Game Design Analysis (part 3)

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

Available Hardware at the Time

The game was originally made for the Global Game Jam in 2014 by three Canadian game developers and programmers – Allen Pestaluky, Ben Kane, and Brian Fetter. At the time, they’d had an Oculus Rift dev kit on hand and thought it would be interesting to try making a VR game. At the time, VR was still such a novelty and I guess making a VR game for a Global Game Jam would have stood out more.

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The game itself was made in Unity and tech a couple years ago was pretty great for quick, game jam developments. While the trio weren’t new to making games, there can always be stresses involved in making a jam game with something still in its infancy, as was the case with VR. However, they had previously made a roller coaster VR experience and weren’t complete greenhorns – they saw that while the user of a VR headset could enjoy the game fully, everyone else in the room remained mere spectators. If that were the case, they wanted to make a game two or more people could play together, even if one was strapped into the VR world. I think this shows some ingenuity on their part, making something more akin to a party game rather than a solo experience, despite what one would expect from VR at the time.

While the game isn’t exclusively available on VR (the game is out for PC and Mac without a headset), I feel like it’s one of those games that really does benefit from using a headset since that was what it was originally designed for.

Intended Audiences

I don’t think there was an original audience in mind when these guys set out to make the game, but rather they knew that they wanted it to be a joint effort amongst friends. There isn’t any true violence involved and comprehension is key when discussing how to diffuse the bomb, so perhaps very young children might have issues interpreting/giving out the instructions. Given the game was made for GGJ14, one would expect the rating of the game needed to remain low so that others could enjoy it after the event was over.

Once the game was actually further developed after the jam, published in 2015 by Steel Crate Games, it looks like it was given an E rating with a suggestion that it should/could be 10+ due to the suggested violence of being blown up when the bomb goes off after a failed diffuse attempt.

Game Design & Mechanics

I just have to say that I think the set up in the game and the mechanics used to diffuse the bomb are utterly brilliant. This is the sort of game I hope one day I’ll be able to churn out with enough experience. The concept is extremely simple: you (the Diffuser) and a friend (the Expert) need to work together to stop a bomb from going off. The Defuser is in charge of the actual bomb, sitting by him/herself in a room, while the Expert has a manual they get instructions out of to relay to the Defuser. The Defuser needs to be clear on explaining what’s on the bomb, while the Expert has to be quick to interpret what needs to be done in order to save his/her buddy. Usually.

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The devs were extremely clever about how they designed the game: the beginning levels are gentle in their introduction to the bomb diffusing and reading the manual. As the levels get higher, the diffusing gets more complicated and there are distractions introduced around the Defuser, such as the lights going out periodically or an alarm clock ringing that needs to be snoozed.

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Each bomb can be made up of multiple modules, as seen above: some can be about cutting wires in the right order, others are word jumbles that have to be decoded, while some answers are dependent on how many batteries or serial numbers are on the bomb. All of them are independent of one another, which means the Defuser can choose whatever order to tackle them in.

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Meanwhile, the Expert has a Bomb Defuser Manual that they have to read from, but they can’t see the bomb while it’s being worked on. This means that communication is key to stopping the bomb and makes Keep Talking a really interesting duo game or even one that can be played in a room with a bigger crowd.

The devs were cheeky in making some of these modules, where homophones or repetitive letters can throw off the whole process. I’ve seen lots of hilarious playthroughs or read anecdotal stories showing just how confusing some of the explanations can be! The trailer gives an exaggerated idea of what the game is all about:

The challenge involved in playing the game can be quite good and the modules are generated in a procedural manner, so for a long time you’ll have different experiences when you play. However, I guess the downside is if you play the game often enough you’ll start to know it inside-out; it takes the challenge away once you know the manual really well or what to expect out of the bomb. In the normal levels, the players are given a three-strike system to work with, but there’s also a way to create your own challenges and fiddle with the settings to add more/less modules, time, and strikes.

Visuals

There isn’t too much to talk about regarding the visuals – it’s all very basic and pretty much what you would expect a weirdly laid out bomb to look like! The atmosphere that’s created in the room is quite good, where the various noises, ticking sounds, lights going on and off, etc. create a tense atmosphere.

I think the interesting part of the design is that everything is quite clear, even when the Defuser is trying to quickly relay what he/she is seeing. There aren’t really any visual tricks involved on the bomb itself, so you can’t really blame it when you’re having trouble describing what you see. You may even find you end up learning some Morse code while playing!

Performance

The game works fluidly – again, there isn’t too much to say here as I’ve never seen any actual issues involving the game’s core performance. It was designed with a simple concept in mind and, thus, there isn’t a ton that can go wrong outside of player error.

Instead, the game was highly praised for its ingenuity and talked about it for its ability to be played as a party game. It won a number of awards after being released in its full version, including the NAVGTR award for Game: Strategy, IGF’s Excellence in Design award, and Destructoid’s Best VR Game of 2016. Of course, the game was also nominated for a number of other awards in categories in innovation and best debut/game.

There’s also still plenty of support from the developers and it feels like there could be periodic updates to the game; it would be nice to see fresh content or even a newer game using the same core mechanics and capitalising on the team gameplay aspect. The devs still hold tournaments and the game is still very popular thanks to them and the fans who still enjoy playing it two years later. I even saw one re-Tweeted post on @KeepTalkingGame where a team at MIT made a physical version of the bomb.

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I think games like Keep Talking show just how far we’ve come in game design, where once upon a time a game like this was a vision from the future. Now, VR is on the rise, co-op games aren’t just about being online but can be played by friends on a couch once more, and not everything is about getting the “most kills” or “best score”. I feel like a lot of the game jams in the last… let’s say, five years, have really caused a spike in ingenious, unique, and fun indie games that make a nice change to play compared to a lot of AAA titles.

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