How many games deal with the feeling of regret? Not many, we’d wager.
We’re not talking about the buyer’s remorse you might have after spending too much money on football players in FIFA, either: rather, the feelings that spring from missed opportunities, long-gone relationships, and paths not taken.
It’s something Rocketship Park is tackling in Love: A Puzzle Box Filled With Stories – what studio co-founder and developer Shane McCafferty calls “a living diorama.”
The game provides a voyeur’s perspective on a five-storey apartment building where each floor can be rotated – an action that not only provides glimpses of the tenants that live inside, but also moves the passage of time back and forth.
Taking its cue from classic point-and-click adventures, LOVE sees you interact with the tenants and various objects within the building to solve puzzles. By doing so, you’ll learn more about the game’s characters, and in time, give each of their stories closure.
In line with the game’s gently melancholic tone, however, that sense of closure doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending for the various people you meet in the game. “We’re never undoing, or fixing, these people’s stories,” McCafferty explains. “We’re trying our best to keep these stories real. We’re not looking to reunite a prince with a princess.
“Everyone has experienced stories of love and regret, both romantic and otherwise – and we’ve all been in moments where we find ourselves stuck, unable to move on from the past. Each puzzle in LOVE will take the residents to a place of peace with their experiences.”
Each of LOVE’s puzzles is intimately intertwined with its story and characters: one example McCafferty describes involves two childhood friends who’ve grown apart as the years have rolled on.
“Early players have described this story in a variety of ways, from being about two friends who had a falling out to being sisters that simply don’t stay in touch,” he says. “There are no wrong answers here. Once a puzzle is complete, your interpretation of what happened is yours and yours alone.”
For McCafferty, the initial inspiration for LOVE came a decade ago, when he first heard a song written by his friend Neil White. That piece of music, Devils In My Head, eventually accompanied the game’s trailer.
“It’s a beautiful, haunting piece of music that blends melancholia, sadness, and optimism in a way that feels eerily familiar,” McCafferty says. That piece of music led McCafferty to start thinking about how he could evoke similar emotions in a video game. “When we talk about the emotions we feel in games, we’re often too keen to lean into the same powerful-but-simple emotions that we might experience in a summer blockbuster.
“There are some wonderful instances where this isn’t the case, but by and large, games that try to tackle tougher emotions are still the exception rather than the rule.”
LOVE’s emotional focus extends to its design, which takes low-poly models and a post-processing filter that gives its domestic scenes a diffuse, painterly look. Aside from a few words on the user interface, LOVE also eschews dialogue between its characters; instead, you’ll grow to understand their relationships and shifting moods through their body language.
It’s a design choice that “lets the player have their own experience within the narrative,” McCafferty says. “Once words get involved, you’re just dictating to the players how they should feel.”
The game’s minimal aesthetic is complemented by the complexity going on behind the scenes. The tenants’ interactions with each other, and the player’s ability to manipulate time to see their past actions, has required a great deal of planning, iteration, and storyboarding to plot out, McCafferty tells us.
“The process for the game design is iterative. We storyboard a puzzle, we implement it, we test, and we circle back around. This loop can happen dozens of times. Each puzzle has to hit the correct feeling. Each story beat has to hit home. And then, once it’s all together, each puzzle needs to be able to live alongside the other puzzles in the building. It’s quite the involved process, but tremendous fun.”
Ten years and a lot of experimentation later, development on LOVE has reached its latter stages, and it’s shaping up to be a thought-provoking and refreshingly different kind of puzzle game.
It’s not all ennui and regret, either; there’s another theme here, McCafferty says, and one he hopes players will take away with them once the final puzzle’s solved. “There’s a complementary emotion that’s running through the game as well, [which] can sometimes help characters in finding their next steps: a feeling of community.
“As the game progresses and stories crossover, you’ll reveal existing relationships between the residents. I’d love for the game to make people think a little more about the people who orbit their life. How are they? And should I say hello more often?”
Format: PC / Mac
Developer: Rocketship Park
Publisher: Rocketship Park
Release: TBC 2020