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The relaxing, open-world puzzle design of A Monster's Expedition

"The way that the music is calming, and even quiets down as you pause to think about a tricky puzzle, really lends itself to a sort of “puzzle-solving meditation” style of play..."

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

A Monster's Expedition, nominated for Excellence in Audio and Design in this year's IGF, helps monsters learn about humans as they explore an array of islands by completing log-pushing puzzles along the way.

Gamasutra sat down with the team behind the game to discuss how the game's charming narrative slowly came together, the thoughts that go into creating interesting puzzles, and the careful crafting that went into maintaining the game's calming mood.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing A Monster's Expedition?

deGrandis: I'm Adam deGrandis and I was the art director for A Monster's Expedition

I've been working in games since 2004. Over those years, I've worked on close to 80 titles, with about half of them actually shipping. Now I run a visual design and art production studio called Chickadee, which caters to the indie community.

Hazelden: I'm Alan Hazelden and I was the creative director and lead puzzle designer for A Monster's Expedition.

I started taking part in game jams in 2006 and made small/bad/funny games for a while, and since 2010 have been mostly focused on making puzzle games. In 2013 I quit my web development job to make video games full time. I expected I'd run out of savings in a year or two, but somehow that hasn't happened yet! Since then, I've released some well-received puzzle games like Sokobond, A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build, Cosmic Express, and A Monster's Expedition, as well as several smaller free games mostly made in the excellent game-making tool PuzzleScript.

Davis: I’m Benjamin Davis. I was the lead programmer for A Monster’s Expedition, but also worked in different areas, most notably co-designing the original prototype and animating all of the log and raft interactions.

I released one commercially unsuccessful game on my own before teaming up with Alan for A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build, Cosmic Express, and then A Monster’s Expedition. I’ve also been making terrible small games on-and-off as a hobby for over twenty years now, though these days I prefer to try new and different things during my spare time.

Rainsberry: My name is Eli Rainsberry, and I'm a composer and sound artist. My role in developing A Monster's Expedition was designing audio, which involved collaborating with the team to establish initial ideas and concepts for its sound design and music system. I specifically worked with Alan to establish placements of music themes and establish direction on a number of sounds made, and with Ben to create sound hooks for every individual audio asset. As a result, we developed a dynamic system which takes inspiration from the pieces of music that play when you set foot on different islands. 

I've been making music and sounds for games over the last four to five years, with my first release for console being Wilmot's Warehouse. As well as A Monster's Exhibition, I've since worked on audio for Bird Alone, If Found..., and the upcoming game No Longer Home. I've come from a background of initially composing for short films and animations, as well as some interdisciplinary work, and found my way into games by getting myself more involved in the smaller communities of game makers and game-adjacent creatives.

Warr: My name is Philippa Warr. I was the writer/narrative designer on A Monster's Expedition.

I'd dabbled a little prior to A Monster's Expedition. For example, I edited the text for the deckbuilding roguelike Dicey Dungeons (and contributed a little to the writing in the process). Other than that, I've spent more than a decade as a critic and writer in the entertainment industry. 

McNulty: I’m Syrenne McNulty and I was the producer of the game, guiding it through the last year of development to release, and have been working on post-release patches and updates ever since!

I worked on a few small titles of my own before realizing I was most comfortable with the production and release management side of things, so I started working with teams in a freelance capacity to do exactly that. I’m currently working on about a dozen releases, depending on how you count things, and am very happy.


How did you come up with the concept for A Monster's Expedition?

Davis: We had just released Cosmic Express and we wanted to pitch a new game for a competition. I really liked Alan’s island-themed PuzzleScript games (especially Skipping Stones to Lonely Homes) and wanted to make something similar. I started playing around with mechanics for cutting down trees and flipping them over, but it wasn’t really going anywhere. Alan took a look and came up with the idea that they should roll until they stop against something, and it turned out to be just the thing we needed. I came back to him with a dozen or so puzzles. We developed the rest of the mechanics together while Alan dove into his iterative process of level design and play testing.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Davis: The original prototype was written in PuzzleScript, which is a very specialized tool for quickly making block-pushing puzzle games. Once we had a solid idea of the mechanics, I ported the logic to Unity and wrote an importer for the PuzzleScript level format while Alan continued designing levels. By the end of the project, we’d developed several in-engine tools for level design, arranging, testing and more.

deGrandis: The art pipelines were pretty straightforward - Blender for 3d assets, Photoshop for 2d, and our shaders were authored in Amplify Shader Editor.

What interested you in making an open world filled with puzzles? In letting players choose where to go to challenge themselves?

Davis: There’s a specific feeling you get from exploring an adventure game. The nervous excitement from cresting a new hill to view the plateau below. The trepidation over what lies in the cave deep in the forest. The relief from reaching a village safe from the wilds. I don’t think we were very successful at instilling this, but for good reason. A Monster’s Expedition is first-and-foremost a puzzle game, so all the systems need to either work to remove friction from interacting with the puzzles or to provide rest.

The camera is one area that severely constrained our ability to create surprises and add mystery. We very much need to provide a good overview of the puzzle at-hand, as well as make it easy to read the grid. This means no big forest obscuring your view until an opportune moment. No torchlit, third-person climb to the summit to watch the sunrise as the world opens up before you.

Having said all that, the team did a great job of taking advantage of the open world. Multiple paths to take means that if you’re stuck on one puzzle, there’s usually another elsewhere that you can try instead. And that windmill over there? I bet you’d like to check that out. We were able to provide visual clues about which way to go, and use the exhibits as incentives to lead you down different paths.

It took us a long time to abandon the pursuit of this “feeling of exploration” and really focus down on what the core experience should be. It turns out that sometimes you just need to get out of the player’s way, and then put in a reverse mermaid, and an emergency cheese sandwich, and a neat little collection of leach-powered technology.

What inspired the story of monsters learning about humans? What drew you to this narrative?

Warr: When the team came to talk to me about the project, their idea was that there would be some kind of collection of objects spread across the islands of the game. At the time, they were leaning towards all the objects being "lost" in some capacity, and the space being some kind of cosmic repository. Alan used the phrase "Museum at the End of Time" to refer to the collection, so I started to experiment with sets of themed object descriptions written as museum placards. I've done some museum work in the past, so it was handy to be able to draw on that. In case you're curious, the placards were initially a lot more detailed, with fields for dates, materials, catalogue numbers, locations etc. Those were really interesting places to hide jokes, but ultimately we cut them down for ease of presentation. 

The descriptions of the objects were always a bit weird because I was always imagining that the curator (whoever we settled on) would be missing vital context. The team really liked that humour, so I used the unreliable narrator/curator as a starting point for exploring ideas. 

Narrowing down what kind of museum we should have, and who the player character would be, was a far longer process! A lot of work had already been done on building the game and making assets, so I needed to create a narrative that felt right AND wasn't in conflict with existing elements. I remember a very energetic conversation about whether we could (or should) use a staff room as a save point! We even considered getting rid of the museum idea entirely at one juncture and I drafted a whole other narrative plan, just in case. 

Ultimately, everything felt like it was really falling into place when the monsters became the main inhabitants of this universe. You might remember the monster character from one of the older Draknek games: A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build. They're basically a black gumdrop with legs, and they're adorable, just exploring the game's world and gently engaging with everything they encounter. Putting them in A Monster's Expedition immediately gelled with the sense of childlike interest I wanted, both in terms of how the player explored the environment through them, and in terms of how they might describe human artifacts. 

Hazelden: The world of the game took a long time to come together. For a long time, we were trying to make something with more of a story/narrative - something that might feel like a quest where you’re traveling through strange lands and meeting strange characters. We went through a lot of ideas that didn’t end up fitting the game; we started over probably half a dozen times over the course of development. The “place of lost things” Pip refers to was an idea from our former narrative designer Hannah Nicklin that, at the time, didn’t get much further than being an evocative phrase, but the final time we came to tear up the narrative and build something new, it mutated into the idea of a museum which turned out to be a great fit for the game.

What thoughts go into designing puzzles around pushing logs? Can you walk us through the creation process of one of the puzzles?

Hazelden: Generally, the starting point is choosing a single interaction, or chain of interactions, that I want you to have to do as part of the solution - something that I think is an interesting consequence of the mechanics.

For the memorable puzzle just before the windmill, what this meant is that I needed to design a puzzle which A) forces you to form a raft in a specific spot, B) makes you think you have to leave by getting a log to a particular place, C) makes you realise that the only way to get that log there would be to push it upwards from the raft, and then D) surprises you.

After establishing what I’m trying to make, it’s often fairly quick to make a first draft of the level; I’ll just place the gameplay elements in such a way that works for the solution in my head. Then, there’s an iteration process where I play the level and try to find what else I can do that’s not that - if it’s possible to bypass the intended solution then I’ll iterate to prevent that being possible, but by blocking the unexpected solution I might accidentally make the level impossible, and then resolving that might cause another problem - essentially it’s a game of whack a mole. A single puzzle can take anywhere from a few minutes to many hours to iterate on until I find a version I’m happy with (for some puzzles, many hours across many years).

Along the way, I’ll often have made several levels with different versions of the idea, and also several levels where an unintended solution I found was interesting enough in its own right to be made into its own puzzle. In that way, I might start with one specific interaction in mind at the start of a design session and get a dozen or more puzzles out of it - but then of those we’ll only use the one or two most interesting versions (Or sometimes they’ll all get cut - there’s only so much space in the museum!).

This sounds like a lot of work, but in some ways this was actually the easy part! Because of the open world nature of the game, where solving a puzzle on one island gives you access to another island with a different puzzle, the position of islands relative to one another is very important. Putting two puzzles too close together might break them or be misleading about where you’re trying to go, and some puzzles aren’t isolated to a single island. So, making a single change to fix one small problem on one island can ripple across a whole area. It’s maybe the hardest jigsaw puzzle in the world, but tremendously satisfying when an archipelago comes together.

What challenges go into creating a world that's relaxing when filling it with brain-busting puzzles? How did you maintain a sense of calm throughout A Monster's Expedition?

deGrandis: For me, it was twofold.  Eli's work on the sound charted a path in a lot of ways. Even in its earlier forms, it was supremely soothing and just filled the play space with this calming vibe. All I had to do was play along with it. I also live right near the coast, and as I tried to match Eli's work, I found myself thinking about the environment that surrounds me. Water that slowly ebbs and flows on the shore, grass that sways in the breeze, shadows from clouds on the wide open salt water marsh by my house. That's all on-screen. Beyond that, I have a fair amount of experience designing broadly approachable art styles. Bright, welcoming color palettes and squishy, round forms both made the game ultra readable and reinforced the idea that this wasn't something you needed to get frustrated with.

Warr: I really wanted the text to feel like a reward system. When the player solves a puzzle they get a story or a joke as a reward, or as an opportunity to take a breather. Keeping them short and easy to digest was important. They mustn't feel like work. And I wanted there to be a light touch in terms of the connections between objects. There are a few which interlink, or which hint at broader events in the human timeline (particularly with regard to leeches), but I wanted them all to work as standalone microfiction - no memory of previous objects required! The main unifying force that I wanted the player to be aware of is the monster curators' tone. 

The biggest challenge in all of that was when a joke wasn't quite working. If an object obviously disrupted the tone, or was falling really flat, it was an easy decision to cut it or to try a new approach. The ones which felt like they were almost there but not quite were the ones I would bash my head against for days! Was it the wording? Was it the concept? Was it a fundamentally flawed joke hiding under okay text? It was so lovely to watch streamers playing the game and enjoying those objects because it meant they had got to the right place in the end. They weren't thinking about all of my teeth-gnashing and pacing and the times I appeared in team chat to say "Is granite funny? I find it funny. Is it funny?"

Another element that really helps with the sense of calm is the popcorn and coffee stands, and the way the monster sits down and dangles their legs if you walk to the edge of an island. Adam's art and animations are so lovely in those moments, as is Eli's music. The leg dangling in particular gives you a real moment of quiet which you can trigger whenever you need. When we were still nailing those interactable moments down, I remember trying to convince Adam that the monster should be able to sit in a little natural hot spring on an island as a reward for solving particularly tricky problems - sorry Adam (We went with the far more reasonable solution of snowfolk for those puzzles in the end!)! 

Rainsberry: So, the main challenge we had for developing the score's soundscape was making sure we weren't making it an overwhelming experience that included, but wasn't limited to, keeping the sound design and foley straightforward and simplistic; they were all sourced and recorded to capture more accurate representations of the player's actions, the environment, and the exhibits themselves. Also, being selective with where we would like things to play out more dynamically. Very early into developing the score, I wanted to have some quieter, delay effected guitars that'd occasionally play when there's more of an empty space in the music, but having dropped that option, I feel like it actually allowed more breathing room for whoever's playing to think more about their progression. I think having different spaces that you can go to, such as the sides of the islands, or the benches, and having almost an entirely different feel of music through their piano, small ensemble-based interludes, has been a really nice way of being able to maintain the sense of calm, at least for me.

What thoughts went into the musical score of the game? Into tying it with the curiosity and calm that infuses the game?

Rainsberry: I kind of knew already, going into composing and arranging music for the game, that I'd want to bring in the right levels of subtleties that'd be appreciated on its own, but at the same time, not taking away attention to the puzzles that you're completing over the course of the game. I initially wanted to go in a direction similar to how The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild's score was minimal and atmospheric in places that would make one focus on that kind of space. The music was also inspired by artists outside of games, such as Geotic, Angel Olsen, and Hiromi, where the pieces were arranged in a way that was either a mix of indie and alternative, or ambient, or jazz.  As production progressed, we found a decent balance with arranging appropriate instrumentations that kept fairly minimal, yet effective. The palette of the score included, but were not limited to, different types of guitars, pianos and synths, as well as some subtle drums that carried the ensemble.

We wanted to have a pleasant dynamic experience when you travel between islands and interact with the environment around you. We ultimately went for the following: having the palette of the guitars change as you progress through the game. Entering later islands evolved an acoustic guitar into an electric guitar. Both guitars, including a piano, shape the music that plays dynamically as the player cuts down, rolls, and pushes a tree, amongst other actions. The notes that are used to compose these certain melodies or harmonics, and their variations, are either taken from, or were inspired, by riffs that were played in the pieces that are being referenced by the tonal ambience at the time. And the tonal ambiences themselves were created from reverberated versions of the pieces that play when you enter a new area of the game.

Sections from the score are divided into segments, which were then set up so that when you move between islands, a parameter triggers moving from one segment to the other. They were also implemented in a way that lets the sections grow in texture as a subtle way of indicating both movement and progression. This allowed the tonal ambiences that come from it to continue shifting without distracting the player from the main puzzles.

Finally, variants of melodies and chords from the pieces are taken to make up the remainder of the dynamic audio system, and were selected and arranged carefully to be reactionary to your actions and achievements. Some have different variants depending on whether a log is connected to an island or not, but we mostly prioritized being able to enjoy pushing or rolling a log to the music in a satisfying manner. I think this can overall tie into the game's curiosity a little and how some of the melodies and harmonies you hear could, in fact, be a tool for encouraging gentle progression.

What did you want the player to feel as they experienced your work? What did you want them to take away from its play and meanings?

McNulty: We really wanted players to be able to feel like they could explore the world at their pace. The way that the music is calming, and even quiets down as you pause to think about a tricky puzzle, really lends itself to a sort of “puzzle-solving meditation” style of play - especially since the game can lend itself to short play sessions! Starting with a very early moment in the game, the game also tries to consistently evoke reactions such as “a-ha!” and “oh, I can do this?” It was important to the design of the game that the player never “unlocks” new abilities. The player can do everything in the game at the beginning, even if they don’t know it yet, which of course can allow the player to revisit the very beginning and see things they never noticed before.

This game, an IGF 2021 honoree, is featured as part of the Independent Games Festival ceremony. You can watch the ceremony starting at 4:30PM PT (7:30 ET) Wednesday, July 21 at GDC 2021.

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