Natural Language Dev Blog 03: Narrative Breakdown

Over the past week, we worked to solidify the core narrative of Natural Language and create puzzle and progression mechanics. We now have a strong foundation for the story, the puzzles and the tone of the game, and it is time to take the next step. The problem is, at this stage the next step is not always clear.

We could dive deeper into research about our main topics (AI, logic-based communications and CETI), but we’ve already got a good base of work from which to draw. For creating a speculative fiction game about issues and technology important to today’s world, we will definitely need to do more detailed research, but not until we have a better understanding of our focus. We could get further into puzzle design, but without the full narrative framework, creating anything complex would only lead to puzzles divorced from the storyline.

Instead, we’re going to focus on drawing more details from the initial narrative outline. We can identify the key areas on which to focus our energy moving forward by breaking down each section of the game into pieces. You can find the template for this detailed breakdown here.  Once again, feel free to use this however you like. At this point, I’m guessing it’s pretty obvious that these dev updates double as lessons for the process of designing an ARG.

At the head of each section, the “Types of Puzzles” and “Feeling for the Player” categories are meant to ensure the game keeps the player engaged throughout the game. We’ve only begun to apply this breakdown to our ideas, and it has already led to key insight. We realized we had too many research puzzles towards the end of the game, and were able to redesign those sections to provide more variety. This simple, broad planning saved us a lot of design time down the road, and ensured we didn’t work hard on creating those puzzles only to have to throw them out.  

I learned the importance of the “Feelings for the Player” category from my friend and former colleague Steven Patterson when we were working on Season 1 of The Black Watchmen. We tasked our players with so many different and complex puzzles, that we needed to establish a special focus for each section of the game. Steven had the idea of specific roles, or feelings, for each mission, i.e. for this mission the player should feel like a geologist, so how can we design experiences around that? How can we make puzzles based on the work geologists do, but abstracted enough that a player with little knowledge of the intricacies of geology can still understand and enjoy the task? For Natural Language, the player initially assumes the role of a QA tester, but we want to expand beyond that, so it is important to consider which other roles we want them to assume, and then design the puzzles around those feelings.

The final point I want to touch on at this stage is the research notes section at the bottom of each puzzle. This is a means of organizing the research we’ve already done into the specific areas that influence each part of the game, and it provides us with a roadmap of what needs to be researched further. For instance, we’re looking to create a puzzle around a specific programming language used in 90s AI development, and we’ve identified the details of that language we need to learn more about. Now when we dive into researching it, we’ll know exactly what to look for.

That’s all for now. We are about to get into more detailed and in-depth development, so I’m going space these Dev Updates a little more. So see you in two weeks!