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Painscreek Devlog #4: Making A Narrative Work For Games

Instead of discussing the menu and UI design as originally planned, we’ve decided to take this opportunity to explain a bit further how we utilized the content in the past two blogs to make the narrative work in The Painscreek Killings. We hope anyone finding themselves wondering if they can make a story work without it being forceful or too linear can benefit from this article.

Prior to sharing this blog with everyone, we want to emphasize that this is neither the best method nor the only method to create a game like ours. Instead, we just want to share what worked for The Painscreek Killings and hope it benefits others creating a similar type of game.

WHERE TO FIND INSPIRATION? To design a murder mystery game, where does one start? For us, we decided to look for inspiration outside games. Why? Because if we look at games for inspiration and reference ours to theirs, then our game can only be limited to what we referenced from and less. Not more. Instead, we have to go outside of games and bring something that is lacking in games. For that, we looked at films, one of the most successful visual media to date.

For the story, we looked at films and TV shows. One of the biggest influence is The Killings. It’s probably the only show that puts the audience in the shoes of a detective and think “where should I investigate now?” It is this strong sense of detective work and feeling at a lost when leads turn to red herrings that compels us to make The Painscreek Killings the way it is.

(The Killing - probably the best detective TV show in recent years.)

For music, we went for everything that might work. When trying to find music suitable for TPK, we realized that the ones we love actually did not work. Instead, we had to find music that can play in the background without distracting players from their investigation. In the end, we went with music similar to The Game. (Note: there's some controversial as for the final composed music, but it's a topic for another day.)

For atmosphere, we looked at references that brought out a mysterious feeling. The genre did not matter. Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Fringe provided us an external reference, which contributed to the game's lighting. Japanese detective shows, on the other hand, provided us a more internal reference, contributing to the game's overall feel . Using both, we were able to create an uneasy feeling despite the game taking place during the day.

(One of the shots from Fringe inspired us to create a similar look in our game's interior scenes.)

(In-game screenshot of the Church interior.)

Despite using films for most of our references, we also looked at games when designing TPK. We turned to The Secret World to study how the story missions were constructed. We also mimicked a few of the game mechanics which worked well for TPK. The difference is that each mission in The Secret World is short while in TPK, the mission of solving Vivian’s murder might require over ten hours to complete.

(The concept of using a map to navigate around town came from here.)

When designing and open world experience in a story structured progression, we looked at Everquest and Resident Evil. Everquest provided an amazing gaming experience because the players were the ones who created their own goals. This player-created goal is probably more powerful than any game-created goal. We also used the original Resident Evil's ability to explore anywhere in the mansion while allowing players to pick up important keys to unlock the story progression as one of TPK's core mechanic.

(Resident Evil laid the foundation of free-roaming within a structured design.)

Look to past games for the great memories, but don't reproduce exactly they way they were because when you do revisit them at this day and age, you will realize they aren't as good as you remembered them to be. The experiences you got from them, however, are priceless. That's what you want to try to achieve in your game while adapting to gamers of the current generation.

(This is one of the many dungeons in the original Everquest where memorizing the layout is the only way to navigate through.)

GO WITH THE NORM OR 'EDUCATE' PLAYERS ABOUT YOUR GAME Sometimes, you have to break the concept of what a game should be. For a murder mystery game, how do you make one feel like a detective? Do you go with what current generation games have to offer, with their auto-targeting quest markers and in-game maps to lead you every step of the way? Or do you want to emulate the way a detective game could be? For us, we wanted players to experience what it feels to solve the case by themselves without being helped by the computer. Should they solve the game completely, the result is theirs to be proud of.

DON’T FORCE THE NARRATIVE ONTO PLAYERS. LET PLAYERS CREATE THEIR OWN NARRATIVE EXPERIENCE Despite having the 3-act structure and game mechanics well laid out, how do you make it work? Let’s say you think the game’s story should be laid out in a certain way so players can get the most out of it. It definitely works for a film, but will it work for a game? Will players feel that the story is being forced down their throat, or that the game's linear design is limiting them the opportunity to make meaningful decisions? What can you do to avoid this problem?

One month before the release of The Painscreek Killings, we playtested the game and realized that Act 2B wasn’t working. The problem was that Act 1 and Act 2A were so organic and free-roaming  that Act 2B seemed like it was on rails. So we posed a question to the development team: if the first half of the movie is great and the second half is bad, is that still a good film? The answer is it isn't. The solution to that was a revamp of Act 2B.

Original Act 2B Players are to look at possible NPCs who might have a motive to kill Vivian. Let’s assume the NPCs are Adam, Bruce, Chris, Dean, and Evan, and Adam is Vivian's killer. From their backstories, all of them have a motive and a reason to kill Vivian. The developers know who the killer is, but the players do not, and the developers want players to experience all of the NPCs’ storylines before finding out who the real killer is. So the game is designed such that Adam (the killer) wrote letters to Steve (the P.I.) as a concerned citizen to try and mislead him into suspecting everyone else as a possible killer other than him. Steve would then investigate everyone, thinking that he was being helped by a concerned citizen. As his investigation progressed further, Steve realized the suspects were all innocent. He then came to the realization that his anonymous friend was misleading him. This led him to investigate his anonymous friend. The moment he found out who the killer was, his life would be at stake. This story structure allows players to experience all of the NPCs’ storyline to the fullest. It sounds great, but there's one problem: how do you make a player experience it the same way Steve did while maintaining an free-roaming, open-world structure? It's not possible. Not only will it make the game linear, everyone will experience Act 2B in the exact same way. This was the dilemma we had and we knew it had to be fixed immediately.

So we abandoned the idea the anonymous friend. Instead, we went with the following.

Revamped Act 2B Adam, Bruce, Chris, Dean and Evan are still suspects in Vivian’s murder, but their backstories are further expanded and their timeline intertwined. We also made the relationship among them even more connected. This way, players can investigate any NPC that they suspect, and all of them other than the killer will lead to red herrings. This way, we maintained the open-world mechanic and  players' experiences in Act 2B will unravel quite differently. The downside to this is that if players suspect the real killer at the start of Act 2B, then the second half of the game can end pretty quickly. To remedy this situation, we implemented a few mechanics, one of them being the % completion system, to encourage players to extend their investigation.

The original Act 2B felt like a roller-coaster ride. Pick up an item or a clue and it will lead to another, which leads to another, and finally to Vivian’s killer. The revamped Act 2B, on the other hand, made it organic and more of an open-world experience. There’s no handholding, but the rewards are greater because of the story twists and the emotional rides portrayed through some NPCs. Certain backstories uncovered earlier in the game also start to make sense, and everyone will has a closure to their storyline. Players can feel like they are truly putting their detective’s hats on. 

(It is possible to solve the case correctly with minimal information uncovered.)

PROVIDING ‘AH-HA’ MOMENTS FOR PLAYERS You want players to feel smart when playing. You don’t want to make them feel stupid. The point of playing games is for entertainment, not frustration (we have the latter in life already). Let players explore the world, discover stuff, look through chests and drawers, read notes and diaries, find hints and clues, and figure things out on their own. When players solve things on their own, they create their own ‘ah-ha’ moments. This is a very satisfying feeling that encourages them to continue playing the game. Just don't make it too hard or too easy or it will backfire.

CREATING HOOKS FOR YOUR PLAYERS How do you hook your players from beginning to end? How do you make that happen? From our experience, here are a few principles we relied on. First is story hooks, created by using the 3-act structure. Set plot-points and mid-point as story changing hooks. Let the climax be the high point of the game. We recommend a few film books that are useful in this area, namely Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting and Robert McKee’s Story: Style, Structure, Substance and the Principles of Screenwriting.

Second is NPC hooks, created by developing characters that your audience can empathize with. Also, leave cliffhangers in some of their diaries so players have a desire to find out more about their storylines.

Third is player hooks, created by the players themselves. Let players develop their own goals in the game. In TPK, although the story's progression is linear, we give players the chance to explore anywhere they want and create their own goals within the game. Do not presume to tell players what you think is the best way to experience the game. Rather, let them experience it the way they would like it to.

Using the above principles, we were able to hook players quite successfully.

MAKING THE GAME SATISFYING FOR THE PLAYERS Have you ever watched a movie that, at the end of it, made you think "Is that it?" There’s a movie called Shutter Island with Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead actor. The trailer was amazing, and so was the film, until the end when some of us felt cheated. Why did we feel that way? It's because everything that happened was in the protagonist’s head. Nothing was real. Everything that’s built up from the start till the end didn’t matter at all.

When creating The Painscreek Killings, we knew we will not go that route. After all, our game is to find the truth to Vivian’s murder. The ending has to be concrete and substantial, something that players feel they’ve earned it. That way, players will feel a sense of satisfaction. This can never be emphasized enough.

CONCLUSION We had a clear idea of the type of detective game we want to play, and it translated very closely to the released version. It’s a style that harkens back to 90s adventure games, but with current graphics and improved game mechanics. In trying to make it happen, we changed certain mechanics to fit the game's design, but we never deviated from the goal, which was envisioned clearly before pre-production even started. In closing, we just want to summarize the points we did when developing TPK. Have a clear vision of the type of game you want to make and give to your players.Begin by knowing how your game's story ends.Plot out your story’s plot-point 1, mid-story, plot-point 2, its climax and resolutions. The climax should be the culmination of your entire story.Develop the 3 acts by establishing the goals and obstacles for your protagonist, antagonist(s), and all characters in-between.Fine-tune the details along the way. Step back often to look at the design as a whole. Does it meet your original vision?Repeat step 3 to 6 as many times as you need until your game is ready for release.That was how The Painscreek Killings was made.


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