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Finding the right beats in Cosmo D's surreal The Norwood Suite

Game designer and musician Greg Heffernan walks Gamasutra through the process of blending inspirations as diverse as jazz and immersive sims to build his first-person thriller The Norwood Suite.

Joel Couture, Contributor

December 8, 2017

11 Min Read

“I think I’m looking at what games can do from a similar wide-eyed place as people who make immersive sims, but I’m coming at it from a different angle," says game designer and musician Greg Heffernan, aka Cosmo D.

"Games like Thief or System Shock emphasized player agency, narrative structure, and a loose framework to traverse that structure. When I play a jazz piece, I feel a similar sense of openness and decision-making over a set musical framework.”

With his musical background, Heffernan wanted to further delve into that sense of exploration felt in both music and games with The Norwood Suite, which debuted in October. 

Norwood Suite is a spiritual/direct sequel to Cosmo D's Off-Peak, another game of hidden nooks and crannies. Through a place that opens up as players poke and prod at its secrets, and music that further deepens as players do so, Heffernan hoped to create that same sense of musical exploration in playing a piece through a world that emphasized and rewarded curiosity.

​The Norwood Suite takes players to a secluded hotel on what appears to be a simple errand, but through curiosity draws them into the lives of the guests and the almost surreal architecture of the hotel. That curiosity not only lets players see more of the hotel and learn more of the stories that are whispered in its walls, but also leads them to explore the game musically, as every new development brings with it some piece of music or sound that adds to the songs of the hotel.

A Background In Song

“Starting out as a classically trained cellist from a young age and traveling through various musical worlds over the years, music has always been a big part of my artistic and professional life. The appeal to fuse it with the rest of the game’s design came from the fact that it felt completely natural for me to do so,” says Heffernan.

Music had long been important in Heffernan’s life, and that love of it gave it an importance in all of their artistic explorations. This is what lead to the creation of Off-Peak, a game where players could explore a train station filled with music, records, lives, and messages. It, too, would open up and reveal more secrets, hidden places, and music as players looked around. 

It wasn’t quite all that the developer wanted from the experience, though. “Off-Peak was my first actual game and my design abilities were relatively limited when I was making it,” he says. “With The Norwood Suite, I wanted to a make a longer, commercial-length game in the same style because I felt like Off-Peak’s mechanics were calling out for iteration.”

“Specifically, I wanted to create an inventory system where you could pick items up in the world and be able to give them to characters. I also wanted to create the ability to eaves-drop and interrupt conversations, whereas in *Off-Peak* the conversation system was more binary and less reactive," continues Heffernan.

One more design decision, though, would reach the heart of what Heffernan wanted from the game’s world – one that would let him infuse music into more of the player’s interactions within it.

“Most importantly, the way I handled in-game dialog was completely re-worked for The Norwood Suite. Words appear one at a time," he says. "And the appearance of each word is punctuated by samples of musical instruments, in tune with the diegetic music emanating from speakers throughout the hotel. You can hear the influence of both Killer 7 and the old Charlie Brown specials in this approach.”

Like the kind of exploration Heffernan mentioned about playing the jazz piece, this musical touch to the conversations players joined or overheard would let them explore music as it is played live. How does interacting with this one character alter the music? What does it sound like when I stand near this group and listen in? While players are learning more about the characters’ stories, these stories also form the fabric of the music, creating new tones through simply listening along.

Here, there is a dual exploration. It’s players delving into character stories to learn more about them, but there is also the choice to listen to someone just to hear what they add to the music. It’s an exploration of tone and sound at the same time as story, yet music also tells its own story when played, as well. It draws the player into an approachable instrument with the game’s world and characters, and lets them feel what it’s like to wander through music of their own creation. 

“My goal is for the game to provide a sustained sense of ‘whoah’-ness for players," says Heffernan. "I want them to discover a point in the game and go ‘whoah’, then another point and go ‘woooooaaahhh’, then another with a ‘what!?’ and then maybe a ‘hmmm...’ and it would just be a steady wave of those feelings. I want players to feel this when they hear dialog, find items, unlock new rooms, discovered secret passages, or learn new plot revelations. Music is essential in scoring and reinforcing every one of these moments.”

A Character’s Song

Nothing was wasted in the player’s journey through the hotel – each step deliberate, and another part of the grand song that is The Norwood Suite. “The architecture was inspired by a melange of things," says Heffernan. "The Hotel Chelsea in New York, the mountain lodges in the Catskills of Upstate New York, the Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, the interiors of hotels in Wong Kar-Wei films. Maybe a dash of the Overlook and the Great Northern, too. It’s a big soup.

“Yet, all of those places, whether real or fictional, had space for some kind of music in them, and I just wanted to dial that aspect up with this game," he continues. "And yet, despite all the surrealism, I still want there to be a functionality to the Hotel Norwood. Believe it or not, nothing in the Hotel Norwood is there just for the sake of being there. Everything has a purpose.” 

Key to filling this place with song in an interactive way was through each character adding something to the music as the player listened to them or engaged with them. Every interaction with character would be a way for the player to alter the music, then, creating a new tune based on who they wanted to listen to.

This isn’t just about adding to a central piece of music, though. Like all art, musical taste can tell someone a lot about a person, and Heffernan put this to work in the game as well.

“I’ll point to the dialog system as the clearest embodiment of this," he says. "It allowed me to develop people’s personalities through what instrument I’d choose to represent them.” 

“For example, if we look at the two people at the front desk, each one is represented by a unique electric organ, made popular in the 1960s and 1970s," he says. "Narrative-wise, the 60s and 70s play a role in the hotel’s history. I wanted the older woman on the right, represented by a Farfisa organ, to subtly evoke a night at the Bingo parlor. Along with her actual dialog, she’s meant to come off like an old librarian archetype.”  

Each character would be represented by a certain instrument, and these instruments would tell the player a little something about who they are. So, not only does The Norwood Suite add a form a musical exploration by altering the tunes through their interactions, there’s also a story that is fed into by the music itself. The game is not just looking to reinforce the music through story, but also flesh out narrative and character through that music as well.

“The other attendant, decidedly younger and slovenly in appearance, is represented by a Hammond B3 organ," he says."B3s were used extensively in Prog Rock records from the 70s, and this is the kind of guy who’d geek out to that music in his basement. Combined with his own dialog, he’s portrayed as haplessly counting the hours stuck with this older woman all night. This is just one example of what I was thinking about when fusing music, character building and world building into the game.”

Character is strengthened through music, with this example. It tells the player something about the character just by listening to the tone in their voice. Again, this allows Heffernan to draw players into that exploration of music – in seeing how certain tones sound with the song, they learn more about the music. They also learn more about the people who form that song as well.

Keep Up The Beat

 “The structure of the game starts with a fixed, deliberate goal, then opens up the world, then ultimately joins all the threads together and guides the player back to a final, inevitable resolution,” says Heffernan.

Heffernan wanted to keep that beat going as players worked through the game, finding ways to constantly lead them along and further encourage that curiosity to keep them moving ahead. After all, a song cannot just abruptly stop. It has to flow to its inevitable conclusion, and a good musician has to be able to work to that end without stopping.

“As the game opens up, every completed action unlocks a new passage or points the player in a new direction, or revisits old directions from new angles," he says. "My intention with this is to constantly surprise the player, or keep them wondering what might be around the next corner. I try to avoid dead-ends. Every room has a button that offers a secret path to another part of the hotel, so the forward momentum of flow is constant. I reward backtracking by moving characters around at different points in the game, so that they meet one another and their conversations dynamically change depending on who they’re talking to.

“All of this is meant to create a sense that life at the hotel is happening alongside the player, but doesn’t necessarily revolve around them. The re-activeness of the world is meant to create a sense of unpredictability so the player is never certain what to expect when they achieve an objective or find an important clue," Heffernan adds.

This is the same as adding a tone to music, or trying a different beat or instrument. It’s that same musical question of ‘What will it sound like if I do this?”, but done through gameplay. It keeps the player moving forward through the game/song, but also through song. What will happen when I take this action? When I do it at this time? A song may sound one way in the musician’s head, but what does environment do to alter it? Mood? The people around them taking it in alongside the noise of their life? So many things can alter a song’s reception, just as so many things in motion can change what the player receives from The Norwood Suite

Rewarding Song

Players are endlessly rewarded for their curiosity, both musical and narratively, throughout The Norwood Suite, giving them new secrets, new stories, and a new song as they wander and interact with the world.

This was no simple process for Heffernan, requiring iteration and tinkering in every aspect. “There’s no real road-map to this and it wasn't a top-down approach. The music, the gameplay, and the way those systems interacted were case-by-case, character-by-character," he says.

However, with their love and life spent in music, it was only natural to give it so much importance, as many developers do with the things they enjoy. This was what brough song and immersive sims together for The Norwood Suite.

“At the end of the day, whatever one's background, I think we’re all trying to create work that is meant to engage our audience in a meaningful way. My taste in games is quite broad, but my favorite games have always been immersive sims.” says Heffernan.
“The way I’ve honored those games in my own work is to have my levels and narratives be open and non-linear, trusting players to figure things out on their own terms. It’s a design sensibility that people of all design backgrounds have been drawn to, and I’m nodding to it in my own way.”

This mixture of sim and music, and that exploration of a jazz song through the musician’s choices made while following the rules, created the interactive musical story of The Norwood Suite, creating a game where both story and song are enriched through curiosity and experimentation, giving players a little taste of the joys of making music with a world that acts as an instrument.

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