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Cryptogram puts players in a scary situation, making them solve puzzles using a journal, on-screen information, and an entire bookshelf crammed with tomes in order to escape a dangerous presence.

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 8, 2017

6 Min Read

The 2017 Game Developer's Conference will feature an exhibition called Alt.Ctrl.GDC dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions. Gamasutra will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase. You can find all of the interviews here.

Cryptogram puts players in a frightening situation, making them solve puzzles using a journal, on-screen information, and an entire bookshelf crammed with tomes in order to escape a dangerous presence. 

Cryptogram builds upon that old movie trope of pulling a book to open a secret door. By assigning the books to various keys and building puzzles to indicate which book to pull, the developers have created an experience built around that trope, and one that creates tension with its massive controller.

The team, made up of students from Uppsala University in Sweden, spent months creating the project, turning an Ikea bookshelf and bargain bin books into a fear-building controller/

Gamasutra spoke with Beatrice Franov, lead artist on the project, to learn more about the thoughts that go into turning an entire bookshelf into an input device, and what its multiple options and daunting size can add to horror games.

What’s your name, and what was your role on this project?

My name is Beatrice Franov and I am the lead artist of our team, The S.Crew.

How do you describe your innovative controller to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with it?

It looks like your average bookshelf: Made out of wood, pretty big, full of books. You know the drill. There are no buttons, joysticks or anything you'd expect from a controller. There are only books, a screen on which you will see the game, and a journal written by a mysterious stranger who has visited the dilapidated house that the game takes place in. 

Now, you might be curious as to how one plays a game on a bookshelf, and this is where it gets funky. Maybe you've seen a movie where the characters pull inconspicuous books in a bookshelf that turn out to be levers that open hidden doors? That's how this works. In each room, you are presented with a problem - maybe it's a puzzle, maybe it's a riddle (it depends on where the game takes you). These problems can only be solved by using every tool available to you, which means that you must pay attention to both the room you see on the screen, the stranger's journal, and, of course, the bookshelf itself. 

If you figure out the solution, you will know which books to pull in order to advance through the game.

What's your background in making games?

I was actually a total rookie when it came to making games when we started working on Cryptogram - most of us were. Our team entirely consists of students at Uppsala University in Sweden, where we are studying game design. Before enrolling here, I had never made a single game and was pretty content with just playing them. I have, however, made a whole bunch of games since starting here one and a half year ago, and it's crazy how new it all was back then. I'm happy to say that I've learned a lot since then.

What development tools did you use to build Cryptogram?

Unity was probably the most important tool - I'm not sure how it would work without it. Other than that, most of the artwork was done in Krita and Photoshop, and bitbucket/sourcetree was a really useful tool as well. 

What physical materials did you use to make it? 

An IKEA bookshelf, a bunch of wires, lots of duct tape, books found in bargain bins, some planks of wood, lots of nails, sharpies... Then, of course, there is the speakers, the standalone screen, and the laptop that everything is hooked up to.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

Well, originally the game was part of a course at school, one about making games with alternative controllers. So, we had a little bit less than a semester to come up with it, build the controller, and you know, make the game. About three months all in all. We did not get much sleep during that time. Since then, we have worked on it a little bit more, tweaked a few things here and there, but the brunt of it was done during that semester.

How did you come up with the concept?

The original idea came from our producer, Daniel Qvarnemark. He came up with the whole thing about trap doors, the bookshelf, and it being focused on puzzles. We loved the concept and it sort of snowballed from there.

How did you turn an entire bookshelf filled with tomes into a controller?

The actual programming of the game is just like that of any games that uses a keyboard. All the books that can be pulled are connected to switches that are in turn connected to the computer. Basically, the books are just extensions of the keys. The rest is mostly a shell to make it feel good to play.

How did you design a game based around using a bookshelf as the interface?

Mostly by being insane. No, but honestly, once we figured out what we wanted to do, it was just a matter of working hard. Our focus was to make the game as immersive as possible, and with that in mind, we spent weeks figuring out how the interface and console should work and look.

Do you feel that using such a large controller adds to the tension of Cryptogram's horror experience? That having so many options can increase fear? How so, and why?

You know, I really do. There were a few things that we wanted to achieve in making Cryptogram: immersiveness and getting the players pumped, stressed, and scared being on the top of the list. Using an actual, life size bookshelf seems to really help with the immersiveness. We want you to feel as if you're really in that spooky, warped house, being chased, and that the only way you'll get out is by figuring out the sometimes confusing (but always possible to understand if you think hard) ravings of a madman. 

Allowing the players to interact with the bookshelf, feeling it looming over them, feeling the jerk and the click when they pull the books - it's gratifying. Regarding the many options, I'd say that it plays a part in increasing the horror factor. There is a time limit to each puzzle, so the player is already feeling stressed as it is, but adding the fact that there are a bunch of different choices, and that a wrong one could mean game over, really raises the player's heart rate. It's not easy to be smart when your pulse is racing and a big ol' monster wants to chow down on you, but that's what you have to be to finish the game.

How do you think standard interfaces and controllers will change over the next five or ten years?

Oh, that's a tricky question... I think we're probably going to see a lot of VR and AR. People want increased immersiveness, and with how the tech is now, not to mention what it'll be like in a couple of years, VR and AR can provide just that (especially VR). With that in mind, I think both interfaces and controllers will simply be adapted to that.

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