One of the toughest elements of developing a puzzle platformer — aside from the fact that it's a very common genre of game — is designing puzzles that allow for different solutions from players. The Copenhagen-based indie studio Press Play previously made a physics-based puzzle platformer, Max and the Magic Marker, that was relatively well-received upon its release in 2010, but its puzzles sometimes fell victim to the one-solution-fits-all issue.
The developers at Press Play have been working on a sequel called Max: The Curse of Brotherhood for the past two and a half years, and they believe they've hit on a few different solutions to that problem. And one of them arose from a eureka moment during development.
One of the very first puzzles, if you can call it a puzzle, that you encounter in The Curse of Brotherhood is a falling rock. The boulder breaks free from a crevice above and begins rolling toward Max, and the only way he can escape being crushed by it is to retreat to a previous area and jump out of its way. But early on in development, the rock was set up to respawn infinitely.
"That was the puzzle where we realized that [...] that was just, like, an artificial way to have a mechanic in the world. And we didn't want that," said Mikkel Martin Pedersen, lead designer on The Curse of Brotherhood, in an interview with Polygon during a hands-on session with the game this week.
In Max and the Magic Marker, the protagonist wielded an orange marker that the player used to draw lines and shapes into the world. The drawings functioned in the game world like structures composed of indivisible girders. But that power wasn't tied to anything in the world itself, and for the sequel, Press Play kept the fantastical elements of Max's story but grounded the physics-based abilities in the world.
Max can take advantage of "inkwells," spots in his environment that each offer a particular power that he can manipulate with his marker. A brown one lets him raise a pillar of earth out of the ground; a green one sprouts a tree branch; a yellow one shoots out a vine; a blue one spews a jet of water. Those objects are imbued with the properties you'd expect them to have in the real world — you can sever a branch above a stream, and it'll float in the water — and they move in line with the laws of physics.
"It's not just an abstract line you're drawing, but it's something that's actually founded in the real world"
"We sort of had, like, this philosophy that we wanted to make the game believable," Pedersen explained. "It's not just an abstract line you're drawing, but it's something that's actually founded in the real world, like a branch or a vine. Of course, it's magic, but it still has some kind of — you can say, you can believe what's happening in the game world. We designed it that we didn't want to have, like, floating platforms; we didn't want to have instantiated models in the game, like you normally see in 2D platforming games."
Many puzzles will require you to utilize a variety of inkwell types to get Max through them. To make it past one setup, we had to step out onto a stub of a branch and then draw a vine out way ahead of us; that way, it would fall from its anchor point and swing down toward us, at which point we had to properly time a jump to latch onto it.
As you see in the screenshot at the top of this article, each inkwell has a unique radius that tells you how far you can draw from its origin. Every puzzle is intricately designed in this way, with environmental elements like trees and rock ledges laid out along with the inkwells. But it was crucial for Press Play to give players agency within those limitations, according to the studio.
"We want to be able to reward the player when they're doing something right. And therefore, it's not sandbox-y; it is designed. But still, freedom within the design is very important," said Press Play studio director Mikkel Thorsted. "It's very important that you don't feel like you're just doing what you're supposed to do. It's like, the freedom of actually being able to draw should make every player feel that how they are playing the game is unique."
"freedom within the design is very important"
A lot of the puzzles can be solved in multiple ways, and way that The Curse of Brotherhood's powers are grounded in its world really contribute to that. We played a few different sections of the game for a total of 30 to 40 minutes, and were able to see how Press Play gradually ramps up the challenge. First, the game introduces you to a new ability with a few different puzzles, and then it asks you to combine that power with previous inkwells. As you move through the game, you learn more and more about the properties of the powers, which informs your thought process for coming up with solutions.
Some sequences in The Curse of Brotherhood rely on trial and error, forcing you to memorize the layout of hazards so you can get past them after you die once or a few times. But the vast majority of the segments we played focused on teaching us the game's systems before letting us loose to solve ever more challenging puzzles. In that way, The Curse of Brotherhood reminded us of another Danish-made indie gem: Playdead's bleak 2010 platformer, Limbo.
Max: The Curse of Brotherhood is scheduled to be available in early 2014 for $19.99 on Xbox One and Xbox 360.