TAG | making games
We had a big puzzle brainstorm and discussion for the Time Project last week.
(Henrik’s puzzle book)
Henrik did a small presentation about his research into puzzles and explained that solving puzzles in a game is like learning a language. Needless to say, my ears pricked up—yup, I get this! Hold onto your swivel chairs, I’m about to get word-nerdy!
To get the language, you need to get the grammar.
Grammar is basically a crap-ton of rules for language (yes, thank you Brooke, revolutionary dah-link now I’m going to keep scrolling my dash for my new favourite OTP…)
But wait! It’s also true for writing stories!
Stories have rules.
When I’m writing, I’m setting up rules and I don’t even realise I’m doing it.
These rules ‘teach’ the reader about what is possible and not possible in the world the story is set in.
The genre of the story sets up a whole bunch of rules first off. Science Fiction? We know we’re going to have some futuristic technology, cool. Fantasy? Elves are ok but it is not ok if my elves are in a story with cyborgs. Unless you have some amazing mash-up world like Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series and she can do that because she has set up these expectations from the start.
Teaching rules = creating expectations
Same deal for games!
Puzzle games, in particular, present you with a language that you haven’t learned yet. So you have questions like: what am I supposed to do? How do objects move? What is possible?
This is usually what the first few levels of a game are all about. It’s also usually what the first few chapters of a novel are all about. You want to know what’s possible in the world, what’s going on and what’s going to happen.
As we progress through games (and stories!), we become better at the language. But we don’t want to be overwhelmed by it. We don’t want to be bombarded with every single rule right away. Start with the basics, start with what is relevant to the first few levels (or chapters). That way, we become immersed in the world by learning the rules and then, we become fluent by the end. With this fluency comes a feeling of mastery and achievement, we are ‘all in’ the world that’s been created.
Our aim for The Time Project is to create that feeling—that’s the good stuff!
Oh, look, more brainstorming ~~
We brainstormed with the aim of finding good visual metaphors that will allow us to convey the rules of our game.
To do this, we have been taking inspiration from books that already combine story and puzzles, Usbourne Puzzle Adventures!
I haven’t read these but Henrik and Maya introduced me to them and they look fantastic:
We thought how we can use colour to communicate what is possible in our game, eg. what objects can be moved. We thought about creating a new language for the game that associated fire with a symbol in the game world in order to merge the two, but we quickly realised this was too abstract.
That’s learning two languages! The ‘language’ of our game world, and the language of the puzzles. The equivalent would be asking someone to learn another language in order to read your book. Which is entirely possible if you’re Tolkien and have provided a language guide with your story world, and you might be the kind of person who has the time to do that, but that’s just too much for our little game!
(Language puzzles in The Emerald Conspiracy)
Writing a good story is like making a good game. It’s about setting up the rules and expectations.
We’re experimenting with our puzzle languages and thinking about how different types of puzzles have might have different languages. For example, puzzles that have to do with the environment require the player to know they can retrieve things like fire and manipulate the flow of water, and this might be conveyed with a glowing effect. And puzzles that ask the player to arrange symbols might be conveyed by runes etched into the rock face.
We’re not too sure yet.
But this is just the beginning of the story. When we have those expectations set up, the fun comes from playing with those expectations. That’s when you get plot twists and surprises that feel inevitable in hindsight because all along, you have been getting subtle hints… but we’re not quite there yet!
*More pages turn. A plot comes to the fore…*
In Time-Travel Treasure Hunt and Time Trackers, we shift through time by moving a timeline scrubber left and right. It is like fast-forwarding and rewinding a scene in a movie. The best way for the team to convey time moving is to have events unfolding as the player moves through time.
The team found that these little events (like boats sailing or a princess moving to her balcony at the top of a castle) were curious and delightful. There appeared to be small stories everywhere!
Players were moving the timeline scrubber to watch the these events unfold even though this wasn’t the object of the game, it was to locate the stars hidden in the environment.
The challenge of finding the stars was encouraging exploration of the story and vice versa! A kind of harmony was occurring between these little stories and gameplay.
It was only natural for the team to see what happened when story became a focus of the design. They decided to let players influence the events of a story by shifting time. For the prototype, the team used a popular story, Little Red Riding Hood. Why?
It was a way to ‘establish a language’, one that was universal for the team and for those testing the game.
Plus, fairy tales are plot driven, they have a clear sequence of events. Sticking to an old, established story allowed them to try this new game play and it meant they didn’t have to write a story before diving in! Besides, too much ‘newness’ for the prototyping process would be disorientating. It’s important to thrash out a first draft.
(Little Red moving through the market square, on her way to Grandma’s house)
Little Red Riding Hood, in it’s most distilled form, is a chain of cause and effect:
When Little Red Riding Hood sets out to visit Grandma, she encounters a wolf who asks her where she is going. She tells him and the Wolf decides to beat Little Red to Grandma’s house so he can feast on them both. When Little Red arrives, the Wolf is disguised as her Grandma… You know the rest!
We potentially have three stories that account for the same events from different points of view: Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf and Grandma. This prototype allows the player to ‘help’ the characters fulfil their needs in the story. Players get to see three different stories unfold by changing between these three points of view.
I joined the team a bit after this prototype was completed and I was fascinated.
Call me a control freak, but I love narratives that make me feel like I’m influencing events. These stories draw me in and give me sense of the world reacting to me and not ignoring me. Game of Thrones and the books written in the Vampire the Requiem world (that start here!) give me this feeling. So do games like Dragon Age: Inquisition (how I love thee). The prototype uses a similar premise.
The Little Red Riding Hood prototype revolves around players changing points of view to solve story-based puzzles. For example, they can help Little Red to Grandma’s house, Grandma light her furnace to stay warm:
(Grandma’s house – you can see some items that need to be collected and moved, like the key to unlock the cellar door to get some firewood for the furnace!)
One of the best things about this prototype was it allowed the team to explore the concept of branching narratives, switching scenarios and telling stories from different points of view.
It also led to the decision to scale back.
Henrik said exploring splitting timelines was “a dark rabbit hole.” While they had a lot of potential for fun, complex puzzles, this prototype lead to one very important decision.
The team wanted to stay focused on one thing: moving time.
They also realised how important story was to this project and decided to keep it in there.
That’s what lead to their decision to seek out a writer. And that’s how they ended up with me! 😀
In these ‘History of the Time Project’ posts, I have been slowly moving you from the past to the present unfolding a sequence of events. Whoa, this just got meta!
In my last chapter, I’ll tell you about the new direction of The Time Project. Some of which I am sure you have been able to guess…
We are doing things! It’s been a whirlwind these last two months but I’m happy to report we are in full-on production mode. I have become a calendar queen and scheduling tasks has never been so fun because tasks look something like this:
- Write more story for the Swamp of Vestiges – what is it like here?? – this will help with puzzle design & art
- Second pass on puzzle puffs to make them more readable
Admittedly, it’s not stuff that sounds like hard work, but building puzzles, worlds and character stories that work in harmony is challenging us. What works for the story isn’t always ideal for the puzzles.
Sometimes, we do things differently. Jon will design a landscape and then we “reverse engineer” it. (see this super-cute gif!)
As the writer, I think: what is the windmill for? who lives here? what does it do? what’s it’s significance in the land?
We all have a go at these questions and then think about puzzles that will reinforce the story, or, that would be super fun to have in a windmill setting!
I have been immersing myself in the story world, writing short pieces for our characters. I wasn’t sure if this was helping, but the details that came from these stories – that bubbled up naturally as I wrote – have been helpful! Win!
Now, we are in solid production we are all getting into our own creative groove and headspace. These headspaces are quite different from one another which means we are approaching problems, designs and the overall executions of the levels from different points of view. It’s challenging to communicate within the team sometimes and often we have had to pause and clarify the words we are using to describe the game. Henrik put together brief glossary of terms and we were back on track again.
Location concept & camera tracking testing for The Time Project
Our artist, Jon, has been hard at work on a series of ‘camera tracking’ images to test out the layout of a scene to get an early idea about how much screen space we have to work with – here is one of them!
All purely speculative at the moment, we don’t know if the mysterious cave (now with an even more mysterious ship!) will be in the game by the end of development but I hope so.
Location concept for The Time Project
I find it so interesting how much story and history can be conveyed in these concept images. Jon has such a keen sense for both of these things — this temple feels alive!
We are always exploring and brainstorming to find ways to tell this story with mysterious locations that have old things, new things, and curious things.
Hard to say if this location will make it into the final game but it certainly captures a feeling we want to imbue it with!
I wonder what challenges could face our adventurers in this golden, subterranean temple?
Hmmm… I think I will go write something about that..
Location concept for The Time Project
The team have been thinking about different landscapes, here is one concept: mysterious caves!
It seems they were once lived in, or, are beings still at large? Perhaps they are sleeping, perhaps they are in wait…
More of what Jon does outside of the Time Project is here. 🙂
~*~An early puzzle concept for The Time Project~*~
I think it’s an onion or a turnip, I’m not sure but it eats leaves and mushrooms! 😀
We have been thinking about different UI concepts for the game – here is a look at some mock-ups from Jon.
I’m a bit torn – they all look so good! But we need to be thinking about our puzzle language and what kind of buttons are both interesting and easy to understand. Hrmm…
ps. More of Jon’s work can be found over here: www.softscience.com.au
The Time Project
While Henrik is away at GDC, Jon and Maya have made a little creature!
I’m having a bit of a cute attack!