I describe Kairo as a 3D atmospheric exploration and puzzle solving game. I list the puzzle solving last because to me my primary goal is to build a fascinating world for the player to explore. However the puzzles are also a huge importantly part of the game because those are what will make the world more engaging, and I want the player to feel invested in this world.
I have found developing these puzzles to be the most difficult part of designing the game. They need to be varied, they need be interesting and they need to feel like they're an integral part of the environment and not just pasted on top. They also need to be challenging without being totally frustrating to the players.
So I wanted to help you understand how difficult I've found this by focusing on a single room that I've really struggled with. Which I'll be calling the Circular Room for reasons that will become obvious.
Puzzle rooms start as a blend of two ideas, one being an idea for the what the architecture of the room will look like and the other being an generic concept for what type of puzzle it's going to be. For this room I wanted the architecture to be based around circular discs forming the floors and structures and for the puzzle I wanted to be based around playing with light and darkness.
This is one of the few rooms that I've never really sketched out on paper and nor does it come from any reference imagery. It's just a very clear visual look in my head I've wanted to portray.
The puzzle for this room is also unusual because it's based of an existing game of mine. At the World of Love 2010 Game Jam we were doing a 3 hour jam where I'd spent 90 minutes playing with Unity water effects and was nowhere near making a game out of it. So I started again and put together a very simple game in the remaining 90 minutes that I called The Darkening.
In The Darkening you had to navigate a simple set of platforms avoiding shadows. If you touched them they'd absorb you and you had to start again. Some of the shadows moved along patterns and some expanded outwards once your were near them. Not too complicated but I thought a fun little jam game.
My first version of the room was focused on the visual style I wanted for the room, I spent a lot of time building the circular platforms the way I wanted them to look. Afterward I replicated the shadow mechanics of The Darkening in the room giving the player a set of challenges to navigate. You can see the model of this version below, the red lining is the collision boundary and was invisible to the player.
In short this version of the room was unplayably bad. I knew this as the shadows were in there and you can move through the room. The shape of the room did not work well the mechanics. You could initially just walk around the dangerous areas very easily and my attempts to make it trickier just made it more frustrating. I got some people to test it and they hated that puzzle more than anything else in the game.
I played around with the room layout and shadow layout a bit but knew I was getting nowhere. The original jam game had been fun, this was not. I needed to get closer to the original game. So I redesigned the level to resemble the original Darkening much closer though adopting the circular floor aesthetic. This level structure allowed for a better flow of the shadows mixing different types: static, expanding, swinging, chasing.
A version of the game went out to other developers for testing. Even still it came back as the most hated room in the game. While the rest of the puzzle in the game were about solving a mental challenge this was a fast paced skill challenge. I tried to tweak and change the speeds involved to make it more forgiving but at that point it was no longer even a challenge, just a chore to work your way through.
I went back to SketchUp and tried out a few different room layouts to see if I could find one that would "work" but I knew it was a lost cause. The whole puzzle just wasn't working out. While I know there's definitely milage in the light and darkness mechanics and it's something I'm going to revisit in later parts of the game I needed to start this puzzle again with something fresh.
Around this time I was struggling with not only this but a few other puzzles in Kairo. They were too arbitrary and felt more like busy work than progress. When I was designing The White Chamber I didn't want traditional adventure games puzzle that often made little sense, I wanted every puzzle to be a genuine obstacle your character is facing that needed to be worked through. It took me the longest time to realise that this is what Kairo needs too. Less locked door puzzles and more engineering challenges.
I came up with a new vision for the Circular Room, instead of getting past some nonsensical shadows it was more about starting a pilot light for a great engine. The puzzle is simply to work out the start up sequence to get this vast system up and running again. It's a simpler puzzle and maybe less inventive but it's one that I feel fits into the game world better than what I'd been struggling with.
I've still got a lot of work to do on Kairo and the puzzles are likely to change more over the course of development. I want the player to feel like they're bringing the machinery of a dead world back to life and not just jumping through hoops I've put in their way just to slow down their progress.