Designing puzzles for In The Shadows

Monday, March 12, 2018 8:30 AM

There is a lot of puzzle platfomers out there, but rarely do I find one that balance story, puzzle and visual properly. There is always one thing or another that bothers me. I really wanted to make a game with great visuals, an interesting story and classic platforming puzzles but also making sure that all three aspects were deeply connected to each other. For In The Shadows, I made sure each aspect was there for a reason. Making everything work together is a lot of work, and a puzzle in itself.


Enlarge / That's three years of development

The story of In The Shadows is all about surmounting fears, confronting reality, using the fear of the dark as a symbol. To make everything coherent, everything in the game is lit in real time and cast actual shadows and most of the mechanics are about scaring shadows creature, taking control of them. All three aspects of the game are connected to each other. No gimmicks, a story that is told by the visual as much as the puzzles and mechanics. Making all this work together took a while and was a lot harder than I thought.


Designing for In The Shadows

When I started working on In The Shadows back in 2014, I had already sketched a couple of puzzles using only about three of the monsters in the game I had designed at the time. I think I had about 10 puzzles or so that were interesting enough and I felt confident that I could easily come up with more, considering I had other monster's mechanics in mind already for later. One thing is for sure, there was a lot of challenges when making In The Shadows, but of all of them, making puzzles was by far the most difficult thing I had to do, ever. As much as the graphic felt natural to make and the story was clear in my head, making the puzzles never felt easy.


It was a struggle every step of the way.


Puzzles design, and level design, are in most cases, and in my case, tied up together. Sure, you can focus on the puzzles, put your platform where ever you need and then put pretty visuals around them, but I wanted the puzzles to feel natural, blending with the environment, part of the level visual elements. Add to that the story and the natural progression of difficulty and it soon becomes very complex. I tried to find books on puzzles design but couldn't find anything at all. There is a lot of resources on "level design" but nothing related to what makes a good puzzle good or how to even start with puzzle designing and make it work with level design. It was a very long process for me to figure out, but maybe some of this experience can help others


Level design, from sketch to final design

Puzzle design, from early sketch to the final design. The layout had to change quite a bit since the first sketch.


Puzzles Style

The puzzles in the game are very "classic", in that they are very much like jigsaw puzzles. All the information needed to solve them are in front of you, nothing his really hidden, it's just obfuscated, misplaced, in the wrong order. All you have to do is figure out in which way to do what, or when to do something, or where. There are some "secrets" in the game, but they are part of a second level of difficulty or challenge, the main puzzles solutions, to get out of the room, have no secrets, no fetching quest, just pure puzzles.


Puzzles & level design process

Like any puzzle game, there is a natural progression in difficulty. Each new mechanic has a simple introduction, to teach the player about it, then a twist, then it's used with other mechanics already known. When designing a level or a puzzle, the first idea can come from many places. I don’t follow specific rules, I get inspired by different things and I don’t always start my designs in the same way.


Start with a mechanic

Usually, I start my process by using a basic mechanic, to figure out how it works and see all the possibilities. I would usually get an idea for a monster, let’s say the ladder, and make a test case where using it is very simple and natural. I don’t want the player to figure out the mechanic by mistake, I do want the player to have no real way of going around it without figuring it out, but more on that later.


Testing the sun cycle mechanic

When testing a new mechanic I usually make a placeholder level to see what the possibilities are. This is the first test of the sun cycle mechanic in game


After messing around with a simple setup, I add more steps to the puzzle, or start from the end, and make it increasingly more complex, while considering the limitation of environment. Maybe if I add this other monster here this will happen, or that. There is no way around it, I would just place things around, try combination, until I got something interesting. Sometimes it was very quick, other times it took many iterations, or I would just drop that idea completely. Now that I have a level with a puzzle in it, I would drill it, try to find ways to break it, skip steps, solve it in a way that I didn't plan for.


Once or twice I was surprised to find new ways of solving some puzzles and left it there, because it was either still challenging on the same difficulty as the first solution, or because there was just no way to fix it without dropping the level completely. Either way it had to still be fun thought.


Iterations and tests to get to a final design

For the levels with the day and night cycle I went through a lot of iteration. Here are some examples of designs when I was trying to figure out what I could do with the mechanic, and the final level in the game.


Start with an interesting layout

Sometimes I start with an interesting level design based on the environment, a fun layout that defines the limitations of the set I have to work with. There was a very clear distinction between the exterior level and the interior level each with their own characteristics. For example, the three rooms in the first world, the first actual puzzle you encounter. I had an idea for a puzzle that happen in three room where you had to go back and forth from one to the other in a specific order. I wasn't sure which monster to use or how the layout was going to be in the end, but I wanted to have three rooms and so I started from there. This is risky though, because often these layouts just don't work, but it is a fun exercise to try to fit a puzzle inside an interesting layout.


Design based on an idea for a layout

In this example, I started with a layout I thought would be interesting. Three rooms with a separate passage for the monster and the player. 


In the last picture, the first sketch didn't work once I tried them in the game. I often sketch things too narrow and the distance and size need to be much wider in the game. I had to tweak it and change it a lot through many iterations before I found something that worked. But what make it work well is the sense of misdirection and the fact that even though the solution is simple, figuring it out takes a while since it is not obvious.



A lot of the obfuscation of the puzzles is done by misdirection. The best puzzles are the one where it feels like there is an obvious solution but try to get there and you soon realize that it's more complex and your solution can't work. This is really hard to achieve in practice and is often the result of coincidence in the way the layout of the puzzle is made. Some levels open possibility for obfuscation better than other, but I always try to find ways to do it if I can.


Something you don’t want is unplanned misdirection. If something is in the level, there should always be a reason for it. NOTHING should be there by accident. Because if there are unplanned things in the level the player might waste time trying to solve it in a way that is impossible and tedious. You don't want to frustrate the player because of bad design, his struggle should be his own fault, not yours. You have to design in a way that might feel unplanned, but still have absolute control over the situation. If something is in the level, it has to serves a purpose.


The basic idea for this puzzle worked almost exactly like first sketched

A rare example of a puzzle that worked exactly as planned on paper. I added some more things to it but the basic idea worked perfectly right away.


Unbreakable puzzles

One thing you have to stay very consistent about is the fact that the player shouldn't be able to break any puzzles. No matter the state of the level, whatever the player has done in it, it should always be possible to recover and fix it to solve it, without needing to restart it. In a puzzle game you really don't want the player to wonder if he broke the level, he should always be able to fix it. Otherwise it can be very confusing since they don't know if they are wasting time or progressing. The player should never be stuck. They can feel stuck, but only because of their inability to solve the puzzle, not because they are actually stuck.


Unfortunately, in my case, after lots of testing and after the release of the game, I did find some puzzles that were breakable. Right now, I don’t want to change the game puzzles layout too much since the game is already released. Since the levels are still playable I decided not to modify them for now. When I find a very good solution for those problem I will fix them in the future though. That is still another puzzle for me to solve.



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