In discussing the work that video games do to engage and stimulate the players that play them, we rarely go into exactly what makes a player invested in what is going on. A simple answer would be one based in the narrative structure of the story that is being told, and that is certainly one way to discuss engagement. Let’s face it, though: simply talking story is a bit of a low hanging fruit. We know that the act is of simply telling a story is far from the only thing that games do, and neglecting the other components takes away from their impact. A story can be well written and poorly told, either through having an art style that clashes with its tone, having dialogue that is uninteresting or too expository, or simply having the wrong instruments playing a particular tune in the background of the action taking place.
World building requires a combination of techniques to make sure that your investment in the experience the game is selling to you stays locked on. A recent example of world building done right is The Sexy Brutale: a reverse murder-mystery of sorts where your aim is to save the lives of victims at a swanky estate party, via the use of a Groundhog Day style time loop. What makes me love this game – the thing that drove me through a solid afternoon of play without leaving my chair – was the way this story was presented. I am a player that takes particular stock in the story itself, and even though the story itself left me wanting as the credits rolled, the combination of music, art style, character design and game-play mechanics created a space where the quality of the overarching story faded into the background.
Before I continue, a brief disclaimer: in talking about this game, there will be minor spoilers. Nothing game breaking, but I will have to talk about particular clues in the game to really discuss the quality of world building that is going on in The Sexy Brutale. If you are going to play it yourself, please do that first. The game is not very long and you will be very pleased with the experience. This is your chance to go do that now.
Let’s start refining exactly what I mean by “world building” by talking about mechanics first, because it gives us a framework that relies on gameplay, which we can use to justify more aesthetically focused ideas. The game requires you to act without being noticed or spotted by its inhabitants, but it is not a stealth game. The house itself has a predetermined set of events that it follows through over the course of the evening, with these events, and the consequent deaths of the partygoers, happening at set times in the night. Your role, then, is to observe their actions and their demises and change the outcome by affecting a small number of variables. Your role as a guardian angel may range from changing a live bullet that will kill an inhabitant with a blank, or locking a door to prevent a murderer from reaching their victim, as examples. Alongside the time piece that allows you to rewind to the beginning of the evening if things go awry, this grants you an extraordinary sensation of ethereal power.
With this power comes the nature of the house itself, and to expand on that, we need to talk about sound. The ambient noises of the house are critical to playing the game because they act as audio flags to particular events happening. The clock tower signals both death and the beginning of the end of the night. The creaks and footsteps of the house let you avoid detection from both friend and foe. Even the murders happening that night have cues: ropes snapping, guns firing and glass shattering all help in giving the house life. Everything is happening all at once, which suddenly makes your feeling of being able to save everyone so much more difficult. After all, saving the life of one partygoer inevitably leads to the death of another, simply because you were not there to prevent it. The gunshot that happens every loop at 4pm on the dot then becomes a constant reminder that your time is precious. Lives hang in the balance.
I sure did, creepy jam lady.
In a more ambient sense, the music also encompasses the tone the house imposes on the player. The house itself frames every moment with a musical cue, with clarinets and double basses encouraging your exploring, and violins and timpani heralding the danger of discovery by another inhabitant. Even the characters has their own musical cues and themes that encapsulate their personalities, from the slow jazz number that follows the lounge singer wherever she goes, to the dirty brass tones that introduce the voodoo princess and her secret hidey-holes within the mansion. These leitmotifs can make you feel both welcome and unwanted in equal measure, particular as death or discovery draws near. In turn, their arrival holds incredible power over the gameplay state of the player, informing their decision making and raising the tension when the gameplay demands snap judgements to prevent the deaths of the characters.
Talking briefly about the character’s audio cues draws attention to their visual designs as well. Every character has a caricatured style to them, riffing off of the masquerade masks that they all wear. Clay Rockridge, for instance, wears a lucha style mask. This immediately tells us that he is a physical character, but also follows strict internal codes of honour and passion. This is seen almost immediately when solving the first puzzle, dropping everything to come to the rescue of his wife when she is in immediate peril. By contrast, Thanos Gorecki, the aged architect of the mansion, has a plain steel mask, implying efficiency in design as well as an impersonal, maybe even antisocial exterior. Every character is meticulously crafted to provide a first-glance impression, and with close to a dozen different unique characters it is important that each one has a life of their own, so as not to be lost in the shuffle.
Just a sample of the people you’ll be rescuing.
It is the mark of lesser games that entrust these aspects of audio and visual attention to detail to exposition, demanding that a player pore over scripts of dialogue to get the information they need. You could boil it down to the “show, don’t tell” mantra of design, but it goes one step further than that. Any text can “show” as much as it wants and say nothing. It is a deft hand that takes exceptional details and constructs them in such a way that demands a certain amount of attention. The simple fact of the matter is that, as readers of visually focused texts, such as theater, film and most video games, our attention to finding meaning in details is smaller than we would like to think it is. Making a video game narrative simple without words is a case of grabbing the player’s head and saying “this is what you are looking at, look for meaning and stimuli right here”, or guiding a player to play through a sequence that evokes an emotion or response that you are looking for in order to enhance your experience. Framing itself as a murder-mystery, The Sexy Brutale demands that you pay attention, both to the details of the house and to the characters you hope to save.
The Sexy Brutale is a joy to experience because it is a game that plays with both the nature of the murder-mystery format, and how it can be presented in video game format. In this title’s case, it balances power with powerlessness, crafting a space that looks and sounds both inviting and terrifying. Humour and levity has as much place in this house as fear and death, and it is no small feat that the teams of Cavalier and Tequila Works has crafted a game that instils these emotions in equal measure. It is also a case study in the most minute details. A player will be drawn to the details that solves puzzles by harnessing the audio and visual aspects of video game design, and be sucked into the world of the mansion casino, held in place until all lives are saved, all mysteries are solved and the night finally, mercifully, crosses into day.
Image credits go to Tequila Games, except for the lucha libre image, which came from KnowYourMeme, and the globe render in the banner.