various Actors to register themselves and they can then take cues from the Director to perform effects like playing audio, video, and enabling and disabling lights. I added a new mode to the Director that instead of playing through a script linearly, allows Actors to tell the Director to transition to a specific scene. The Actor for the magical box could then call out a scene transition when a relic was detected or when it was removed.

Stories From Greenglass House

Next we needed to identify which stories to use. In Greenglass House, one of the recurring scenes is guests gathering in the living room, each telling a story. We selected four of those stories to use in our game, and Beth edited them each so they could be delivered as monologues.

I wanted great, in character voices to perform each monologue and I didn’t want the voices to be easily recognizable by our daughter or her friends. I was lucky enough to convince several of my wonderful coworkers to play three of the four parts and to record them in the studio in our Los Angeles office.

Next, we needed curios, relics, and other artifacts that we imagined would fill the Greenglass House living room. Beth and I ventured to various thrift and used supply stores, our favorite being Blue Pelican Marine in Alameda to build up a collection of items that would fill the room.

Also, because Greenglass House is known for its stained glass, Beth made a beautiful set of paper stained glass windows that we could use to transform our living room windows.

The Relics

Originally each of the four relics had their own specific story. However as I thought about it more, the stories made the most sense when told in the order they appear in the book and I couldn’t guarantee that the players would find the relics in that order. I decided instead to add a new concept to the Director called Asset Collections. Typically when the Director issues a Cue, it is predefined to tell an Actor to use a specific audio or video clip. Now with Asset Collections, the Director tells the Actor to use the next available Asset from the collection and to remember it. This allowed me to list the stories in order, and as relics were detected, they each claimed the next story and that story became bound to the relic for the rest of the game.

Additionally every story scene controlled the lights in the room. As the voice began telling a story, the lights in the room would go out, leaving only the late evening light passing through the stained glass windows And a few flickering candles.

With that solved, there were a few, last technical hurdles to work out. Several of the original relics contained ferrous metal and when I tried using them I found the magnetic properties of the metal interfered with the tags and reader. Ultimately I switched to four, non-magnetic objects:

  • Silver teapot
  • Teacup
  • Model pirate ship
  • Dungeons and Dragons figure

Always Tell Your Audience What To Do

I imagined players would figure out they need to explore the room and try placing items in the box driven from the box’s printed message “Relics Unlock Tales” but I also recalled from previous games that you have to be far more explicit than you’d think. I needed a quick tutorial that would teach everyone how the game worked so I created a letter from Doc Holystone as a fifth relic.

The letter asked the players to take care of the box and to place the letter in the center of the box to learn its secrets. Once the letter was in the box, the lights went out and Doc Holystone’s voice greeted the players, telling them they were to find four relics in the room with magical properties.

Party Day

On the day of the party everyone was out of the house for the morning so I had a chance to do one full test before the actual event. I hid two bluetooth speakers in our living room; one in the fireplace and the other under a table. I decorated the room and placed the relics among all the other items we collected over the previous weeks.

This was the first game I’ve built where everything was hidden in plain sight. Typically we use the downstairs family room and it is known to be off limits on party day. When our daughter came home and found that she could go anywhere in the house, she became quite concerned that perhaps we hadn’t planned a game this year. We taunted her throughout the day but reassured her that something was planned.

This year’s party was in the evening so we could rely on a bit of darkness for the game portion, so everyone started with dinner in the backyard. As dinner concluded I slipped inside to set up the speakers and to put the box and letter on the coffee table. The girls were getting restless so Beth sent them on a walk around the block. When they returned we had cupcakes and then I mentioned to our daughter that someone had stopped by and left a box and a letter in the living room.

Story Time

They all ran to the living room and after reading the letter they placed it directly on top of the box, and of course nothing happened because they had not first opened the lid. Another lesson in the need of being overly explicit. After a minute they realized the box opened and placed the letter inside, which started the game until the one technical glitch of the evening occurred. My laptop ran the Director software for the game and while testing I kept it next to me to debug the system until everything worked perfectly. For the actual game, I moved my laptop to the next room so they would not see it. It turns out the cheap Bluetooth speakers I hid in the room have terrible range, and when Doc Holystone first spoke to the room, the audio was broken and continually cutting out. I moved my laptop into the corner of the room and asked them to place the letter in the box again, which replayed the message and got the game off to a proper start.

Just as in Greenglass House when guests told their stories, we brought out hot chocolate, tea, and cookies for the guests to enjoy while listening.

The entire game had about 45 minutes of audio and the first story was by far the longest. The girls explored the room and tested items they found in the box until one by one over the next hour, they located each of the magic relics. In the book, Mrs. Hereward tells the story of Julian Roamer. I was unable to find a woman to read an eight page story, so I ended up narrating this one in my own voice. Next Lis Bartlett played Mrs. Pine telling a story about Greenglass House and how Fenster saw Doc Holystone there. Nikole Zivalich then performed the part of Georgie with the story of the Otter and the Eye. Lastly, Alex Berg was Mr. Vinge telling his story of Doc Holystone. The great voice acting everyone delivered really made the game special.

Not every girl had read the Greenglass House books, so we were a bit concerned some might not follow the stories, however everyone seemed to greatly enjoy them as they each took up a comfortable spot in the transformed living room to listen while sipping on tea and cocoa.

A Successful Evening

About half way through I realized there was not a great conclusion to the game and that did prove to be a bit of a miss when the last of the stories concluded. The girls had lost count on how many relics they found, and were not sure if the fourth story was really their last. Probably there should have been a final relic or note from Doc Holystone asking the group to guard the box until they were ready to pass it along to someone they trusted.

Ultimately however, the Greenglass House game was a great success! As a parting party gift, we gave out copies of Greenglass House to those that had not read it and for those that had, we had copies of Ghosts of Greenglass House and The Left Handed Fate for friends that wanted to go further into the world. If you haven’t read any of these books, pick up a copy for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

Thank You

Many thanks to those that helped us make this a success:

James Yopp

Nikole Zivalich

Jordan Epstein

Alex Berg

Lis Bartlett

Christian Spicer