Game developers often talk about ‘design pillars’. Foundations, the unique combination of which defines a game, these act as a roadmap throughout the design process. Top Secret’s design pillars are mentioned on the Kickstarter page but I wanted to delve a little bit deeper. Why were they chosen, and how will the inform the final design?
Investigations are unpredictable, personal, even creative. An detective can’t investigate without autonomy. This is why non-linearity is a core pillar of Top Secret, players have to be free to go where the evidence takes them.
It seems odd that a story could be revealed by a disordered narrative, but Her Story, a psychological study centred around a murder investigation, shows how this can work. A key inspiration for Top Secret, this successful indie game allows you to explore the evidence surrounding the case in any order. The result? A compelling experience unique to each player.
Related to non-linearity is the idea of width over depth. What do I mean by this?
You can think of interactive fiction as a tree with one starting point (the trunk) and many branches. Narrative branches represent possible player choices. Width describes the extent of the branching. Depth describes how tall the tree is, how many levels there are. This is a gross simplification, but works for now.
Some games are deep and narrow, with few meaningful choices but lots of content. Some are wide, with many choices to make and multiple branching paths. Both depth and width add content to the game, but width is more expensive to produce as it results in an exponential content explosion.
I want Top Secret to be a wide game. Even at the expense of depth. I want your choices to be significant and meaningful. Limited and transparent choices don’t result in eureka moments!
Delayed, opaque consequences
Many games loudly signpost the consequences of player choices. This is good for gameplay; transparency allows players to strategize. But predictability can render a narrative dull. Solution? Making choice consequences more opaque. Players are now free to make the decisions they want to make, rather than the most ‘optimal’ ones.
In Top Secret choices will have significant consequences, but not necessarily immediate or expected ones.
Ask more of players
You don’t have to be super smart or a tech wizard to play Top Secret but you will need to pay attention. You’ll need to keep track of evidence and formulate plans. To be inquisitive and explore, and ready to learn!
This is a good thing.
A key part of the game is to teach the player about surveillance, and how to protect yourself from it. Encryption, infosec, opsec. You’ll learn a little about all these things.
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