• Genre: First Person, Puzzle, Thriller
• Engine: Unreal Engine 4
• Time: 4 Weeks
• Team Size: 9 (3 Designers)
After refusing to pay your debt to the devil, the demon Mammon is tasked with banishing your soul to the Balaam manor.
To save yourself from an eternity in hell you must escape the grounds by solving mysterious puzzles constructed by something ungodly.
However, you soon realize you're not alone.
When beginning development on Balaam Manor there were three requirements we had to take into consideration.
It had to be a puzzle game.
It had to take inspiration from the painting "The garden of earthly delights".
A playthrough should not be longer than 10 minutes.
The team quickly settled on a darker, more macabre theme as we mostly took inspiration from the right side of the painting. The surrealistic and unearthly aesthetic of the painting also made us naturally lean towards religion.
After establishing the foundation, with puzzle, macabre, and religion as our three design pillars, the idea of a haunted house sparked.
The vision became a haunted mansion with escape room gameplay.
Enter Next Room
The story in short
The narrative follows Nora Balaam, the owner of Balaam Manor. Starting with her upbringing where she was born into a poor Catholic family. She was mentored by the church's organist as she had fallen in love with the instrument.
As she grew older she fought to make music into her career. After many years of hard work, she became a professional solo pianist. However, in the 1880s a woman with such success was generally frowned upon. She was attacked and lost the motor skills in her hands, ending her career.
Years later she was tricked into signing a deal with the devil in what she thought was a dream. Her hands healed, and her career got back on track. However, when the time came for her to give birth to her first child, the demon Mammon soon appeared demanding sacrifice for the devil's services. She refused and in turn, Mammon slaughtered her and her husband and claimed the child. Nora's soul was to be forever trapped in the manor.
Just a reference
Originally the narrative was just supposed to be a reference when designing the manor, giving us an idea of who lived there.
As development went on, the interest for a more detailed narrative grew. This allowed us to add specific details to the environment directly connected to the narrative.
The base narrative
Because of the short time we had to develop the game, everything had to get started very quickly.
To get a base narrative down, everyone in the group got the opportunity to present an idea. We then voted on which we liked the most.
Once the base idea was in place I started to elaborate and iterate on it.
The narrative went through around seven large iterations with the sixth being the most impactful, changing the overall tonality of the narrative.
Feedback and iteration were key to making the narrative into what it became. I constantly talked about my changes and ideas with the team, getting as much feedback as possible to make the best decisions I could.
Around the fourth iteration, a full narrative was in place, however, it fell short since it felt quite generic. The next step from there was to go through the narrative, iterate, and get rid of common tropes.
The trope mostly focused on was "Never a self-made woman", which in short means that women often need help to reach success. This help is often provided by a male character such as a father, brother, or boyfriend.
Iteration six was the great shift of the narrative. In this iteration, the decision to change the gender of the main character was made. With this, the overall tonality also changed.
The narrative started as a story about a greedy man, willing to do anything to get fame and riches. It became a story about a woman who worked her way to the top, got it all taken from her, and was tricked by the devil to sell her soul.
What I grew most from in this project was the fact that I wrote the narrative based on someone else's concept. As stated earlier, the team voted for the narrative base concept they felt was the best.
The concept that was chosen wasn't mine neither was it the concept I voted for. However, that gave me the opportunity and challenge to work with something outside of my comfort zone. Turning someone else's few sentences into a full narrative was a great learning experience.
The treasure hunt puzzle
This puzzle was a take on a classic treasure hunt. The player gets a clue, pointing towards a destination where the next clue can be found, this repeats until the final clue points toward the "treasure".
The classic treasure hunt usually has clues in form of riddles, this is where my take on it differs. To stick with the religious theme I decided to use verses out of the bible as clues.
Before I could start looking for verses to use I had to know what layout the room would have and what it would contain.
Quite early on we knew that it was going to be a dining hall so I worked closely with the level designer to map out a simple blueprint of the room and the key furniture in it.
Deciding the route
After knowing the layout I had to start planning what route the player was going to take, finding where to put each clue.
Finding the right verses
Knowing where to put each clue, I could start searching for fitting verses to use.
Finding these verses wasn't the easiest process. I had to make sure they weren't too long and filled with unnecessary text that might have confused the player.
The way the player finds the ripped-out pages with the verses on them varied a little bit under development.
The first thing I tried was that all pages were scattered from the beginning, this had a lot of problems, however. After experimenting quite a bit the final result was the pages spawning as the player found the right location.
The biggest problem with this puzzle was the inconsistency in what time players managed to solve it.
Some solved it within a minute as others solved it after a few minutes. Normally this wouldn't be a problem but with our 10 minutes gameplay restriction this increased our average playtime.
To solve the time issue I decided to underline keywords in the verses that point towards the next clue.
Most of the feedback I got after the change was that it became too easy and felt a bit like hand-holding. However, it did make the solving time more consistent which was the goal.
The globe puzzle
Our final puzzle was heavily inspired by the game series "The Room". When finding a key at the end of the treasure hunt puzzle the player can open a globe in the main hall. Inside is a jigsaw puzzle that, once solved, opens a compartment revealing cubes with letters on them. On the solved jigsaw puzzle is a riddle. The player has to use the cubes to spell out the answer.
This puzzle was implemented as a replacement for our initial final puzzle.
The first idea had potential but fell short because it was too complicated. I and another designer decided to scrap it and then came up with this idea.
When going back to the drawing board we looked at other scraped ideas from earlier in development to see if anything was usable. It was here we found the concept for a riddle that you solve by placing blocks with letters.
We knew that we wanted the answer to the riddle to be "Lucifer". First, we looked around for existing riddles but didn't find any with a fitting answer. I ended up writing the riddle that we used.
One thing we established at the beginning of the project was that no puzzle should require outside knowledge. Unfortunately, we failed to stay true to that on the last puzzle.
Due to the little time we had left, we weren't able to implement visual hints that would have guided the player towards the answer.