Twisty Little Passages

Development journal for a novel game book of dungeon crawl puzzle adventures, live on Kickstarter
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Puzzles with and without randomness

Mike Rimer
United States
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Microbadge: Copper Board Game CollectorMicrobadge: 5 Year Geek VeteranMicrobadge: Puzzle fanMicrobadge: I design games for the love of itMicrobadge: Video Game Developer
I've been developing puzzle games, drawing maps and inventing dungeon crawls since I could pick up a pencil. I’ve made dozens of gaming creations for personal enjoyment and in joint partnership with others. Graph paper and level editors were favorite tools growing up. As a labor of love for puzzle game fans everywhere, I co-developed a franchise of PC puzzle games over a span of fifteen years that are, very seriously, named the Deadly Rooms of Death, or DROD for short.

In DROD, you fill the role of a professional dungeon exterminator. You navigate a series of hand-crafted dungeon mazes, clearing out those pesty monster infestations with your Really Big Sword while navigating tricks and traps in search of an exit. Built and supported by an active community, the DROD games were essentially crowdsourced though TLP represents our first actual KS campaign. DROD has been acclaimed as the "best puzzle game of all time," and I think the community effort played a big part in getting it to this level.

An intentional part of this puzzle game experience is that there is no randomness involved at any point. As you know, RPGs often involve rolling dice, ostensibly to simulate and approximate the complexity and unknowns of the world. Randomness also ensures you never know quite how that next battle will turn out, no matter how well you prepare or how outclassed you may be. But things change when you take the dice away. Deterministic play ensures that strategy and tactics become paramount over luck. Now scenarios become puzzles to explore, optimize and solve. It becomes a more "Euro" gaming experience, if you will.

I got the idea for Twisty Little Passages in a flash one day, when my son shared the idea of putting dungeon maps in a book and having to solve them similar to the Deadly Rooms of Death. I imagined how such an experience could translate well to a book medium, playing to its strengths. As I asked my son more about where his idea came from, he mentioned he'd had a dream about playing Minesweeper puzzles in an RPG-style, in a book. I was intrigued!

From gallery of mrimer

How could one design dungeon puzzles, placing everything in plain sight, and make them interesting and fun to clear?

How can one provide a sense of exploration and discovery, solving puzzles experiences like Minesweeper (for instance) when the whole map is revealed at the outset?

After hearing about my son's dream of a puzzle dungeon crawler in a book, I was determined to figure that out. I scoured the internet and couldn't find anything providing that experience. I asked around online and in local gaming circles. Everyone I shared the idea with was likewise unaware of anything providing this type of experience. Others shared my interest in the idea and said they would like to try something like that. So, I decided to make it myself.

This project is a labor of love and something we feel passionately about.

Let me take you on a journey of lessons learned along the way in developing Twisty Little Passages.

First, let's start with fundamentals of play. There need to be rules of engagement, game elements and mechanics. I first had to determine what rules, mechanics and elements would lend themselves to the strength of the medium of the printed page in solving puzzles. I realized the printed page primarily engages your eyes and your mind, but your hands are also involved. There needed to be mechanics that engage all three.

I wanted the mechanics to be elegant and streamlined, so you could play at the speed of thought. I wanted navigating a dungeon to be able to occur as fast as your eyes could travel the twisting, turning passages. I wanted your hands to aid in tracking your progress and supporting your mind and eyes to keep doing what they do best.

From gallery of mrimer

Interface design

When designing a puzzle game, presentation can simultaneously mean everything and nothing. Visuals don’t change the core puzzle, but setting can help fire the imagination, while theme provides a visceral experience. There are plenty of abstract puzzles out there with start design, lines and boxes, numbers and letters. It’s rarer to see puzzles placed in an RPG setting, and rarer still to engage thematically (e.g., battle mechanics). RPGs are a rich space, both visually and content-wise. We wanted to build on that wealth of material without puzzle designs, rules or visuals becoming complicated.

We spent months iterating on iconography that would be clean, clear, and unambiguous. We wanted the presentation to be colorblind-friendly. The symbology of stats, items, and monsters needed to be immediately recognizable, familiar, and intuitive. We wanted players to be able to jump right in and learn how to play as they went.

From gallery of mrimer

To me, playing to the obvious strengths of a book format meant displaying all the necessary information clearly and completely, which means no flipping back and forth between pages while playing to break immersion or disrupt the flow. Presenting a top-down dungeon map is a classic way to enable a player to quickly comprehend the play area. During prototyping, we decided to provide a format where areas are self-contained. Every dungeon area would always be completely visible to the player and the objectives are immediately clear. All game elements and rules would be available on the page. That meant having every level fit entirely either on a single page or spread across two pages, side-by-side.

After evaluating multiple book binding options, I decided using a wire or coil binding would work best to allow the book's pages to lie flat, keeping your hands free to play and not having to fidget with the materials so everything remains effortlessly visible.

Having everything visible and in the player's field of view enables rapid play. In Twisty Little Passages, one's eyes can traverse dungeon mazes simply by following the corridors on the page. Enabling a player to move effortlessly around a dungeon, simply by moving one’s eyes, is about the simplest user interface and experience possible, with elegance unmatched by any UI or on any gaming system so far.

From gallery of mrimer

Putting the pieces together

Prototyping Twisty Little Passages, we’ve spent months designing puzzle and page layouts, watching playtesting sessions and garnering feedback from testers on how to improve the experience. Our goal is to balance engagement and challenge and provide a smooth difficulty ramp. We streamlined the presentation to ensure the elements on the page contribute to each unique puzzle experience in a cohesive way. We followed the artistic principle of not simply adding and adding material to make a beautiful and engaging creation, but rather seeking the point of elegance, where nothing can be taken away without diminishing the experience.

In practice, this meant developing a set of game elements that all complement one another and provide synergistic, emergent puzzle possibilities. Our team spent years honing this technique while developing the DROD series, and we are pleased to be able to provide a streamlined and elegant set of game elements and puzzles in TLP. The material is 95% completed, and we’d like to involve you in producing the final critical parts of this puzzle gaming experience through the Kickstarter compaign.

In the next article, I'll continue sharing our experience and thoughts on the value of visuals and graphic design in presenting puzzles. I'll also share how TLP engages the player's mind and body to augment the puzzle-solving experience.

We appreciate your feedback and look forward to producing Twisty Little Passages together!
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