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Lab 8 - Escape Room

NOTE: From now on, we’ll assume that you start lab by connecting to the CS portal and that you are familiar with the command line environment. If you have not been practicing with the terminal, we strongly encourage reviewing Lab 1.

We will also assume that you ran the setup script from that lab and have all modules (including clang and git) by default.

A Mad Programmer created a slew of “escape rooms”. Each binary escape room is a program, containing a sequence of puzzles. Each puzzle expects you to type a particular string. If you type the correct string, then the puzzle is solved and the escape room proceeds on to the next puzzle. Otherwise, the escape room flags the attempt, prints a message, tells us it did so, and then terminates.

Work together

In lab, we strongly encourage you to work with one another. Reading binary is much more fun and effective with someone else to talk to.

You should not work together on puzzle 2 and beyond, that is HOMEWORK.


You’ll use the same escape room for this lab and for the following homework.

For lab, you need to either (a) have a TA record that you were part of a team that solved the first puzzle or (b) solve the first puzzle in your escape room.

For the homework, you’ll need to solve the additional puzzles on your own.

Each time your escape room flags an attempt, it notifies the escape room server. If we’re notified of 20 flags we’ll start removing points each time your room is flagged.

How to proceed

  1. Run our script to get a unique escape room in your home directory:

  2. cd room# (where # is your room number).
  3. Read the README
  4. You are welcome to look at room.c – it isn’t very interesting, though
  5. Do whatever you need to understand what the escape room and puzzles are doing
  6. Only run the escape room ./room once you are confident you can solve a puzzle (or at least avoid a flag being sent)
  7. Once you solve a puzzle visit the scoreboard to verify that we saw your success.


If you run your escape room with a command line argument, for example, ./room psol.txt, then it will read the input lines from psol.txt until it reaches EOF (end of file), and then switch over to the command line. This will keep you from having re-type solutions.

Because you want to avoid flags on incorrect puzzle solutions, you’ll want to set a breakpoint before you run the program so that you can stop the program before it gets to a the function that does the flagging.

You might find it useful to run, objdump --syms room to get a list of all symbols in the escape room file, including all function names, as a starting point on where you want your breakpoint.

The best way is to use your favorite debugger to step through the disassembled binary. Almost no students succeed without using a debugger like lldb or gdb. We recommend using lldb. On the department machines, if you did not run the script from Lab 1, you can enable lldb buy running module load clang-llvm.

To avoid accidentally submitting an incorrect solution to a puzzle in the room, you will need to learn how to single-step through the assembly code and how to set breakpoints. You will also need to learn how to inspect both the registers and the memory states.

It may be helpful to use various utilities for examining the escape room program outside a debugger, as described in “examining the executable” below.

Escape Room Usage

  • The escape room ignores blank input lines.

  • If you run your escape room with a command line argument, for example,

    ./room psol.txt

    then it will read the input lines from psol.txt until it reaches EOF (end of file), and then switch over to stdin. This will keep you from having re-type solutions.

Examining the Executable

  • objdump -t will print out the escape room’s symbol table. The symbol table includes the names of all functions and global variables in the room, the names of all the functions the room calls, and their addresses. You may learn something by looking at the function names!

  • objdump -d will disassemble all of the code in the escape room. You can also just look at individual functions. Reading the assembler code can tell you how the room and puzzles work.

    If you prefer to get Intel syntax disassembly from objdump, you can use objdump -M intel -d.

  • strings is a utility which will display the printable strings in your escape room.

Using LLDB

  • If you are on a department Unix machine, and did not run the script from Lab 1, module load clang-llvm first (this needs to be done once per terminal), so lldb is available.

  • Run the excape room room from a debugger like lldb instead of running it directly. The debugger will allow you to stop the escape room before it flags a bad solution.

    For example, if I ran

    lldb room
    (lldb) b methodName
    (lldb) run
    (lldb) kill

    this will start lldb, set a breakpoint at methodName, and run the code. The code will halt before it runs methodName; calling kill will stop the escape room and exit the current debugging session without methodName running.

  • Walk through code using one of

    • nexti goes one assembly instruction at a time, skipping over function calls
    • stepi goes one assembly instruction at a time, entering function calls
    lldb room
    (lldb) b lineNumberForPuzzle1Call
    (lldb) run

    input test passphrase here

    (lldb) register read
    (lldb) fame variable

    Generally some parameters are local variables and some are stored in registers and others on the stack; if none are on the stack, frame variables prints nothing. Strings are stored as pointers so you’ll need to “examine” what they point to. Try looking at several as if they are strings:

    (lldb) x/s anAddressDisplayedByRegisterReadOrFrameVariable

    You can also look at the assembly directly

    (lldb) disas

    And walk through it instruction by instruction

    (lldb) nexti

    keep nextiing until you see strings_not_equal method (a suspicious name that might be checking your passphrase)

    (lldb) register read
    (lldb) frame variable

    Which one holds your passphrase? Try “examining” that and others…

  • Some useful lldb commands:

    (lldb) frame variable
    prints out the name and value of local variables in scope at your current place in the code, if any.

    (lldb) register read
    prints the values of all registers except floating-point and vector registers

    (lldb) x/20bx 0x...
    examine the values of the 20 bytes of memory stored at the specified memory address (0x…). Displays it in hexadecimal bytes.

    (lldb) x/20bd 0x...
    examine the values of the 20 bytes of memory stored at the specified memory address (0x…). Displays it in decimal bytes.

    (lldb) x/gx 0x...
    examine the value of the 8-byte integer stored at the specified memory address.

    (lldb) x/s 0x...
    examines the value stored at the specified memory address. Displays the value as a string.

    (lldb) x/s $someRegister
    examines the value at register someRegister. Displays the value as a string (assuming the register contains a pointer).

    Note it is x/s $rdi in lldb, not %rdi like it would be in assembly.

    (lldb) print expr
    evaluates and prints the value of the given expression

    call (void) puts (0x...)
    calls the built-in output method puts with the given char * (as a memory address). See man puts for more.

    (lldb) disas methodName
    get the machine instruction translation of the method methodName.

    (lldb) disas
    get the machine instruction translation of the currently executing method.

    (lldb) x/6i 0x...
    try to disassemble 6 instructions in memory starting at the memory address 0x…

    (lldb) b *0x...
    set a breakpoint at the specified memory address (0x…).

    (lldb) b function_name.
    set a breakpoint at the beginning of the specified function.

    (lldb) nexti
    step forward by one instruction, skipping any called function.

    (lldb) stepi
    step forward by one instruction, entering any called function.

    (lldb) kill
    termiante the program immediately

    (lldb) help
    brings up lldb’s built-in help menu

On interpreting the disassembly

  • Reviewing the x86-64 calling convention may be helpful.

  • The C standard library function sscanf is called __isoc99_sscanf in the executable. Try man sscanf for more information about this library function.

  • %fs:0x1234 refers to a value in a “thread-local storage” region at offset 0x1234. The escape room only has one thread (using multiple threads would allow the room to do multiple things at once, but that is not something the room needs), so this is effectively a region for extra global variables. In the escape room, this appears mostly to implement stack canaries, a security feature designed to cause out-of-bounds accesses to arrays on the stack to more consistently trigger a crash.

  • Pay attention to the names of functions being called.

  • Disassembling a standard library function instead of reading the documentation for the function is probably a waste of time.

  • Some of the things later escape room puzzles might be using include:

    • calls to scanf (which is a formatted read; try man scanf or Wikipedia for more)
    • linked data structure traversal
    • recursion
    • string literals
    • switch statements

Copyright © 2023 John Hott, portions Luther Tychonievich.
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