This is the fourth blog post in a series by Creative Director Dennis about the development of our popular dispatch game, Suitcase Mystery, and the creation of its newer version Suitcase Mystery 2. If you want to read Part I, Part II, or Part III click on the links.
Suitcase Mystery 2: More story, less shoe horns
When my colleagues and I came up with the first Suitcase Mystery, it was kind of a collection of cool puzzle ideas, beautiful design, and surprising leaps of logic. But storywise, there was nothing really holding it together. One puzzle, in particular, uses months of the year, random icons, ribbons and numbers. It is a fun puzzle, but conceptually, it doesn’t necessarily fit together. What do any of these things have to do with each other?
Similarly, another puzzle uses six wooden shoehorns. Again, the puzzle is a hit and players really enjoy solving it, but the absurdity of this prop became clear as we made more copies of this game. I can’t imagine what the store staff thought we were doing with so many shoehorns. “Does he know he can use them more than once?”
Story troubles and the blank page
My focus is always on puzzle mechanics, but my weak point is the overall look for a completed game and the story it is trying to tell. I tend to gravitate to primary colors, standard fonts, and balanced layouts in my designs because I don’t want players to be distracted by nuance. If a design choice made out of deference to the story or conceptual consistency leads players astray, then I have failed at my main task as a puzzle designer.
This should not be an all-or-nothing proposition. A movie can be both funny and suspenseful. A speech can be both informative and easy to understand. Achieving more than one goal at the same time takes extra effort, but the result is a stronger end result. This is very true for a team building game where everyone is bringing different interests to the table. For some, the sport of the game is the point. But for others, the story brings meaning to the effort and tries to answer the “why?” of any given task.
The problem is that the story adds more stress to the “blank page” syndrome. As a creator, nothing is scarier than the blank page. Over time, our ideas emerge, the result appears, and it seems to all that the creation has always existed. But in this case, starting with a literally empty suitcase, the task was daunting.
Leading with the question, “What would go into a suitcase?” didn’t really help much because the answer was, “Just about anything.” Online research was of little use as well, because I personally don’t shop much at all online, and going to such a vast resource can be daunting. So instead I tried to think about what set of circumstances would explain the craziness inside. I let my inspiration carry me forward to see what emerged.
The first bit of inspiration came from one of the most versatile and enduring fashion objects ever: the jean jacket. The jean jacket is appropriate for all ages and characters. After considering the many variations, style alternatives, and personalization techniques used throughout fashion history – patches, pins, airbrush, stitching, cutting, painting -I knew we had something for our suitcase. I was able to take great advantage of the freedom to customize this article of clothing (so many places to hide things!). This would also begin to give our main character some personality.
Of course, travel is the core reason for suitcases, so I leaned in on that idea. Not only does our main character fly to all corners of the globe, they also do it in just one year. Truth be told, I love using calendars for puzzles. I used them for the previous version of the game, but not very well, at least from a story perspective. This time, I wanted to be sure that a complete calendar could be used to its full advantage as part of the story.
I often get my inspiration from walking around and investigating new things. It’s probably not a coincidence that while exploring Tokyo in the spring, I decided to make a puzzle using artificial flowers. I had an idea that included flowers of different colors, but as soon as I made a sample of the puzzle, it became clear that I was relying way too much on colors. This sometimes happens: a puzzle concept that works by itself gets lost and becomes confusing when put next to other challenges within the story context.
Now with a few loose threads to work with, I had to craft a reason for flowers, jackets and calendars to all be in a person’s suitcase. At this point, the process of making the “Suitcase Mystery 2” felt like a challenge.
But maybe that was the key! Without going too far down a meta rabbit hole, I started thinking about how assignments are handed down from higher up, often mysteriously it seems. Some new document is required, and you think, “Who came up with this?”
At the end of the day, I, the creative director for Invite Japan, was handing an assignment to the player to complete the Suitcase Mystery 2 game. Any number of story narratives get their propulsion from secret organizations that are working behind the scenes to activate the world of the main character. So the mysterious Invite Japan Academy was born as the most prestigious place in the world. Why not?
One more decision was to define the role of the players. It made more sense to have one layer in between players and Invite Japan academy. So Instead of putting players in direct contact with the Academy, having a main character in need of the player’s help was the way to go. The main character is a student trying to get into an elite institution. This plot should resonate with anyone who has ever had to jump through a series of hoops in order to qualify for any type of accreditation.
Over the course of a series of edits, we landed on a game of about seven puzzles, each with differing levels of difficulty and trickery. This editing process is tedious due to the number of small details with unintended consequences that can affect the logistics of the game.
One five-letter word was chosen for a lock that uses plastic rings with letters, but it turned out that in order to program the lock correctly, we would have to buy extra locks just to get the right combination of plastic rings. In other words, my word was too expensive. We had to look long and hard for a “cheaper” word that would still work. The lesson: some words come with a price tag.
We have now made two very different Suitcase Mysteries. Both are challenging, surprising and fun. For me, the chance to push the skills of my team and myself has been quite rewarding. Knowing what we have done this time makes me excited for future projects. Will we make a third? I hope so.