The Big Board

The Big Board

Adventure games have puzzles, lots and lots of puzzles. The important thing about these puzzles is that they don’t live in bubbles and thus can’t be designed that way. Every puzzle is connected, and yet at the same time separate. It is vital if you’re going for a non-linear game that a player getting stuck on one particular puzzle doesn’t block their progression completely. As long as there are multiple puzzles that the player has access to at any one time there is no singular puzzle that will block their path and cause frustration.

This doesn’t mean that all puzzles should be accessible right from the beginning or that certain areas or puzzles can’t be locked away, it’s still perfectly acceptable, and recommended, to lock certain bits away so there is room for progression and a sense of accomplishment, it just means that the player should be juggling multiple ‘puzzle chains’ at the same time.

What makes things trickier is when you decide that a certain puzzle needs changing, or maybe moving around, as this single change can affect every other puzzle in the game. For example let’s say you have a puzzle chain that results in you getting a key to unlock Door A however to solve this first puzzle you need Item 1 which is retrieved by completing a second puzzle. This is all great on paper and you go ahead and implement it but then after play testing you discover that this second puzzle is a little too easy so you decide to add another step to it but without thinking you put the extra step behind Door A. You now have a chicken and egg situation that you didn’t see coming. Naturally this is a very simple example that could have been easily avoided however you’d be surprised how often this problem comes up.

The Big Board - Dr. Strangelove

This is where our big board comes in, we use it to map out every puzzle in the game. These puzzles are displayed in two ways, the first is via a chain of sticky notes and the other is via coloured arrows on a map. To date we’ve been pretty protective of our board, trying not to show it to the outside world too much. This wasn’t because we thought people would steal our ideas but rather that the puzzles might be spoiled for people when they see these chains. We think now though that enough time has passed since the release of Forever Lost: Episode 1 that we can show it to the world, or at least our dozen or so blog readers.

Now, due to space limitations in our first office the board itself is actually two boards, but it’s a lot easier to just call it the big board so please just go with it.

This is the puzzle tree part of the board, this isn’t actually the final complete listing of the puzzles as the photo was taken sometime during development but it is the majority of them. The game suddenly seems a lot smaller when it’s laid out like this.

The Puzzle Tree

As you can see, each sticky note symbolises a distinct step in a puzzle that needs to be completed. This is a great way of visualising the approximate length and complexity of the puzzles, as well as an easy way to mark off which steps have been implemented or yet to be started, however it doesn’t fully illustrate how connected all the puzzles are.

We design our puzzles, and the game flow in general, from a top down perspective. The very highest sticky note you can see is essentially “complete game”, then in the row just below that there are four notes that are listed as “Riddle 1”, “Riddle 2” and so on. These represent the book titles that you are searching for in Episode 1 to open the door behind the bookcase. Underneath each of these riddle notes are the individual chains that a player needs to complete in order to unlock the specific book titles.

By structuring the puzzles like this the player can work on any number of puzzles that are open to them in order to attempt to get to any of the book titles, they can jump between individual chains and whole trees at once. Just in case you were wondering, we’re fully aware that as we’re going for the tree analogy a better name would be puzzle branches but the chain name just kind of stuck.

You may also notice at the top a separate piece of paper that doesn’t really fit. This is actually a small map of the game’s layout with all the rooms numbered. This was drawn by myself, the coder, hence the less that stellar look of it. I used it primarily to keep my head straight when implementing the scenes as by having them numbered I didn’t have to worry about ever changing what we called the rooms and getting confused. Below is a bigger version of that image for those of you that are interested.

TheSmallMap

The second part of the board is the map, thankfully this one is created by Simon rather than myself, which again lists all the rooms but this time with names and colourful arrows that illustrate all the puzzle chains. At first it looks pretty daunting and confusing but trust me, when you’ve been looking at it for a while, it still is. In a later post we’ll show the map for episode 2, now that’s a fun one.

Map of Episode 1 - By the artist

In this map you can see all the rooms numbered as well as named and all the puzzle flows, this helps us easily see from a distance the weighting of puzzles to make sure there isn’t a surplus of them in one area or a deficiency in another.

Hopefully this post has helped show you how we go about designing our games but I should probably make it clear  that this is simply how we approach puzzle design. There is no single correct way of doing this so if you have another way that works for you then that’s great and please tell us, we’d love to know!