Can you believe it's been almost a year since I wrote the original preliminary report on what LEGO Investigations was supposed to be? Turns out that getting a job (and having an existential crisis) can really derail you.
After a very long time away, I moved on to design a secondary project; a Mad Max-inspired combat racer (born out of me poking around into LR2/Drome Racers a bit). As it turns out, that design really conveniently fit in the investigation mechanics of this project, and this I returned, opting to finish this proof of concept before attempting to integrate it into a much larger, more complex whole.
A lot of my writing and rambling has been in a bunch of unrelated Discords with Game Design channels. To save you going on a long, painful journey through the history of how everything has changed, I'm going to format the current state of the design and the key things I've been working out. This isn't a formal document; merely a write-up of the crucial aspects to understand what this thing is.
Summary of Story
The meta-goal of the story is CHANGE. NON SUM QUALIS ERAM; you will not succeed unless you can progress.
A dark, cold night. The city bathed in impurity. Crime is rampant, and the citizens are struck with fear and grief. Eye for an Eye is not a philosophy, it’s an instruction manual. The streets wheeze and sputter a dark smoke reflecting all else. Even the rats turn away from the trash. The town oozes with the decrepit stink of the 1940s; a place begging for change. The only people can help are running with their tails between their legs. This is hell with a fancy suit on. This nameless, faceless cesspit will be your beginning. It will be your end.
You were murdered days ago. The trail is cold; the killer unidentified. You feel mostly intact, rebuilt as any LEGO person can be, but the only fateful thing you remember about that night is that red tie. The crime rate hasn't moved anywhere; the city still festers with degeneracy and illegitimacy. Moreso than before, evidence of police corruption is showing. Unsubstantiated rumours are spreading of a criminal syndicate looking to take all power over the city; shake things up a bit. Leading investigators are reporting that a recent string of fresh crimes are linked; your experience is nagging you otherwise. It sounds like a bit of sweeping under the rug, and you're on the case to find out why.
The game's first few cases are linear; these serve the purpose of acting as a progress tutorial, but also to tie into the meta plot-point of Change. After a certain mission, you die in an extremely similar fashion to the prologue. It's from this point forward that the player can really take control and change things up, and rightly so. Past the Point of Linearity, the game needs to be hardcore hard. The ending of the game reveals that the protagonist is permanently dead, his inability to pass on previously due to stubbornness and an unwillingness to change and accept facts.
A smart player should be able to dig under the hints and determine the true killer (The Commissioner, acting to protect his job security), and evaluate that all of the cases are linked together to the killer.
Summary of Mechanics
Looking back, the original mechanics list was a rough, rushed approximation of the design goals I was going for. It only continued the dialogue issues I identified in modern detective games, and it placed a lot more challenge in the seeking of evidence, as opposed to the logical thinking of connections. It was too Point-and-Click like. This new set of mechanics should address that, adding a wider variety of player choice and fixing the problems that annoy me most when playing detective games.
By default, the game will be in First Person perspective. The player must walk around the level to look for clues and to approach witnesses. As per Social/Streamer mode (see the Game Modes section below), there is also a static camera mode available, which acts as a bunch of Security Cameras focusing on all the evidence and witnesses within the scene, to reduce the amount of physical control required to play.
Evidence Items, which can be anything from junk on the streets to known facts, are used to unlock Events, potential happening which give context to why the crime might have happened. The ultimate goal of the game is to prove the exact sequence of events that occurred, thereby proving the innocence or guilt of the suspects. Evidence can be collected in three forms; physical items lying about (such as a gun), unique details on a location in the scene (such as a bloody spray), or talking points from witnesses and suspects (such as a confession of guilt to firing the weapon). Collected Evidence is used as below to create Event Items, and both are stored inside the player inventory called the "Notebook".
While Evidence Items are simply kept in a big pool, Events are categorised. Every level's sequence has a different number of "slots"; each slot represents a different type of Event, such as one slot for explaining how a suspect arrived on the scene while another showing how they procured a specific item. Every player is automatically granted 1 Event Item per slot at the start of the level (what the "official police report" has turned up), and the Beginning and Ending slot Events are always correct and cannot be changed (you are focusing on figuring out how the scene changed from A to B).
As per the Skill System outlined below, tools such as object highlighting can be available with a purchase.
In order to actually get new Events, you must demonstrate how Evidence fits together by "crafting" multiple relevant pieces together. Evidence Items have lengthy descriptions about their context and known facts; within the descriptions are keywords, highlighted in set colours. You must link together not just evidence with keywords of the same colour, but also where the keywords match a set theme (such as getting red keywords which are all computer part names). Generally, the keywords are relevant to the Event they unlock, as a bit of foreshadowing. Evidence Items can have more than one set of keywords in their description (colour and/or theme), which indicates that specific item can be used to produce multiple Events.
Furthermore, as a helpful management aspect; Evidence and Event Items can be "ruled out"; this effectively disables them and puts them on another tab in the Notebook. If an Evidence Item was used to generate an Event and gets ruled out, then the Event Item is by proxy also ruled out. Ruled out items will not show at all in the Question Time screen, but can still be used in interrogations.
Once Events have been unlocked, they can be previewed. The Previewer works like a video player, with a reverse, fast forward and pause. You control the scene a bit like the camera system in any modelling package/LDD, where you can click and drag to rotate the scene, and you can zoom in and out to focus on details. The Event will appear as a hologram over the top of the actual scene, allowing you to double check if evidence items end up where they should, and if certain witnesses/suspects were present or not.
Players have a space in the Notebook to record their own notes and thoughts.
As is the rest of the game, the focus of the Interrogation System is to either prove or disprove "facts" by using what knowledge you've acquired. Players can talk to witnesses/suspects in the world and ask them questions. The responder will then give their response, at which point the player must either agree, disprove it, cancel out with no penalty or use the Disturbance Mode option (detailed below). If the player is correct, they will be awarded new evidence, otherwise, the evidence reward is lost. Once a question has been asked, unless if the "Cancel" option was selected, that question cannot be asked again.
Questions are not pre-determined, only answered. Players generate questions from a basic syntax, designed to focus on what the player wishes to know. The first two elements of the syntax are mandatory, whereas the second two are optional (but must be used together).
- The Mode [Who | What | Where | Why | How].
- The Primary Subject (Either collected evidence, or "general knowledge", as in temporary evidence based on the context of the scene and who you're talking to).
- The Verb/Subject Modifier (Had, Used, Doing, or another word to indicate the relationship you're testing between the two subjects).
- The Secondary Subject (As above, minus the Primary Subject).
Valid examples may include, "Why You Have Key", "Where Key" and "How Car Stuck Fence".
If the player accepts the response, then no further input for that question chain is required. If the player believes the responder is lying, they will need to select from their collected evidence for something that proves they're in the wrong.
As per the Skill System outlined below, one potential purchasable skill is the Voice Recorder, which records every line of dialogue to a section in the player's Notebook for a player's benefit.
To engage in Disturbance Mode, the player must select the Disturbance option during an interrogation. On the surface, it appears to act as a dice roller; a successful pass will make the dialogue play out as if the player successfully chose truth or lie (with correct evidence, even if they didn't have it). However, fail a Disturbance check, and your player will engage in an aggressive (and odd) argument with the responder, losing you the evidence, locking you out of that question and reducing the success chance on any Disturbance rolls with that character. Regardless of a win or loss, use of Disturbance Mode will also have effects on the outside world; colours will distort, ghost objects will appear and other effects will occur. Ordinary dialogue lines for both player and response in all interrogations will also become more abstract (in tiers, depending on how many Disturbance options the player has used). The only way to revert to normal is to use the standard Truth and Lie dialogue options.
As per the Skill System outlined below, Disturbance Mode itself is purchased through tokens, and has an upgrade chain which increases the chances of success, and also makes the effects of Disturbance Mode wackier.
As a reinforcement of the Event mechanics, some Evidence Items might be in the possession of hostile forces, and require a combat sequence to collect.
In a combat scenario, the player is locked to a specific camera angle, and must (within a turn limit) identify and select items within the world to use against enemies, in some ways similar to certain sections of Telltale Games' Batman. Players have a pool of points they can spend to observe on elements inside the combat ring, such as the enemies themselves, nearby objects and potential hazards. These offer Combat Advantages, which are functionality the same to Evidence Items, except that they are not permanently stored in the Notebook, and will automatically be turned into Combat Choices (Event Items) which you collect enough, as opposed to needing to craft them. Previewing of Combat Choices is limited to watching a small clip in-frame of how the combat sequence may play out if successful. When players are happy they have enough Combat Choices, they can line them up with a similar feeling to Fallout 3 V.A.T.S., and watch the event play out. Depending on the difficulty and the enemies, the player must successfully beat a set number of goons without taking more than a threshold of damage to get the Evidence item.
Enemies cannot contribute to Combat Advantages; they instead bring up a popup with a description of that enemy's weaknesses and strengths, but viewing them costs points.
As per the Skill System outlined below, there are a number of skills to upgrade to improve Infiltration ability, such as reducing the cost of viewing elements in the scene, or giving the player a larger threshold of damage.
When the player is convinced they have every shred of evidence they need to conclusively rule what happened (and by proxy lay blame), they can visit whatever is used in the level to represent the end, and will be presented with a form split into two sections. The Event Sequence section requires the player to place the relevant events in order as they would have happened. The Question section requires the player to put Evidence Items in the gaps of sentences to demonstrate that the player understands what has happened. After submitting the form, the player is shown their points tally (50% for the Event Sequence, 50% split between each question for the rest). If they didn't get 100%, they are given a list of potential hints as to how they can improve when they retry. The level ends and the player is sent back to the hub.
To reward (and encourage) players for getting stuff right, every correct question, every individual goon defeated in an Infiltration sequence and every successful Disturbance check unlocks a token. Tokens are finite, and there is one for every unique instance of these encounters in the game, essentially acting as way to track how complete your progress in the game is. Tokens are used both to make the game a bit easier by making subtle things obvious (to reduce player mistakes), and to give the player some more fun content (such as concept art or funny "cheat codes").
The bulk of the game's content is intended for the Campaign mode, although individual levels for Streamer Mode and Workshop integration for custom levels would be nice.
Within the campaign, once you are past the Point of Linearity and free to select what you'd like to do, there are two types of Investigations to choose from; Cases & Scenarios.
- Scenarios are individual crime scenes, and the entire investigation can be solved in that one level. Replaying the scenario will always act as if you are starting it anew; your campaign progress will only ever take your best result however.
- Cases are a string of multiple, linked scenarios. (Relevant, as predetermined by the designer) Evidence that was collected in previous levels is passed on to the next, for continued usage. Since it's possible to fail by not having cruical evidence from a previous level, the game will warn at the end of a level (after submitting answers) if they have screwed themselves. When replaying a single investigation in a case, if you elect to replay from the second or further missions in to that case, the game will carry forward your best results from the previous levels (i.e. if you replay from Mission 3 and 100%'d both previous missions, the game will automatically grant you all relevant evidence).
Disturbance Mode effects are limited within the scope of a single Scenario/length of a full Case, and will not passthrough to other Scenarios/Cases. You can play, save, quit and load any Scenario or Case you like at any time from the hub, although you are restricted to one save per Scenario/Case.
Every Investigation has an associated Difficulty Rating; this is used to warn a player if something is considered a bit too hard for them yet. Completing other Scenarios/Cases and purchasing skills will dynamically decrease the numbers for each Investigation (according to their individual rules on what makes them that difficulty), but ultimately should only be considered a guide and players may find their experience easier or harder compared to what's listed.
Summary of Visual Design
There's not yet a significant amount of work to report in this department, aside from some basic concepts.
- The game is aiming for that classic black and white noir style. Colours are used incredibly sparingly to represent important details; blues are good, reds are bad (and show connection to the killer). Consider that police lights are blue and red...
- Certain abilities can increase the colour within the world, and Disturbance Mode will add sickly greens while also adding unique filters.
- Smoke and Fog are the most important elements of the scene, usually lining the way towards something of critical importance.
- The construction of the world is a mix of 40s - 50s American culture with classic LEGO craziness. Stereotypes should be played to their absolute max.
While the intention of the game is mainly to attract solo players who wish to get inside the atmosphere, it's important to recognise that everybody lives in different circumstances; different audiences will have different requirements for the game.
For this reason, I wish to introduce three modes which modify some of the game's mechanics and functionality.
- Normal: The intended mode of play, everything remains the same. By default, all social features are hidden and the default UI layout is Single Mode, which is better for viewing individual items at a time.
- Social: A local co-op experience, designed for multiple people inside the same room. The intent here is to remove the physical elements of play and focus more on the logical, group-minded tasks (so it doesn't matter who actually clicks the buttons to make the game progress, as everyone can participate to the thought process). Firstly, the First Person camera is disabled, replaced by static Security Cameras to scroll through, with all the relevant evidence/witnesses/red herrings visible. Since they rely more on fast reflexes (and we want to encourage players to go back and try the game in solo mode), combat sequences are outright disabled and any evidence they would have given can be simply collected. Cutscenes are disabled. The default UI is Multi Mode, allowing for seeing many items at one time to let players all fan out.
- Streamer: An extension of Social Mode, better suited to larger audiences over digital interfaces. Streamer has its own, much more complex campaign levels that require a lot of people working together to solve. To that end, a companion app will be available that lets users scroll through all the unlocked evidence, events and also view dialogue if the player is in an interrogation sequence. The player can configure and allow the audience the ability to vote on actions, either limiting or increasing how much power and options the audience has. If the player is streaming through a service with a chat API (such as Twitch), the chat can be directly viewed inside the game.
It's a lot more more work, but building the game with these three audience types in mind will grant significant selling power to the title at a whole. There's still many questions to be answered, but this is already a good start into understanding what the different audiences needs will be.
Level Design Methodology
The actual implementation of the core mechanics (for the vertical slice, so long as you ignore a lot of the polish stuff like the game modes or localisation) is really simple; what's made to be tough is the puzzle design, to stress only the most enjoyable (through being challenging) experiences. As far as I've worked out, this is currently the best way to approach designing the levels.
This process begins by having a very vague idea for a location, crime type and difficulty (how many events for the sequence, how many combat encounters etc) and then continues on;
- A rough outline of the level's floor plan is drawn (specifically only the playable space). It needs not be any more complex than some cubes, since everything can be shifted around and changed. There just needs to be a physical map for the sake of concepting to help motivate better choices.
- At this stage, plot the sequence of events as crappy little stick figures on the map. Put circles for people, and draw tiny symbols and arrows to represent interesting detail that will be critical to note for the next phase. Add a number next to each event to say which stage it is. It's all about understanding what the player's goal is, and trying to space the content of the level around the entire level, instead of making the crime stuck to one tiny portion of the map.
- For every event on your map, jot down in notes a description of what should be animated, who and what it involves and so on, so forth.
- Going even further, circle the things that would make for conclusive evidence that the event happened. We're not yet ready to say what form of evidence they'll be found in, but we can at least confirm every single thing the player will need to finish the level.
- With a high-level overview of the critical path ready now, it's time to go conspiracy-theorist and draw lines. Evidence "Elements" need to be connected together to show the relationship in how you can collect and use them. Some elements will simply only contribute to the unlocking of the event, while other elements should be used to unlock more pieces of evidence. Some evidence items prove, some disprove (both of those for dialogue sequences), and some act like keys. It's not time yet to say exactly what one does to another, you need only to mess around and try decide on some open or closed chains of progression for your player.
- Now that you understand the item relationships, you can place them into the level. Mix it up; have some items as physical collections, some as environment details to study, and some as evidence extrapolated from interrogating witnesses. This is also the time to create your red herrings, witnesses, and flesh out the scene itself.
- Lastly, you need to create all the valid permutations of dialogue and item descriptions (including the little coloured hints) for this level. There needs to be a mix of valid Truth and Lie cases. It'll also pay to begin thinking about Disturbance Mode modifiers for the level.
It's not a perfect process yet, but it's a start. As I become more comfortable making levels, I'll refine this process and figure out smart shortcuts, as well as a clearer set of designer rules for working within the bounds of the mechanics.