I may have been a bit behind the times, but during the last couple of weeks of summer I listened to Serial, an excellent podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig of This American Life. The series dealt with re-examining the real-life case of Adnan Syed, a man convicted in 1999 of murdering his high-school girlfriend. The problem, though, is that the prosecution’s case was full of holes, large discrepancies, and a key witness whose story kept changing. When recording this in 2014, Koenig attempted to prove or disprove the case definitively; she was unsuccessful, though, largely because she was reviewing evidence and interviewing people 15 years after the fact.
This seemed really interesting to me, and inspired me to make a game where the player investigates a cold case of some sort. Listeners of Serial were already trying to piece the real-life case together, on websites and sub-Reddits, so interest in a game of this type is present. Her Story, a game released earlier in 2015, had a similar conceit, where players had to find evidence logged on a computer and piece the case together themselves.
The trailer for Her Story, a game involving piecing together a murder case
I was really interested in the memory aspect though- how one person could believe a detail of their experience was true, even though it contradicted others’ testimonies. It was these points of conflict that made Serial, as well as true-crime, detective, and film noir genres so interesting. As such, I found the idea of walking around a physical representation of a person’s memory really interesting- going back to the scene of a crime and trying to piece the sequence of events together is a common strategy in criminal investigation, and provides us with a puzzle that we’re compelled to solve.
So I had a seed of an idea- a person walking around inside someone’s memories, trying to solve a crime. Specific objects in these levels would be highlighted, which would allow the player to ask the interview subject questions about details in their narrative. Info from these questions could be collected as “evidence”, which could be presented to other subjects whose memories contradicted it. There was still a problem, though: the player could just brute-force (using every bit of evidence on every object) their way through the game, a common tactic among point-and-click adventure games. The point of the game was to conduct an investigation- I wanted the player to use their brain.
The solution to this involved two aspects: the first, I got from looking at Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s conversation system, a mechanic that I thought was really interesting. The basic idea is that in the game the player will, at points, be faced with “conversation bosses”, people that they need to convince or get information out of. If the player has a specific upgrade, they receive more information about whom they’re talking to: their current mood, what they act like in conversations, their personality type. This way the player can try to cater their responses in order to be more persuasive to the individual.
An example conversation boss from Human Revolution
The two main thing I took away from this was that if you angered the subject enough, the conversation would end, and that catering your responses could yield positive results. Considering the subject’s mood would make players slow down and consider what actions might be perceived as intrusive to the subject. This also gave me the idea for “curveball questions”, questions the player could ask that would improve the subject’s mood, but would not yield any information.
The second aspect to solving the brute-force problem I got from Majora’s Mask, as well as Pikmin. In these games, the player only has so much real-world time to accomplish in-game goals, making it into a system that the player always needs to consider. In Pikmin, for example, the player is given 30 “days”, every day representing an attempt at a level, and taking about 20 minutes of play time. If the time runs out, the player’s day ends, whether or not they’ve accomplished a specific goal.
Taking this example, I thought that giving the player a finite number of days and making a “day” equivalent to one in-game interview would encourage them to spend their time wisely. I didn’t want the time to run out in real-time, though- that would prove too stressful for a puzzle game. Instead, I resolved that the player would lose some unit of time every time they asked a question, and that interviews would end after a set amount of time units were spent. That way, the player could have time to walk around the environment and think critically about evidence, without having to worry about an ever-ticking clock.
The first draft of The Husker Report’s VDD
Using both of these aspects, I had a more solid concept, and had solved the issue of players brute-forcing their way through the game. I also had an interesting set of systems that more or less mimicked an interview or interrogation, a concept that I’m really eager to explore.
The first draft of the player’s action flowchart