The Halloween Deception – Post Mortem, Part 1

October 27, 2017

Sleuthhounds: The Halloween Deception released in time for Halloween 2016. With Halloween drawing near again it was a good time to replay the game in preparation for a post mortem on what went right, what went wrong, and what development lessons could be learned from the creation of that game. To further prepare, I also reviewed early design notes and the issue list from the game and reminded myself of things that I had completely forgotten.

In this first part of the post mortem we’ll take a look at how the story and design of the game was inially conceived and how it evolved. Before venturing onwards, be warned that I will be getting into the specifics of some of the sequences and story of the game. In other words, spoilers are sure to follow. If you haven’t done so already, you may want to play the game before reading further.

The Research

With any story-based project I’ve worked on the nature of that story always changes as the project goes along. No matter how much planning is done there will always be something overlooked. Apart from that, as a project begins to come together new ideas present themselves that supersede old ones. It’s all part of the natural growth of a story. Even so, I was quite surprised when I went back to some of my original brainstorming notes for The Halloween Deception to see how very different the game was in its original conception.

Obviously the starting point for this game was Halloween. I began my work by doing research on different Halloween traditions, which provided the inspiration for a lot of the puzzle ideas that would ultimately fit into the game:

  • Costume Parties / Guising – The obvious one of having people wearing different costumes, which also gave rise to the costume contest sequence within the game.

[Turnips were used in traditional jack o' lanterns.]
Turnips were used in traditional jack o’ lanterns.

  • Carving Pumpkins – In my research, I came to learn that pumpkins were native to North America. However, the carving of gourds in general predated the discovery of pumpkins by North American settlers. In particular, turnips were used for carving jack o’ lanterns, hence the presence of a turnip in the carving contest on the harder difficulty settings of the game.
  • Bobbing for Apples – This directly became an activity to do within the game.
  • Walnut Messages – The tradition goes that messages can be written in milk on paper and then placed inside walnut shells, much like fortune cookies. Partygoers / trick-or-treaters then get such a walnut and heat it to cause the milk writing to turn brown and the message to be revealed. The game doesn’t feature the heating of the walnuts, but the use of hidden messages is present.
  • Fortune Telling – There are a variety of fortune telling traditions associated with Halloween from unmarried women looking in mirrors to see who their future husbands will be, to partygoers drawing slips of paper indicating their future fortunes. This was the seed for the idea of conducting a séance in the game to perform an Agatha Christie-esque gathering of the suspects.
  • Playing Pranks – This is what initially inspired tying the game to a novelty goods manufacturing setting.

My research also unearthed other Halloween traditions, but the above ones were the ones that I chose to implement in the game. Of those, the most significant was the playing of pranks since it led into the novelty goods manufacturing setting, which led to even more research on different novelty goods. From that, the following novelties made it into the game:

  • Finger Trap Puzzles – Although they don’t visibly appear in the game I used these to explain why most of the suspects had backwards slanted writing.
  • Silly String – This became the Yuk Yuk Yarn in the game. Such string is used by military forces to detect tripwires for traps as the string will drape over the wires without being heavy enough to trigger them. I had hoped to incorporate that idea into the game, but ultimately couldn’t find a place to put it.
  • Fake Dog Poo – This became fake vomit that had to be crafted in one of the optional puzzles in the game.
  • Itching Powder – A classic prank that makes an appearance early in the game. Incidentally, as described in the game rose hips are the fruit that grow on rose plants and they do indeed have fine hairs, which are used as ingredients in itching powder.

[Water balloons were originally going to have a much bigger role.]
Water balloons were originally going to have a much bigger role.

  • Whoopee Cushion / Water Balloon – A filled water balloon is used in the game to deal with the itching powder situation. In my early brainstorming notes, the use of a water balloon was going to happen very near the end of the game and lead into a giant water balloon fight with Ampson using her umbrella for a shield. As the design and story continued to evolve the number of suspects seemed more fitting to an Agatha Christie style ending so the water balloon fight was removed.
  • Banana Peels – The old slipping-on-a-banana-peel gag became one of the deadly pranks used on one of the suspects at the party.
  • Voice Changer – The idea of a voice changer seemed like an interesting one to me, especially when I decided that one of the suspects would be dressed as Pureluck Homes so that suspect could imitate Homes. However, it took some time to figure out what to actually do with the voice changer in the game.
  • X-ray Specs – Given that the game was going to have hidden messages in the walnuts, the x-ray specs seemed immediately useful. Besides, they allowed for a number of underwear jokes throughout the game. (You did try using the specs on every character available, didn’t you?)

Even though the Sleuthhounds games are cartoon adventures they do benefit from real world research. That even provided the idea of giving character Frank Ster a rare form of dyslexia that allows people to write but not to read, which is indeed a real condition.

The Evolution

From all the ideas generated by the research, the shape of the game began to take form. However, aside from the aforementioned water balloon fight there were other aspects of the game that emerged or changed as development proceeded. From my original notes, some of these were:

[Doc's axe was a lucky coincidence for improving puzzle flow.]
Doc’s axe was a lucky coincidence for improving puzzle flow.

  • The streamlining of the puzzle where Doc is saved from the Yuk Yuk Yarn. In the original design, players had to take the knife from the pumpkin carving station and use that to sever the pipe pumping the Yarn onto the roof. However, when I drew the background for the roof, it became obvious that the pumpkin carving station was nowhere near where Doc was and that it would be cumbersome in gameplay to get the knife. Fortunately, I had drawn Doc as the tin man from The Wizard of Oz. It was quite useful having him already have an axe that could be used in lieu of the knife.
  • At one point, the fortune teller Madam Zazzo was going to be an actual character inside the tent. It was then going to be important to use the x-ray specs to spy on her activities within the tent. As the idea of the Agatha Christie style ending began to take shape it made much more sense to have Pureluck Homes disguise himself as Madam Zazzo to present the case’s solution. The real Madam Zazzo was then removed from the game although she still makes a final brief appearance in a post-credits scene.
  • The paint bomb at the end of the game was originally going to be a normal, explosive bomb. However, that seemed far too serious for a Sleuthhounds game and not in keeping with the prankish nature of the other “or else” attempts made in the game. Dropping a bucket of water or can of paint on people’s heads is another classic prank and so the paint bomb (or dye bomb as it’s called in the game) took the place of the real bomb.
  • The villain of the piece was originally going to have been a fired employee of Tender’s Novelty Co. He would have been physically absent for most of the game, manipulating things behind the scenes and only appearing in the final climactic sequence. However, since I had done that in two previous games I didn’t want to simply repeat myself. As such the fired employee turned into the less than competent current employee, Doc, looking to get back at how the industry as a whole looked down on him.

[Phineas Hogg from The Cursed Cannon was originally slated to make an appearance.]
Phineas Hogg from The Cursed Cannon was originally slated to make an appearance.

  • Phineas Hogg, who first appeared in The Cursed Cannon was set to make a reappearance in this game. Both his character and, to an extent, that of Pureluck Homes are braggarts and I thought it would be fun to involve them in a bragging competition. As the novelty goods party took fuller and fuller shape it became apparent that Hogg was superfluous to events and didn’t fit the novelty good theme so he was removed.
  • Early on, the main suspects were going to do double duty by also being the ones running the different Halloween contests. Ultimately, that became an extra complication story wise so I introduced the Trois Triplets, who themselves were at first set to have an optional puzzle to discover which one was which. That proved uninteresting and felt diverting to the story as a whole so that optional investigation never made it into any form of the game.

As can be seen, the story and design for the game shifted significantly as development proceeded. It’s hard to know if the changes were for the better or for the worse as the game would have been drastically different if it had stuck to the original ideas.

So, how did the evolution of the story and game design impact the production of the game itself? Check back in next week to see what went well, what didn’t, and what I took away from the experience in the second part of this post mortem.