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  • Postmortem: The Painscreek Killings

    - Fery Tomi
  • It's been over two years since The Painscreek Killings (TPK) launched on September 27, 2017. Prior to that, it took a little over five years to develop. Looking back, TPK struggled in development and failed in marketing, but sold about 40,000 units as of today and somehow was able to keep us afloat as a startup company. Was it all worth it? We would say yes. But that's not what this article is only about.

    What we hope through this postmortem is that we could share our experience from start to finish with those who are in the same boat as us - indie developers creating mystery investigation games using the walking simulator formula - to take what worked for us and hopefully avoid the pitfalls that we faced. 

    First, about detective games...

    Detective games don't sell. At least that's what we come to realize after releasing TPK and looking at most indie games in the detective genre. Either nobody wants to play them or we failed to create good ones. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we didn't know that. Thus, TPK was born.

    As a quick introduction, TPK is a 3D first-person view, mystery investigation where the player plays a journalist investigator in an abandoned town trying to find a story before it gets auctioned off and bulldozed. What starts out as a leisurely search turns into a full-blown cold case investigation.      

    The concept

    A person was killed. Another person is the killer. Your job is to find out who the killer is. Anyone who have seen the anime ‘Detective Conan' will know right away what it's about: there is only one truth and it's about finding it out. We played quite a number of detective investigation games and while they work, none made us feel like a true detective. Either the game handholds us too much, or the game is too linear, or they are impossible to solve without guides. We decided to make an investigation game that we want to play, one that makes us feel like a detective. Since it's our first time into game development and we did not have a programmer, we decided to keep it simple: it will be a walking simulator, there will be no in-game character models to make, the programming should be kept to a minimum and done through visual scripting, etc. To counter all that limitations, the game had to be immersive. To achieve that, we did the following.

    ("The truth shall set you free.")

    When watching any detective film, all the audience want is to know who the killer is. If we could keep players guessing who the killer is until the end of the game, it could just work. That was one of the core design we embraced right from the start.

    Players should be able to decide how they would start their investigation. We did not want a linear game where players are told to progress from point A to point B. To achieve that, we went for an open-world, free roaming experience. Since the goals are player-created and not dictated by the game, it would enhance the overall detective experience.

    We also wanted to encourage players to really look around and search for important clues and items rather than having the items highlighted or outlined. In order not to make it too difficult for players, everything was placed in a believable manner, every puzzle was provided with at least one or more clues, and some puzzles can be solved without finding the hint but through logical thinking. An example in TPK was the slim jim. If you grew up in the 90s, you would probably know that it's a tool used by thieves to unlock car doors. Players might also come across an item that do not make sense at the time they found it, but would make perfect sense later on. One such example was the shovel, which was found in Oliver's Photography store but used in the cemetery.

    When it comes to the puzzles, they have to be logical and make sense, just like in the real world. We didn't want to pull a lever in room A that unlocked a hidden doorway in room B without being informed. If players have to access twelve locations sprawled across a town, then the clues and hints need to be logical for them to proceed. The game can be hard or challenging, but it should not be illogical.

    We also wanted the game to make players find the right clues to proceed. Rather than knocking on every door found in the game, players need to find clues that would lead their investigation in the right direction. Many recent games have players clear one stage before continuing on to the next, knowing that they could not proceed further if they did not clear that particular stage. TPK, on the other hand, introduced the whole town right from the start. Because of that, it's futile to knock on every door and see which doors can be opened. Instead, what was the first thing that caught their attention while investigating the Sheriff's outpost? Was it the mansion where Vivian's body was found? How about the Church where Scott, the suspect, used to work? It's these kind of clues, whether direct or indirect, that should give the players a nod towards the direction in which to proceed with their investigations. 

    (Can you unlock the locked stairway that leads to the secret basement?)

    The game had to be in 3d to achieve the level of immersion, which was difficult to achieve in 2d. We also decided to abandon any quest markers, game hints, overhead compass, etc. In short, we decided to make an experience that resembles real life. Anything that does not appear in real life should not be in the game.

    One other important factor was getting the atmosphere right. Why do most horror or scary games happen at night? Could a game take place in broad daylight and still make you feel afraid or uneasy? We looked at games, films and TV shows while researching on this topic. There's a movie called The Ring. The American version had a lot of night/dark scenes while the Japanese version had more daytime scenes. The American version had jump scares while the Japanese version didn't employ that technique. When Sadako came out of the television, the American version was scary for that moment, but that moment only. The Japanese version, on the other hand, had me scared for days.

    So how did the Japanese film have such a stronger impact than the American version? We realize you don't really need jump scares to make a film or game scary. Jump scares are like fluffs with no substance - the impact is there when it happened, but diminishes quickly when it's over. Movies like Sixth Sense and Zodiac created tension and fear in a way that made their audiences remember them long after the movie is over. We wanted to achieve that effect so we focused on building up the tension through music, atmosphere, and most importantly, story hooks. It's for this reason we decided that TPK will happen during the day. 

    (The view from the bench behind the mansion shows how TPK tried to incorporate the bleak mysterious atmosphere even though it's in broad daylight.)


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