Coming up with the game mechanics shouldn't be too difficult. Since we are trying to mimic a real life investigation, that would mean we could skip anything that does not happen in real life, such as quest markers, in-game compass, items highlighting, fast travel, hint button, etc. All we need is a flashlight, a camera, a player journal, an inventory system, a photo album, an auto save/load, character spawn locations, building instances, menu options, NPC navmesh, character health bar, different endings… Wait. What just happened?
WHAT WE WANTED IN A MURDER MYSTERY GAME We started with a simple question: what kind of game would we want to play? After all, we would not make a game we didn't like in the first place. What we wanted was a game that will make you feel like a detective. Below is a list of things we advocated.
1. Logical clues, hints and puzzles We didn't want to play a game where the puzzles made no sense. 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 even challenging, but it should not be illogical.
2. Know Painscreek like the back of your hand In 1999, Sony released a game called Everquest. In that game, there’s no map, no compass, and no fast travel. The way to know your way around is to memorize the roads and environment. It sounded like a chore but the truth is that most players who grew up with that game loved it. They knew the layout of the towns and dungeons like the back of their hand so when things turned sour during raids, they knew where and how to escape. It made them feel attached to that world. It made them feel special. For The Painscreek Killings, we wanted to achieve that so we abandoned fast travel in favor for maps and road signs.
3. Look and observe for anything important 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. An example would be 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 that time, but would make perfect sense later when they found it. One such example was the shovel, which was found in Oliver's Photography store rather than a tool shed.
4. Finding the right clues to proceed Rather than knocking on every door found in the game, we wanted players 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. The Painscreek Killings, 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.
5. Old-school note taking and photographing To make the player feel like he or she is a detective, we went with the old school method of note taking and photographing anything that might seem important. This game mechanic has been abandoned nowadays to make everything easier and more convenient for the players. However, we believed that not only is it necessary in a murder mystery game, it could add another level of immersion to the game experience.
6. Getting the right atmosphere 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 us scared for days. So how did the Japanese film had such a stronger impact than the American version?
We realized 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 years later. We wanted to achieve that effect so we focused on the tension buildup through music, atmosphere, and most importantly, story hooks.
7. Making it look like a film than a game We decided early on to go for a film look rather than showing off all the hi-res textures that the game engine can pull off. There were two reasons for that. First, due to the nature of our game, it would benefit if it looked and felt more like a film. After all, The Painscreek Killings was a story wrapped inside a game. Second, we weren’t sure if we could pull off all the technicalities, and with all the high-res textures, we weren't sure if the game engine could run without facing huge drop frames, so we decided to play it safe. As long as the game looks like a film, that was good enough for us. Because of that, the visuals in the final release weren't the best when compared with other visually stunning games, but it created an atmosphere well-fitting for a murder mystery investigation.
WHAT WE ACTUALLY NEEDED TO DO TO MAKE THE GAME WORK Despite wanting the game to feel as realistic as possible, there were just some things that would not work in a game. For example, we were hoping that players will write down important notes outside the game as reference, but with almost 100 diaries and notes to read, players would probably have stopped taking notes by the tenth book. Instead, we opted for a player journal which not only recorded everything players came across, it also listed them chronologically, making it easier for players to follow the NPCs' backstories. Below are a few key game designs that we implemented to make the gaming experience better while keeping the original design.
1. Instead of Sherlock Holmes, use used a breadcrumb system and a shape-sorting cube puzzle We love Sherlock, the TV show. It's a great show that had us follow Sherlock's cases. As a game, we doubted if we could solve even a fraction of what Sherlock did. If so, what could we do to make players in our game feel like a detective? For clues, we used the breadcrumb system where one clue would lead to another. To piece the story, we used a shape-sorting cube puzzle where you insert the right shapes into the right holes as our core design. As crude and simple as it seemed, this wooden toy puzzle actually helps children gain confidence when they did it right. For us, it’s a system that works, knowing that no one wants to be really stuck in a game where they become frustrated and eventually quit the game. Truth be told, that’s the whole game mechanic of our game. If it’s really based on such a simple system, how could we ensure that it will it engage players for hours on end? The key, we believe, was the unraveling of the stories and secrets of Painscreek. (If you missed our last blog and are interested in learning more the game’s story structure, visit our blog here.)
2. Finding the balance between spoon-feeding and having no hints whatsoever It’s important not to make the game too easy because it will make players get bored easily. Make it too hard and players will quit. For many players who are accustomed to games that have quest markers, in-game compass and mission lists, The Painscreek Killings will feel overwhelmed for them in the beginning, but once they’ve found a clue to follow up on, things start opening up. It’s this mechanic that we believe will find the sweet spot between being too easy and too hard, so we spent a great deal of time planning out the clues and hints. We also considered what players can receive behind each locked door. Information that's easy to obtain would yield small rewards, while those harder to come by would yield bigger rewards. This way, players will not feel cheated or their time being wasted. In addition, the more players invest in the game, the more they will feel rewarded.
3. Different rewards for different players Our original design was that each play through would be his or her personal experience. There would not be a continue button if players finish a game, despite the ending received. The game would proceed to start over once the start menu appears. This would ensure that no two players would have the same exact experience. However, we realized that while this sounds great on paper, it would frustrate a lot of players. Most players want to know if they are on the right track, how close they are to unraveling the truth, and have the option to reload their previous save game just to complete things they might have missed. To do so, we included the following in the final game: (1) a Grade system, (2) a % Completion system, and (3) the Steam achievements.
First, the Grade system. This is most important as it determines the player’s ability to uncover the killer’s identity. To prevent players from simply guessing through trial and error, evidence is needed. If players find concrete proof pertaining to the killer, they would be given the respective grade. This method allows players to solve certain puzzles without needing to find the clue for it. One such example is the code to the Mansion’s Gallery Safe. If you come to know that a particular person’s birthday is the code, you can unlock it earlier in the game. Even if you did not find the clue later on in the game, it will not affect your Grade.
Next, the % Completion system. This isn’t as important as the grade, but is useful as it informs players how much they have uncovered in their progress. The % Completion only focuses on pickable items and readable documents related to the game’s main storyline, and does not affect the Grade. The order of them being read or picked up also does not matter. Using the Mansion’s Gallery Safe as an example again, players can find a clue in one of the NPC’s diary which, if read, will reveal the code for the Safe. If you unlocked it early in the game and then found the code’s hint later, it will still be recognized by this system. This method of progression will draw you closer to finding the killer and contribute towards the % Completion.
Finally, the Steam achievements. There are actually more achievements to unlock than what is included in the 100% Completion. For example, every ending has its own achievement, and certain items not part of the main storyline also have their own achievements. This might appeal to some players, but is the least important.
We hope that by having different type of rewards, players can enjoy the game the way they want.
WHAT WE WANTED TO IMPLEMENT BUT COULD NOT We wished we could have implemented a phone-call system where players can call with the phone numbers found in the game. Some numbers might have been disconnected while others could provide clues. This would provide a fresh take on the investigation and break away the monotony of just reading diaries and notes. Unfortunately, we did not have a programmer at that time and had to abandon this idea.
We also wanted to implement in-game cinematic. One of them was for the player gets knocked out in the mid-story and find herself encountering Sofia in her dream. Another was for the player to hide under the bed when the killer appears 3/4 into the game. However, this meant that players have to experience it the way we envisioned, which might not be what players want. In the case of having to hide from the killer, what if players decided they want to make a run instead and realized they could not? That would break the immersion. In the end, we left them out because we didn’t have enough time to pull it off.
Lastly, we wanted to implement random in-game events. Ideas include a flower pot falling onto the ground from the second floor balcony, town gates creaking as the wind breezes by, a town clock that chimes for every hour that passed by, etc. Although we could not implement most of the ideas, we kept some of them, one being the power shut down in the Hospital (which might or might not happen, depending on which act the player accesses it), and the other on the sightings of Sofia.
CONCLUSION Despite being categorized as a walking simulator, The Painscreek Killings can be said to have gone beyond it by implementing the following game mechanics: A semi-open world game. This means it’s not a linear experience and there’s no set path to follow. Players can explore wherever they want, most of the time based on the clues/hints they found. A game where players can end the game anytime. If players think they know who Vivian’s killer is, they can leave Painscreek and submit their findings to the editor. The results they chose will be published in tomorrow’s paper. A traditional murder mystery where players will find themselves having to photograph things and jot down notes they deemed important to their investigation. A hardcore ”whodunnit’ game where there is no handholding and no quest markers. But the puzzles are fair and there’s more than one way to crack some puzzles. All the puzzles are also there right from the start, allowing players who have the right answers to solve them without having to search for hints.For that, we have made a game that we wanted to play and kept our vision alive - a murder mystery game that makes the player feel like a detective.
Next: Join us next where we talk about designing the UI and menus.