It’s been more than a year since I wrote the story for the independent puzzle game, SpaceChem, which was recently posted on the Zachtronics Industries’ website. Since SpaceChem’s release, the story has been hailed as “a passable tale of sci-fi intrigue.” (Eurogamer) and “a lengthy story that’s very well-written indeed, with a sense of humour and a darkness to it.” (Rock, Paper, Shotgun).
One reviewer was thankful that they could skip the “too long, didn’t read” text blocks and move onto the next level. Individuals told Zach (of Zachtronics) that they loved the game, but were dumbfounded when he mentioned the story.
The story was not the main appeal for gamers; it was an added layer, meant to be perused by anyone who was interested in learning more about SpaceChem, the company, and the main character’s adventure.
Zach and I talked about other options for presenting the story before settling on the text narrative. Live- action video was time consuming, cheesy, and outdated, and dialogue boxes combined with character portraits could not show the level of detail we wanted.
So, if SpaceChem wasn’t going to have cut scenes or heavy dialogue, what options did we have? The story was important to us on one level, but entirely incidental to the game. It was there, much like the Codex in Mass Effect, to provide more detail and information for the curious player, but it didn’t have any imaginable impact on gameplay. In the end, the most sensible option was to include it as text with illustrations. Text vignettes allowed us to include descriptive detail and tell the story within the limited scope and budget.
Many puzzle games have no story or narrative, and do not suffer for it, but there are also games that are enhanced with cut scenes and dialogue. Puzzle Agent, by Telltale Games, merges puzzle-solving in a point-and-click adventure and features a cast of voice-acted characters, including Nelson Tethers, FBI puzzle agent. As the player character, Nelson Tether talks to other characters and explores the environment to uncover clues, solve puzzles, and advance the story. Professor Layton and the Curious Village, a similar puzzle game with an adventure game twist, is wrapped in a Victorian mystery about the Golden Apple and tells its story through animated cut scenes and strings of dialogue. The puzzles are integrated in the environment quite successfully in both of these games because of the pretense of puzzles inside of adventure games and the varied nature of the puzzles themselves. Characters in both games are rabid puzzle fanatics, providing a humorous explanation for why everyone wants you to solve their brain teasers before pursuing the greater task at hand.
Fleetingly, I’ve thought about what SpaceChem would have been like if we had built it into an adventure game. It would have obscured the core gameplay and required many more resources for art and writing. Besides, what would you do as a character? Walk from your office to the laboratory and access another computer to assemble ammonia? Would you enter the cafeteria for a cup of coffee and have to assemble a caffeine molecule?
SpaceChem’s strength is in its mind-bending and complex puzzles that keep you up at night. Players can spend hours, or even days, crafting a single solution and may come back to optimize later, adding several more hours of gameplay. Less than 3% of all players have beaten the game. Adding one more layer of abstraction on top of the already protracted game would have been excessive and unnecessary.
I realize that the nature of the puzzles in SpaceChem is inherently different from Puzzle Agent and other puzzle-adventure hybrids. SpaceChem’s puzzles are unique, but use the same set of mechanics, and can take a significant amount of thought and time to solve. Puzzle Agent and the Professor Layton series’ puzzles are short brain teasers with few commonalities, very rarely repeating mechanics, and the stories are part of the reward for solving the puzzles. Beating a particular level in SpaceChem is a reward unto itself.
In the end, I am glad we didn’t do live-action video (a la Ruckingenur), drawn-out dialogue driven cut scenes, or using an adventure game shell. Considering the scope, resources, and direction for SpaceChem, the text narrative was a suitable way to add a story. For future games, I hope to write a more integral tale that will appeal to a greater audience with an enhanced presentation and a stronger connection to the game itself.
In the meantime, at least something I worked on has its own Television Tropes page.