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January 10, 2010

Game Design Is Murder, Part III

As I mentioned in part one, this concluding article in a mini-series of posts addresses how the following years' mysteries applied lessons learned from the first year. In the final three years, I continued to push the archetypes and find ways to innovate a little bit, which is important when you return to a similar experience again and again.

2000: A Fire Upon the Thames

A Fire Upon the Thames took the series in a bit of an innovative direction, in that everyone in the group was actually a victim... but they didn't know it. I reached back a bit to the Victorian era for my characters (a chimney sweep, scullery maids and various sorts of help, as well as the genteel family hosting a dinner party), and as host was an Indian swami who was hoping to contact mystical spirits to learn who had started a fire in the house. In reality, it was 100 years later, and the swami was in fact conducting a seance.

  • It has to start with a hook. This particular year I was aiming to produce a very specific emotion in my participants best exemplified by the moment in The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis' character realizes the truth about himself, and has a moment of almost madness, turning around on that staircase, and I wanted to achieve it in basically the same way. I managed to achieve this in full with at least one guest, who realized how meticulously the series of events had been constructed and whose mind was fully blown. 
  • Give the players ample direction. Although they weren't completely conscious of it at the time, I dropped anachronisms into the swami's dialog so that the clues were there. The nice thing was that these were generally dismissed as mistakes by the author but were in fact clues.

2001: Murder in Iambic Pentameter

Of my years of writing these, I would have to say that this was my triumph, my absolute favorite and the favorite of many of my attendees.

  • It has to start with a hook. My hook was that all the scripted parts would be written in pentameter, including the rules (which I think I wrote as a sonnet), befitting the theme, which was Shakespearean. Shakespeare, the host, was dead -- murdered by one of his creations. The central conceit of the mystery was that we lived in a world where Shakespeare's creations also lived, but that their lives were manipulated by his scripts. At the time of his death, he was rumored to be working on a new play, a comedy, which used several of the characters from his tragedies... making all of them suspects, because none of them would want to be treated so lightly. We had Othello, Desdemona, Hamlet, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, Romeo and Juliet, and the MacBeths, if memory serves. The storyline and the delivery were the real innovations here -- I had previously not crossed over into what was clearly fantasy (though to some degree with the ghosts in A Fire Upon the Thames).
  • New item: Players will surprise you. My Moor came in blackface. My Rosencrantz and Gildenstern were dead -- well, sick, and therefore unable to make the dinner. However, Hamlet stepped up and played the parts of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern in addition, as sock puppets! It was perfect, because in my story, only a madman would kill his creator, and Hamlet was clearly mad. Getting fully into character and adapting to changes that would have really sunk the plot any other year was a tremendous boon.

2002: Hercules' Homecoming

The last year we turned fully to fantasy in the form of Greek myth. Hercules was in Olympus when he was felled by a bolt of lightning -- clearly, that pointed to Zeus, but it happened in Zeus' trophy room where implements for throwing lightning were kept, and Hercules, being struck down (though still present as a ghost -- having forgotten the last hours of his life) was unable to give any useful information. The Gods set to bickering...

  • The Hook. I came up with this entirely on the basis of having never been to a toga party, and between this and some sort of Animal House knock-off...
  • Keeping it fresh. The story/mystery innovation here was that it was effectively a locked-room mystery, with a rather simple solution. Hercules as victim turned out also to be the killer! Having thrown a thunderbolt in such a way as to catch Zeus' shield and something else (robe, perhaps) and hit himself with it. Hercules started off the evening with a bang, by lurching into the room where the guests had gathered and dying in their presence, a series first.

Well, that's about all I have. Part of the goal of this was to remind people that game design can be done fairly simply -- boardgames, certainly, but even one-off experiences like these take planning, design and creative writing, all great skills for designers to exercise.

As it turns out, I have one more of these mysteries left in me, one final innovation. I'm thinking I'll wait until my boys are a year or two older before I spring it on everyone...

Posted by Brett Douville at January 10, 2010 08:52 PM