Designing for the Schizophrenic Player
Most puzzle games are designed to be played in a linear progression of levels. As designers, our job is to imagine what will happen to players at every point in the game and make choices that fulfill, augment or defy their expectations. But when we have a linear progression of levels we only picture one "player model": each one of his steps is predetermined, we expect him to be progressing in his understanding at the same rate as the game ramps up, and we are shoehorning every single person into this ideal.
The problem with this approach is that people are very different. Some people understand certain things much faster, others have short patience or temper, others are delighted by some puzzles and frustrated and annoyed at others, no matter how well designed. This multiplicity is something I rarely see embraced in game design.
Now we can't design a game for everybody. By every design choice we make in the game, some hypothetical player is left out and others lured in. But even those players that could enjoy our game have different expectations. I want Storyteller to have something for different kinds of people. The nature of levels in Storyteller is eclectic and heterogeneous, so there is no reason to put one after the other.
Of course, a consequence of this is a loss of control on the level pacing, difficulty and dramatic tension (a subject worthy of an article). But this is actually how we go about the world, how we think, how we create meaning and how we define our experiences.
Storyteller needs an initial sequence of levels that introduces the essential ideas of Storyteller: how stories are laid out, how each character and prop affect plot and how levels are solved. This is particularly important because the game is so different from most other games.
But also, references to classical stories of literature and movies: Some solutions to some levels in Storyteller feel like a "reduction" of well known stories like Romeo and Juliet. Those who are familiar with the references are pleased when the game acknowledges them. Those that don't recognize the references will be delighted when if they get to see them at some point in their life! (hey! I played a game that mentioned this movie!).
But also intricate soap-opera levels that challenges your understanding of the game and ability to project situations in your head.
But also, easy stories that snaps an idea at you like a short poem.
But more than cleverness, or challenges, or stories, what I enjoy putting into my work the most are surprises. Players who get into Storyteller find plenty: what happens if I put a character in the story after he died?, What happens if I put a mentor with a villain? Can I make Maria fall in love with her uncle?
This raises design questions: how do I structure levels to convey what they are about so a specific player finds what he wants to play? how do I reveal the interesting parts of the game to new players? are thumbnails enough to express what might be inside the level? Does it matter?