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  • Detective Game Design: Puzzles Vs. Story

    - Julian Colbus


    While the previous chapter only concerns detective games that also prominently feature a story, this next one is relevant to pretty much every detective game every made. It addresses the topic of communication between the player and the game, and especially how the player can express their thoughts to it. Several principles have proven to make for a good experience across countless approaches to this problem over the years:

    Principle 1: Many channels out, few channels back in.
    If the game conveys information to the player on many different channels and in many different ways, the process of piecing the solution together tends to feel more interesting and rewarding. In Lacuna, the player picks up clues from dialogs, objects, environments, the news, and e-mails (with all sorts of attachments). At the same time, the channels via which the player communicates that solution back to the game are kept to a minimum, namely cloze texts we like to call "Case Sheets" and (to a lesser degree) dialog choices. Having one or two central mechanics for player input makes the experience more coherent and transparent and facilitates designing the mysteries around it.

    Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope provides a bunch of different sources of information, but just one central mechanic for the player to communicate back to the game

    Principle 2: Have the player communicate only the solution.
    It is near impossible to create a system through which the player communicates to the game how they arrived at a solution. Luckily, this is not necessary. A well-designed puzzle provides all the information, then moves the entire solution process solely into the player's head, and finally prompts the player to input only their answer. The player's objective should be stated clearly, but in a very general way at the start of a case (e.g. "find the culprit").

    Principle 3: Give the player maximum freedom in communicating the solution.
    The way in which the player communicates the answer to the game is the most crucial part to get right. One aspect is to give the player many choices (or a large combination of choices) to pick from. Two things should be avoided: 1. Giving the player a high probability to succeed by picking a random answer. 2. Making it easy for the player to guess correctly because only one or a few of the available answers appear plausible. An example for a bad solution like this would be to give the player three dialog choices to solve the puzzle; even worse would be if one of them obviously made the most sense. A better approach would be to give the player a cloze text with a bunch of plausible options for each gap. Another possibility is to have the solution be an unguessable string of characters that the player needs to enter manually. Both ideas utilize combinatorial explosion to make guessing and brute-forcing nearly impossible.

    Good luck brute-forcing your way through Detective Grimoire's cloze texts


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