Below is a full version of the text interview us Weird Sisters did with questions by Sebastian Quack, the curator the "Uneasy Play" exhibit as part of the Next Level Festival 2018. The interview touches on design philosophy, virtual vs. live games, and working together as witches. For more info about the festival and exhibit, check out our blog post here.
1.) How did you get interested in puzzle games? How does the experience of making and solving puzzles relate to experiences in "real life"?
Rachel: I’ve always loved problem-solving and puzzles. I grew up playing video games with my brother, and Scrabble and crosswords with my grandmother. It wasn’t until a few years ago though that the idea of actually making puzzles myself really clicked for me when I played an escape game for the first time. We are surrounded by puzzles and challenges, from little things like navigating public transportation to massive challenges like how to solve our environmental crisis. I like to think that puzzle games help people perceive the world around them with more curiosity and pursue solutions to these challenges.
Jessica: I always played puzzle games as a kid and made scavenger hunts for my friends, but I looked into designing games more in depth when I started working at an escape room. We would bring puzzles we were working on to the breakroom and all try to solve them in between games. It became pretty competitive, so I started making them whenever I had time, like how some people sketch or doodle. A fun game we used to play was all decide on one word for an answer, then work solo for 5 minutes and make different puzzles to come to the same solution. It was fun to see how different our puzzles were, I highly suggest it if you’re in a puzzle designing rut!
Ava: I’m an 80’s kid and grew up surrounded by games, and I’ve always loved games but never had the confidence to think that I was good at making them until I decided to take a sabbatical and just try to do it for a year. My professional background is in implementing responsive and fluid UI, but it has a lot of parallels to games because in both you’re always thinking about what kind of user is interacting with your code game.
2.) What is an interesting puzzle for you? How do you approach making puzzles?
Rachel: Deceptively simple puzzles are interesting to me, ones where I think I’m about to get the answer but then discover another barrier or layer of complexity. My approach to making puzzles depends on the type, but in general I think about what I want the player to feel or experience, what fits or enhances the theme I’m going for, and what sounds fun. The majority of my background is in designing for live games, so considering how to physically build the puzzle and what the experience and result of solving it are factors as well.
Jessica: When you play a lot of puzzle games, you recognise a lot of tropes. You have an easier time solving it because you lose the fun of figuring out how to solve it. The classic example is a blacklight in an escape room. It’s really cool the first time around, but… it loses its shine the 17th time. A good puzzle is one that challenges me to figure out what kind of puzzle it is before I begin solving it. I get excited by seeing a puzzle type I haven’t solved before.
Ava: For the push block puzzles of It’s a ZOO, we start with designing mechanics that we think will be fun and challenging. We test these out either by designing the levels directly in the game engine or with paper and cut out foam squares to see if the mechanic is interesting. From here we make a Level Progression Chart. This outlines the order that new obstacles are introduced to make sure that we are teaching the player how to overcome challenges in the order of least difficult to most difficult.
Jessica: For example, we need to teach the player to push a block before they have to push a block, underwater, while surrounded by jellyfish and running out of air. For each level we ask ourselves, “What is the player learning in this level? Do they know what they need to in order to be successful in completing this?”
Rachel: After the Level Progression Chart, we take into account the tempo of the game. We’ve found it keeps the player more interested if you vary the expected completion times of levels. With all that, the payoffs of the narrative plot points need to fit in at the right moments. Level building is certainly it’s own puzzle.
Ava: This is also a good time to note that the PICO-8 game in this exhibition is a prototype of It’s a ZOO and we’re currently developing it into a full game using Unity. We’re adding more animals, more puzzles, and more levels along with a deeper story, so planning this progression becomes even more important.
3.) Some members of your team have experience designing physical Escape Rooms. What can you translate into digital game design? What kind of puzzles or game elements work well only in each setting?
Rachel: In both physical and digital games, finding the balance with frustration is an important part of design. It may seem counterintuitive, but frustration is a good thing in games. It shows that your player cares enough to push through a challenge they think is difficult. We want the player to feel frustrated enough that having the “ah ha!” moment of solving a puzzle is extremely rewarding, but not feel so frustrated that they walk away from the challenge.
Jessica: In escape rooms, it’s all about momentum and encouraging different intelligence types to shine. You’re designing for a team of people, so you want everyone to feel involved every minute of the game. You want to vary your puzzle types so everyone can feel included, but in video games you’re just designing for one person so you don’t have to worry about keeping an entire audience engaged. The whole theory has to change. Instead of constantly surprising players with different types of puzzles, you have the opportunity to build in difficulty and to teach the player skills.
Rachel: Another big difference is how rules are enforced between the two mediums. Testing the boundaries of a rule or restriction is natural for players and in video games the digital procedure or system in place rigidly enforces those rules. Your character cannot go beyond the boundary of the level or ride the turtles through the ocean (unless Ava programs that in). In an escape game, physical barriers, staff, and ultimately trust in the players to behave appropriately are what enforces rules, and sometimes, especially when players are frustrated or don’t like a rule, those factors don’t hold up. It’s critical to live game design to make rules that make sense within the context of the game, and craft the room and theme to re-enforce them.
Jessica: Orchestrating game tempo also differs between the types. In escape games, we often talk about puzzles in terms of the timing it takes to finish on average and the class of puzzle it is. For instance, you can have a 5 minute language puzzle or a 2 minute visual puzzle. Players have 60 minutes to solve the whole room and the designer needs to create a rhythm of different timings and types to keep people interested and surprised through to the end. Because It’s a ZOO is a digital game, we have no limit to the crescendo of making the same puzzle type increasingly difficult.
4.) What role does language play in your work?
Jess: It’s a ZOO is completely based on idioms and puns. We have a relationship to absurdity that we all strive for. We start conversations with “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” and then somehow we’re putting bowties on penguins so they can go to the opera. In the full version of the game, the player collects “pearls of wisdom” to give a graduation speech to a school of fish. Honestly, I have no idea how that previous sentence with all those idioms and puns will translate to non-English speakers (Good luck!)
Rachel: On the development side, the three of us all come from different backgrounds and have different areas of expertise, so our communications have their own challenges when we are trying to explain ideas or concepts. For me, that comes up more when trying to explain art concepts, or when trying to understand what the heck Ava is doing. She says she’s writing C# but I’m pretty sure she’s doing magic.
Ava: The first time Jessica and I worked together was at Global Game Jam for a point and click adventure game we made in 48 hours. Jessica showed up with a full “kit” in her backpack of different art supplies and started cutting up little pieces of paper and made a puzzle from scratch. She wrote me a whole play script with stage directions even though our characters were all static due to the time constraints. It worked for what we were doing, but that was not at all what I was expecting!
Jessica: One time Rachel and Ava got into a big discussion about top down and three fourth perspectives for the level art and they were trying to explain these viewpoints to me and the challenges of the different perspectives. About 1,000 cocktail napkin sketches later, I think I got half of it. All I wanted to know is if you would see Noah’s feet. I’m just going to say we all have our different strengths and it’s great.
5.) I really enjoyed the light-hearted approach to story in combination with the tricky puzzles. How important is humour for you, and how does it factor into gameplay?
Jessica: I’m glad you like it! There are more cringeworthy puns coming at you in the full version! This choice in rooting the game in a sarcastic, pun filled, ridiculous tone really comes from why we made the game in the first place. The three of us originally got together to make a different game, but Ava saw a grant opportunity for grid-based, sokoban inspired games and we decided to think about if we made a game like that, what would it be?
We played tons of sokoban puzzle games and I was getting really frustrated about how one wrong move sends you into a whole mess of more work. I remember thinking, “Why is someone making me do this seemingly impossible task? What kind of sadistic boss am I working for?” I was a disaster, screaming at screens. Ava and Rachel were laughing at me and that catharsis of joking in between these hard and frustrating level attempts made solving them more fun. We knew if we made a game in this puzzle category, our players would enjoy the same thing.
This inspired Noah the Zookeeper, a character that just wants to finish their job and go home for the day, but their boss keeps asking them to do just one more thing before they leave. That is something I think that everyone can relate to. That’s why the humor is important: If you don’t give the players relief from the futility of it all, they’ll just bail on the game and download something else. We wanted them to stay with us through all of our levels so we made an encouraging boss to push them along, gave them a main character with a mouthpiece that reflected the player experience, and added cute animals because they are an adorable distraction from how annoyed you can get.
Rachel: We talked at one point about our target audience and objectives and decided we wanted to focus on making a fun game for the sake of fun. We also wanted to make a game for non-traditional gamers of all ages. Our game may be more challenging than typical casual games, but the light-hearted approach helps make the challenge more accessible to those who may not otherwise attempt a puzzle game like this. With difficult games, there’s often a discouraging sense that the player isn’t good enough if they don’t get far. With this game, when the player gets frustrated or stuck, it’s okay because our main character Noah is frustrated too – neither of them is having an easy time with these bizarre tasks, but they both want to help the cute little pixel animals so Noah can go home.
Ava: We actually have a problem with taking the humor too far. In one version of the It’s a ZOO script that would have sent you to the moon just to make a really good pun about a rabbit. It also involved time travel for some reason. We tend to design our settings around what makes us laugh and what we think would be fun for the player. It really helps that we all have the same sense of humor, and we all love puns. I love getting to tell people about our game because the descriptions of things like sleepy bears needing blankets so they can hibernate or penguins getting dressed up for the opera in their tuxedos always makes them laugh.