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  • Detective Game Design: Puzzles Vs. Story

    - Julian Colbus


    Now the game evaluates if the player got the answer right. If so, that's perfect: The player's correct answer causes the story to continue, and they head off to Sakura Hotel to look for the sniper. But how do we handle it if they picked one of the other three buildings?

    You might be thinking that we could prevent the Case Sheet from being accepted until it's correct. Although not unheard of, that's a bad idea because:

    • It allows brute-forcing. And if it didn't (by introducing combinatorial explosion), it would allow getting stuck.
    • It doesn't make sense that the Case Sheet or the person reviewing it knows the right answer and is withholding it.

    Then how about we trigger a game over state if the submission was wrong? Having to replay the level would at least discourage brute-forcing. The thing is:

    • We're trying to avoid game over states since they break the immersion (in any game).
    • It's frustrating chicanery; remember that we want people to be able to get on with the story whenever they want.
    • It contradicts another design principle of ours: no takebacks. You submitted the wrong answer, you should have to live with it.

    Okay, next idea. We could make all the incorrect buildings levels of their own and have the player go there to eventually realize they're in a dead end... But we shouldn't, for a number of reasons:

    • It destroys the story's pacing.
    • It's a lot of extra work most players will never get to see.
    • The player may take a long time to realize they're in the wrong place and will then have to be steered in the right direction anyway.
    • It can't possibly be applied to later cases, where Case Sheets allow for 256 (4x4x4x4) or even more possible answers.

    As is the nature of game design, what we did end up doing is the least bad solution with the most acceptable drawbacks. Here's what happens: If the player picked the wrong building, everything seems fine until they get into a train to their destination. They then get a call about an anonymous tip made by someone at Sakura Hotel and are told to go there instead. This tip (and especially the reason for it being anonymous) is itself a piece of evidence for the puzzle at the hotel, already setting up the next mystery. This hopefully somewhat turns the attention away from the fact that the player just got railroaded back to the correct path. The player is also told that someone else from their squad will follow up on the building they (incorrectly) selected, and they will later learn that it turned out to be a dead end. Plus, Gary will make a snarky comment about the player's misstep in the next level. These are some small ways to make the player feel like their decision wasn't completely irrelevant.

    And in fact, it wasn't: Here's where cascading consequences come in. Each and every correct puzzle solution throughout the first act may produce a piece of evidence relevant to the act's overarching case. This means that every incorrectly solved case makes it more likely (or even inevitable) that the player will fail the bigger ongoing case. Failing the first act's overarching case will in turn lead to information not being obtainable in the second act, which in turn prevents the player from getting one of the two "best" endings to the game. This cascading system makes sure that even small failures can have big consequences even though the player is immediately railroaded into the correct path at the time of their misstep.

    Of course, this wouldn't be game design we're talking about if these cascading consequences didn't come with their own set of problems. Most notably, the player may find it unfair or, even worse, not realize at all that they cannot know the solution to a later puzzle due to having failed an earlier one. But although we have come up with some solutions for this problem as well, let's not go down that rabbit hole today.

    Have a look at this censored overview of just the second act: bubbles are scenes, and the thinner lines between them represent only the most important (cascading) consequences


    Let's quickly go over all the solutions and principles mentioned in the first half and see if we managed to apply them to our case.


    No takebacks? Check. The player has one shot at submitting the Case Sheet and will have to live with the consequences.
    Limited feedback? Check. The player isn't told (right away) if their answer was right or wrong, even though they're always sent to the right building.
    What about no getting stuck, did we apply any of the provided solutions?
    Did we make the puzzle easy? Yes, but only because it's an early one.
    Did we decouple story and puzzle progress? Yes, the player can always submit their Case Sheet, which ends the level and starts the next one.
    Did we make branching content for different solutions? Yes, in two ways: small changes in dialogs and, more importantly, our system of cascasing consequences.
    Did we provide hints? Sort of. We did use Highlight Mode (which highlights new information sources) and redundant clues (i.e. multiple ways to obtain the same information, e.g. the direction the victim fell when shot).

    The player toggles highlights on and off; blue (objects) and orange (NPCs) indicate new information


    Now for the detective game problems and their solutions discussed above.

    Did the game communicate on many channels? Not particularly since this is an early, easy case. The player only has investigatable clues and witness testimonies to work with.
    Did the player communicate back on few channels? Yes, the solution to the case is submitted via one central mechanic, a Case Sheet.
    Did the player communicate only the solution? Yes, the Case Sheet does not ask how they arrived at the conclusion.
    Did the player have big freedom communicating the solution? Not really, but we found it acceptable here as there's still only a 25% chance of guessing it. A high number of solutions is much more crucial for games that allow infinite retries and thus lend themselves to brute-forcing instead of giving the player just a single shot like Lacuna does.


    Detective gameplay is hard to get right. We're lucky to be building upon so many experiments by countless other game developers teaching us what works (and what doesn't), and it's our hope that we've mixed an interesting and unique cocktail of ideas that will keep you engaged and entertained throughout our game. If you want to see for yourself, wishlist Lacuna now and give it a spin when it comes out.

    If you have any thoughts on the topic or resources to share, let us know! We're happy about any opportunity to nerd out about game design.


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