This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Released last year, Hanako Games' mystery game Black Closet offered a fresh spin on traditional "find the traitor" social game design and won a nomination for the Independent Game Festival's 2016 Excellence in Narrative award.
It also has one of the better taglines of any game last year. Described as "a game of boardroom politics, lesbian romance, and schoolgirl noir," Black Closet seats players behind the desk of a student council president at a strikingly cutthroat all-girls academy and challenges them to survive.
Like Hanako Games' earlier game Long Live The Queen, Black Closet's design drives players to juggle multiple concerns at once, pushing them to ferret out a traitor in their inner circle while simultaneously protecting their own position at the school and solving procedurally-generated mysteries.
To kick off our 2016 Road to the IGF series of interviews Gamasutra caught up with Hanako Games founder Georgina Bensley via emai to learn a bit about how Black Closet was built, and how it was inspired by everything from an old British secret police sim to Bensley's own experiences at a private academy.
What's your background in making games?
Bensley: Like many people, as soon as I got access to computers as a kid, I was trying to make games, whether it was on an old Apple II or a graphing calculator.
As I got older, I went through a lot of amateur gamedev communities, and I've been a fulltime indie for over ten years now. I have never held a position with a larger game company, all of my paid employment was outside gaming.
So what development tools did you use to build Black Closet?
The game itself is written in a customised fork of the RenPy engine. We rewrote a handful of internals for our own purposes.
Other than that, this game did go through a paper prototype phase while I was trying to determine the feasibility of the gameplay concept. Some of the mechanics changed drastically during that time.
And how much time have you spent working on the game?
I believe we first started work on this game idea in mid-2012 and officially released it three years later, although we were not working on the game steadily during all that time. In those three years we also reworked and released several existing games on Steam, as well as writing and releasing several sizable content updates for Long Live The Queen, each of which required switching gears for a few months at a time.
I don't have any employees, only one partner who handles a lot of the technical side of things, so maintenance work takes a big bite out of development time for us.
How did you come up with the concept?
I was thinking about detective work and mystery-solving as a gameplay concept. Many games contain mysteries, but the plot is usually set, so you can always 'cheat' with a walkthrough, and once you've done so, there's nothing left to solve on replay.
This isn't universal. When I was young, I played quite a lot of the Carmen Sandiego games, endlessly collecting clues and tracking V.I.L.E. henchmen. I went on a trawl through various game sites looking for mystery-related mechanics, to see what else had been done in the past. In the process, I came across Floor 13.
PSI Software Designers' 1991 game Floor 13, running on an IBM PC
Floor 13 is an old British game where you run a shadowy secret organisation for the benefit of the Prime Minister. You do the dirty work to dispose of threats and ensure his re-election. Sometimes that means leaking embarrassing evidence to destroy the careers of his rivals, sometimes that means kidnapping and torturing people for information, and sometimes it means assassination.
I have never played this game, only read about it. However, I liked a lot of the ideas that were described, such as the need to balance solving problems with keeping a low profile and maintaining the popularity of the establishment. Apparently, if you draw too much attention to yourself, you are forced to 'step down'... out of a window.
How did I end up transposing this underhanded black-bag operation to a high school setting? I grew up in the environment of a small Episcopalian single-sex private school. Reputation was Serious Business, and for those of us who'd been in that school all our lives, expulsion might as well have been execution. Our school was the entire world, as far as we were concerned. How would you possibly survive, if you were thrown out, your reputation destroyed? Your life would be over, your future ruined!
So, drawing on those memories, it was easy to create a setup in which everything is very high-stakes as far as the characters are concerned, but no one is literally tortured or murdered.
Hanako Games' 2015 PC game Black Closet
While many elements in St. Claudine's are obviously exaggerated, a large number of the incidents and ideas have some basis in fact. I was a member of a school organization that carried out certain tasks for the teachers, including hunting the halls for stray pupils if they didn't show up to one of their classes. Teachers worried about relationships between girls becoming 'too intense'. Rumors could spread quickly: parents from other private schools were known to call in and complain because they'd heard that a student had done something unsavory, and that threatened the entire fabric of society. Misdeeds performed by students of the most prominent families might be covered up and blame reassigned to their more-expendable associates.
And, of course, certain subjects were far too scandalous to discuss in public.
What inspired your approach? It seems to share a lot in common with visual novel design.
From my viewpoint, Black Closet isn't really a visual novel, though obviously it draws on that tradition with the sprites in dialog and the character-route-based story approach. However, I feel it owes at least as much to the western RPG tradition of games like Dragon Age and Baldur's Gate. That style of RPG gives more freedom to the player to shape the PC's personality and approach to the game's plot: typically, every line spoken and every action taken by the player character is a matter of the player's choice.
This requires a different writing approach than the typical visual novel, which has long non-interactive passages in which the main character reacts to events and explains matters from his or her own viewpoint.
As much as possible, I tried to avoid directly telling the player what Elsa, the protagonist, felt or thought about things. However, borrowing a trick from some of those same RPGs, sometimes when a list of options to pick from comes up, the simple fact of what options are and aren't available does deliver information about the character and the world. Options that you do not choose can still tell you something about who Elsa is, or at least who she might be.
Mostly, I resist calling it a visual novel because, as in an RPG, the gameplay is essential to both completing the game and understanding the story. You can't remove the detective work aspect from Black Closet and play just the relationships, they simply don't make sense without the framework of cases that you and your minions are working on together.
Fair enough! Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
I believe the only other finalist this year that I've extensively played is Her Story, whose storytelling approach I found interesting. I have briefly sampled some of the others, but alas, my backlog is mighty.
Don't forget check out the rest of our Road to the IGF series right here.