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  • Detective Game Design: Puzzles Vs. Story

    - Julian Colbus
  • (This feature was originally published on the DigiTales Interactive blog.)

    Game design is such a wide and varied discipline that job titles in the field have become increasingly granular over the years - and ever since we started working on our debut title Lacuna, I've become more and more convinced that "detective game designer" merits its own denomination as well. Detective gameplay (or "investigation gameplay") poses a number of unique challenges centered around two main problems: the struggle between story and puzzles (or "cases") as well as communication between the player and the game.

    Since some of the explanations will be using our own game as an example, let me give you a quick rundown: Lacuna is a story-driven adventure with platformer controls and investigation elements. Its four fundamental gameplay types are dialogs (with choices), moving around, examining objects, and solving puzzles. All of them are staples of the point & click genre, but their execution is quite unique; I don't want to go into more detail here because it's not pertinent to the topic, but you can check out the game on Steam if you want to know more.

    This is what the game looks like


    A handful of abstract game design principles lie at Lacuna's core. For instance, "no takebacks" dictates that the player only get one shot at every decision, dialog, and puzzle. The game auto-saves and doesn't allow you to go back if you performed poorly or regret an earlier decision. There's also "limited feedback", which means that the player often isn't told immediately whether a solution was correct and what the consequences of their actions and decisions will be.

    However, there's one in particular I want to highlight here because it concerns the above mentioned divide between story and puzzling in detective games: No getting stuck.

    The thought process behind it was simple: In games with both a story and puzzles (e.g. most P&C games), story progress is almost always tied directly to puzzle progress. Until you solve the puzzle at hand, you don't get to see the next part of the story. For some players, especially those most interested in the story, this can become a problem. If they're stuck for too long, there's a chance they'll just drop out and never pick the game up again. Even if that doesn't happen, hard puzzles always run the risk of messing up the story's pacing and interrupting your immersion in the game - because you're becoming frustrated or, even worse, because you decide to tab out and Google the solution. To avoid people getting stuck, we considered a number of solutions:

    Solution 1: Make the puzzles very easy?
    This isn't our favorite since it somewhat defeats the purpose of puzzles. They'd still play a role as a change of pace now and then, but if puzzles aren't a little hard, nobody will feel like a detective solving them. Some early puzzles in Lacuna are easy, but most aren't.

    Solution 2: Provide hints?
    Hint systems can be found in many adventures featuring puzzles. Unfortunately, they often take the player out of the experience in one of three ways: In some cases, the hint is provided by extradiegetic UI (e.g. in the pause menu) and therefore seems to come out of nowhere in the game world. In other cases, the player character is the one giving the hint, disconnecting the player from their avatar's perspective. The third option of NPCs providing hints is a little better; however, it is often hard to justify why an NPC would be able to point the player in the right direction without possessing the rest of the solution to the ongoing puzzle (and why they didn't volunteer it in the first place). The two types of (sort-of) hint systems we went with in Lacuna are Highlight Mode, which displays optional outlines around objects and NPCs that hold new information, and redundant information, meaning that sometimes the player is given two ways of obtaining an important clue.


    Solution 3: Decouple story progress from puzzle progress?
    Why not simply make a story-driven game throughout which the player can solve the occasional puzzle if they feel like it? Well, because it would require that puzzles be somewhat detached from the story. As a result, they run the risk of feeling meaningless since solving them is not rewarding and failing is not punishing. However, this can work quite well when combined with...

    Solution 4: Make branching content for different solutions?
    Instead of impeding the player's progress, wrong or missing puzzle solutions could lead to a less desirable continuation and/or outcome of the story. Unfortunately, creating a new story branch for each and every wrong solution to a puzzle is hardly feasible. However, there are less extreme ways of realizing this. For instance, the game could account for the player's overall puzzling performance at certain points in the game, e.g. trigger the "good" finale to an act if they got more than x% of the puzzles right, and the "bad" one if not. There could also be cascading consequences of sorts, e.g. solving one case correctly may give the player an edge in a later one. These approaches have similar downsides as optional puzzles do, but to a lesser degree; puzzle success no longer being required for progress makes them feel more detached from the story and removes immediate feedback. Regardless, we have found this to be the best solution, which is why we employ it quite a bit in Lacuna (while trying to avoid all the pitfalls). By the way, if all of this is becoming too abstract for you, bear with us! The second half of this post is all about a real example from the game.

    Detroit: Become Human offers an astonishing number of different outcomes depending on player action, but not everybody has that kind of money to burn

    Despite all of these measures being taken to make sure that the player won't get stuck, Lacuna can still be called a hard game. While it's not difficult to get to the end, it's pretty difficult to get a good ending and not mess things up on your way there. In other words, rushing through the whole story is possible if you don't mind bringing it to a terrible conclusion.


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