How developers maintain surprise.
In a 2016 documentary by YouTube channel toco toco tv, NieR: Automata director Yoko Taro said, “Looking at AAA titles, of course I find them beautiful and interesting, but after 20 minutes of gameplay, I wonder whether it is going to be the same for the following 20 hours. I am a bit tired of this. If possible, I would like to make games that are unexpected, games that keep changing form.” The spirit behind this statement drove NieR: Automata to incorporate a mind-bending, emotionally fraught narrative, and it brought the game incredible success. If this example is anything to go by, titles relying on a sense of surprise and discovery have more of an audience than ever—even in the age of social media and internet spoilers. According to Jim Crawford, developer of Frog Fractions, this environment contributes to a desire for such media. “I grew up with mystery-heavy games—back then, every game was mysterious by default, just by the nature of how games were made, played, and marketed,” Crawford says. “Now, any mystery that’s not truly industrial strength is eaten up by marketing, wikis, and data mining. Persisting mystery is a rarity that you have to work hard to achieve, so it’s something people sit up and pay attention to.”
Gary Kings creates murder mystery games with a team under the name of National Insecurities, and elaborates on the complications of the genre thusly: “The hardest thing while making a murder mystery game is working out how the game and player communicate with each other. We’re asking the player to work out the story from the pieces, and tell the story back to the game. You can’t design the story before the mechanics, they both had to spark into existence at the same time.” Once a game is released, developers must also take steps to preserve the mystery driving it. “If your game is successful,” Crawford says, “people will be talking about it and digging into the executable to look for secrets.” In Crawford’s case, fans solved multiple ARGs over several years to unlock the release of Frog Fractions 2 in December of 2016.
Once you’ve determined the type of game you want to make and how you want to imbue it with mystery, you still have to market it. “The bits you do reveal have to be compelling enough to move copies of the game before it becomes known for its hidden content,” Dropsy and Hypnospace Outlaw creator Jay Tholen says. For Crawford, the ‘bottled lightning’ success of Frog Fractions and the Kickstarter for Frog Fractions 2 leads him to believe that, “The best option is to make a game that’s marketable in the traditional sense, even if you leave out the mystery.” Which brings me to West of Loathing.
Kingdom of Loathing is a free browser-based MMO that’s been on the internet for over 14 years. However, despite the longevity of KOL, the studio making it was in trouble. Creative designer Zack Johnson recalled a meeting with Gone Home designer Steve Gaynor, where the latter suggested making a singleplayer title in the Kingdom of Loathing universe. Soon, the first prototype of West of Loathing was born. “The important elements of escapism to me,” Johnson begins, “are more distraction than convincing me that I’m ‘important’.” So, West of Loathing developer, Asymmetric, went in the opposite direction. Using its budget to create a thin main quest, it stuffed every inch of the monochromatic Western world with visual gags, soup mines, one-off items, and tomes of knowledge that could leave players a walking skeleton— haunted by secrets no stick figure was meant to discover.
If they could convince a percentage of Kingdom of Loathing players to buy West of Loathing at full price, Zack and company believed they could keep pursuing game development for a bit longer. West of Loathing became a Steam hit, recouping the development costs of the game in just ten days. While he credits their success to a number of factors (including the expertise of narrative game marketer Emily Morganti), Johnson believes part of the reason players loved West of Loathing was its meta honesty and freedom of choice. “The game is, in a lot of ways, a conversation between the narrator—which is just me and Riff [Conner, cowriter of the game]—and the player,” Johnson says. “It’s like a goofy D&D game that’s being played with us as the DMs and the player as the player.”
Gaming could use a little more surprise—and these developers are just a few of the people braving the difficulties necessary to deliver it. By Xalavier Nelson Jr
“Mystery that’s not industrial strength is eaten up by marketing, wikis and data mining”