Road to the IGF: Grace Bruxner's The Haunted Island, a Frog Detective Game
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
The Haunted Island, a Frog Detective Game (The Haunted Island), which has been nominated for Best Student Game for IGF 2019, follows a nice amphibian detective to an island of spooky mysteries (and cheerful animal friends).
Gamasutra spoke with Grace Bruxner, developer of The Haunted Island, to learn about what thoughts go into creating a welcoming community for players to visit with a game, the silliness that came with trying to make Noir a little less serious, and the power behind a smile.
Silly mystery weavers
I’m Grace Bruxner and I’m the creative lead on The Haunted Island, a Frog Detective Game! I made the majority of the game, including art, narrative, and design, with programming by Thomas Bowker and a wonderful soundtrack by Dan Golding.
I’ve made a few games before; the best-known are probably The Fish Market and ALIEN CASENO, which were both 3D museum/diorama style games. ALIEN CASENO specifically brought me into a more public eye, and was exhibited at a bunch of festivals and exhibitions worldwide, which was very cool for a tiny egg like me. I studied for the past three years doing game design at RMIT and made The Haunted Island during my final year capstone project, graduating shortly after. Also, at the start of my second year, I got a job at the Melbourne-based games company League of Geeks, and I have been there for almost two years now.
A less serious L.A. Noire
It started with wanting to make a game about a frog detective, because I thought it’d be funny to have a game that was like LA Noire but way less serious, with the same style of music and story but nothing bad ever really happening. I told my partner Tom about this idea in mid-2017 and it kinda stuck around for a while.
I made a plan for a game set in a beach town, where something had been stolen and there would be multiple endings depending on who you thought was the culprit. That scope was way too big and I wanted to scale it down for a style and mood test, and that’s where The Haunted Island began. Originally, I had scoped it down so much that it had almost no interaction at all besides talking, but once I started making the game I realized it was fun to make it a weirdly elaborate game with multiple cutscenes.
Creating a world of animal mysteries
I use Unity and Maya for all my 3D games. For this game, I started out by making the island, populating it with trees, rocks, grass, and water, as well as a first-person camera controller. This was to get a sense of the scale. Then I used Doodle Studio 95, which is a plugin for Unity by Fernando Ramallo, and made tiny animated sketches of the characters so I could decide on the design and placements before I started modeling them.
The charm of a smile
A lot of my design for this game came from wanting to contrast Noir camera angles, music, and mood with a very non-threatening, welcoming environment and cast of characters. I think a lot of that has to do with the gentle color scheme, and the fact that everyone is smiling all the time. My 3D games since day one have had smiling faces because I think it’s funny. My first ever 3D model was of a fish with a smiling face and unblinking eyes, and I thought it was the funniest thing ever and I’ve kinda stuck with that aesthetic ever since, even having spent 3 years getting better at 3D.
On creating a believable community
The most important thing for me about making a community within a game is to make sure the characters have a purpose for being in a space. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be contributing to the space, but that they’re around for a reason.
For example, the majority of the scientists have no idea what their job is or what they’re supposed to be doing, but their purpose is to stand there and look busy, and they’ll tell you all about it. Even the sad or anxious characters have a reason to occupy their space. Mo has a great vantage point to look at MysteryMonkey (49) through the trees, Koala refuses to get out of the water because of the ghost, and Fresh X has found a relaxing, private spot to have a rest.
Characters as a conversation the creator has with themselves
Because I hadn’t written dialogue before in a game, I felt like I had to write these characters from my own experience without making them too similar or too much like myself. My strategy for this was to take parts of my personality and anxieties and assign them to each character. Mo has my self-doubt and shy nature and Martin has my stubbornness and fixation on believing things to be true without evidence. Each other character has something similar, positive or negative.
Most characters have some sort of vulnerability that I have in myself. When they’re contrasted with the Detective, who is very logical and kind, it became easy for me to write the characters because it felt like I was having a conversation between my logical brain and my illogical brain-- just the circumstances were made up.
The Detective and the player are both there to help, and talking to characters who are a bit afraid or fragile means that the urge to look after them is stronger. Making the Detective firm but kind also means that the game is challenging these traits in each character without making fun of them. Talking about it like this kinda makes it sound like a super serious game, which it absolutely isn’t, but I did put a lot of thought into how the characters treat each other and how to make those interactions gentle.
On the challenges of conveying and creating a large-scale mystery
I really genuinely thought I would struggle with this. I think maybe I cheated a little bit, because the mystery is kinda arbitrary and it wouldn’t matter too much if it was spoiled too early. I definitely had play-testers who guessed the ending straight away. To me, this doesn’t matter much - it’s not a mystery game in a traditional sense. It’s a game about talking to characters pretending to be a mystery game. It’s about the ride.
There’s also the fact that nobody except for Larry has literally any idea what’s going on, so hiding the mystery was never a huge problem. There’s a bit of foreshadowing, sure, but I’m probably the wrong person to ask about making a mystery feel mysterious. I just want the mystery to feel silly; if it’s mysterious that’s a bonus!
Creating playfulness in The Haunted Island
Playfulness for me (in The Haunted Island specifically) comes by taking things very seriously and framing unimportant moments with an air of drama. It’s like how soap operas can be very silly because of their self-seriousness. Characters in soap operas and telenovelas are so invested in the story, but because it’s so dramatic, it’s hard to take it seriously as a watcher.
Everyone in The Haunted Island is really invested in the mystery, but everyone is kinda doing a bad job and as a player that means you can’t take it seriously. There’s a dramatic introduction with incredible music, but then it pans to a little smiling frog on a boat. Even having the magnifying glass that does nothing contributes to the playfulness, because it gives you a way to roleplay like you would in other games, but sillier and with less purpose.