An Interview with Jongwoo Kim, Creative Director of Lucifer Within Us – Part 2

This interview is part two of a series from an interview with Jongwoo Kim, the creative director of Lucifer Within Us, a unique mystery game. To read our writeup on the game, click here. To read part one, click here.

Making Murder Mystery Mechanics

Fritz Wallace: What lead you to be interested in creating a mystery game?

Jongwoo Kim: For me, I was very frustrated at the mystery genre. To start, it’s a very vague genre. Like horror, there isn’t any single mechanic that defines it, like jumping for platformers, or shooting for shooters. There’s no unifying mechanic. Some games take the approach of a visual novel, being very text and menu based. Some are just adventure games, but with a mystery aesthetic.

So what I wanted to do with the project was to create mystery mechanics. To design tools we can give to the player that can be meaningful and applicable across multiple cases, and that the player can build skill around.

As a counter-example of what I’m talking about, take something like Frogwares Sherlock Holmes games. Sure, ultimately you accuse someone with their systems, but it’s bloated with a lot of mini-games. And if I’m gonna be blunt, they aren’t fun to play.

In one, I’m being hunted with a hunter with a rifle, and dodging bullets. It doesn’t have anything to do with the mysteries. And when you fail at these, it’s an awful feeling. “I’m Sherlock Holmes, why am I doing this?”

And so that’s where the timeline mechanic began. The initial prototype of the game was really focused on getting the timeline right. But it quickly led to other questions, such as “Okay, the timeline is good for temporal and positional parts of the mystery, but it’s not so good for relational information.” Such as, who likes who, who hates who. Who owns what, who saw this?

So at an earlier stage in development, we had a mechanic I believe we called the evidence map. And so any piece of evidence you found would show up on this evidence map, but it would also be linked to the other items on map. Among games that are actually out there right now, I think Murder Mystery Machine bases its entire gameplay on a similar mechanic.

But as this relates to cut mechanics, there was a version of Lucifer Within Us with a mechanic with the same idea. And it was compelling, but players found it to be almost too interesting.

Fritz Wallace: In what sense?

Jongwoo Kim: It wasn’t meant to be a fundamental aspect of the game. Actually, even the timeline wasn’t intended to be the fundamental aspect. All of these mechanics were intended to serve the tools for the player to understand what happened to the best of their ability.

But even though it was just informational, players tended to engage with the evidence map with the assumption that they had to use evidence map to progress in the case, even though it didn’t actually have the ability to do that.

There was an additional feature that tied the timeline and evidence map together called the hypothesis system, which allowed players to tie things to together, and map assertions about what they believed about happened.

So if you found certain things in a character’s testimony, and certain things about evidence, you could say things like “I think X did this with Y,” and it would test to see if that lined up with your current understanding of the case.

And all of these features were functional at a core level, but they became very clunky. The amount of UI needed to get them to do something simple was difficult. And secondly, it was difficult to make content for them at any reasonable pace.

Game UI from the final version.

If you’ve ever heard the term information haystack, that’s more or less the issue we ran into. The idea is that if you’re trying to find a needle, and there’s so much hay, the more hay you add in relation to the needle, it gets harder to find the needle.

Now obviously there’s a balance, and want some things to sift through for a compelling mystery, but at a certain point, if there’s just too much information, too much hay, it becomes impossible to invalidate certain possibilities.

So the inclusion of these features and creating content for them would in retrospect add too much to both the team’s haystack, and the player’s haystack. As a designer, though, I feel like the full mystery experience needs all these things.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to know what’s essential until everything is assembled. Also, to know if something is an information haystack problem, or a UI problem. Could we have just improved the UI in such a way that the players would know how to use it intuitively? Or was it a fundamental problem with the content or mechanics?

And if you don’t know, even just playtesting these mechanics is hard

Fritz Wallace: It seems like a big challenge to let the player do all of that, and trust them to figure it all out.

Jongwoo Kim: Right, so on that note, there were a lot of questions around that. “Why don’t we just script this part? Why don’t we just tell the player this part?” And the answer was in terms of the vision for the project, I wanted the player to be the detective, not the developer. I didn’t want twists people wouldn’t see coming to show up.

The design is to leave a case open enough that there’s nothing stopping a player from getting the information they need to reach the correct solution.

But that means you have to keep in mind a lot of possibilities. What if the player talks to this character first, or finds this evidence first?

If I look at the Steam reviews, some folks complain it’s too easy, some complain it’s too opaque, and I have mixed feelings on that. I do feel confident someone can solve every mystery without resorting to a walkthrough, or brute forcing everything.

You can see a suspect, the evidence, the alibi, and it’s more likely someone did something rather than not.

But something I noticed during playtesting was that players get attached to early theories. If they don’t like a certain character’s personality, or they seem suspicious for some reason, there’s a level of confirmation bias that motivates a player to stick with train of logic.

On the one hand, I didn’t want the game to be a sudoku puzzle: i.e., eliminate all other possibilities, it can only be this. But if the solution is too blatant, there isn’t much for the player to do. But some people would argue LWU is like that, and honestly, there’s more a degree of the obviousness of the solution than I first though when starting the project.

In early development, we had cases that were pointlessly complex relative to the average player’s desire to solve them. There was motivation loss at a certain point because there was so much to consider. And while I’m glad we streamlined them to a point, if I went back in time and talked to myself at the start of the project to say “By the way, at the end of the project, here’s the level of complexity on most of these cases” I’d be kind of disappointed.

Fritz Wallace: So there was some compromise on the levels of difficulty in the cases? How do you feel about that?

Jongwoo Kim: It is a bit of a bummer, but especially with the premise change, the project became more than just “Make a compelling player-driven mystery solving game.” We needed to execute to the best of our ability with the team we had, with the strengths and weaknesses present.

Fritz Wallace: Even with all that, how do you feel about the end state of the game?

Jongwoo Kim: I am quite proud of how the project came out, and the overall quality. I like Ada’s characterization. She’s a strong, confident protagonist in a murder mystery game, in a male dominated society. And I think that comes across in the game itself.

I think in terms of character design, I’m happy with how we balanced technology and religion. Given the number of characters and complexity of the cases, I think the cases are satisfying to solve. And I’m really pleased with how we got the smoothness, and level of detail with the timeline mechanic.

This concludes part 2 of the interview. Part 3 will go up tomorrow, and talk about the technical challenges involved in making a game where information is critical, and the player can rewind time whenever they want.

An Interview with Jongwoo Kim, Creative Director of Lucifer Within Us

“The players should feel like Holmes, not Watson”

Late last year, on the 15th of December to be precise, we reviewed a very good (but short) mystery game called Lucifer Within Us. When I wrote that review, I also reached out to Kitfox Games, the studio behind the game, because I wanted to ask them some questions about it.

If you haven’t played Lucifer Within Us or heard of it, it’s a mystery solving game with a very unique timeline mechanic. You interview suspects, they give testimony, and you try to tease out the lies and omissions they give you. If you want to learn more about the game, we did a writeup on it! You can read that writeup here.

To my complete and utter shock, Kitfox responded to me! They helped me get in contact with Jongwoo Kim. Jongwoo Kim was the Creative Director on Lucifer Within Us and has also worked as a designer and gameplay programmer on several of their other projects, including Shrouded Isle. He was one of initial founders of Kitfox Games, but was no longer at Kitfox as of the time of this interview. He was kind enough sit down and answer some of my questions about what went into Lucifer Within Us, changes the game went through, and even some of the technical systems underlying the game’s unique timeline mechanic.

Challenges and Cuts – Part 1 of 4

Fritz Wallace: Can you tell me a bit about how the project started?

Jongwoo Kim: So Lucifer Within Us was the first time I had the Creative Director title. This was a point in studio development where we decided we should have two teams going at the same time. So Tanya, one of the other founders, continued to lead her project which became Boyfriend Dungeon. At the same time, I was leading Chronosight, which would eventually become Lucifer Within Us.

Fritz Wallace: It’s an interesting name.

Jongwoo Kim: And you can see why, right? The game’s fundamental mechanic is based around the timeline. At that point in time, the project had a much more Cyberpunk theme. What we determined though was that there are a lot of games that already had that aesthetic.

(Ed Note: Lucifer Within Us was being developed before the release of Cyberpunk 2077. Of course after it came out… well, you can read our “review” of Cyberpunk 2077 here. Kitfox was by no means the only developer who made choices to avoid competition with what at the time was still expected to be an absolute juggernaut.)

Jongwoo Kim: And so around the first year of the development of Lucifer Within Us, we discussed that internally, and came to the conclusion the project could have a much more unique direction. So we went back to the drawing board for the premise, while keeping the existing mechanics. And that’s when the final direction for Lucifer Within Us came forth.

The fundamental idea is digital exorcism. It feels inherently contradictory—

Fritz Wallace: It’s a really cool premise, and it’s something I’d never seen done before.

Jongwoo Kim: I’m super happy you liked it! I think it’s a very cool and unusual juxtaposition, and it brings up a lot of interesting questions. What happens in an futuristic theocracy? What happens when technology advances to the point that you can digitize aspects of a person? And how does that play out and interact with a lot of the questions and issues that tend to come up around spirituality?

The idea of being an inquisitor who exorcises demons became just such a pull once we arrived at that premise, and the team rallied and shifted to make that happen. But as cool as it was as a theme, it did lead to a lot of challenges.

A screen from the first case, showing off the timeline mechanic.

We were a small team. If I remember correctly, even today Kitfox is only 9 or so people. And to absolutely clear, I’m no longer part of Kitfox.

We had a small team, and this was our first 3D project. We underestimated some of difficulties around 3D game production. That, coupled with the theme change made things hard. For a cyberpunk theme, we could have bought assets from Unity Store, or maybe had some contracted work done. After all, a shipping container is a shipping container. There would have been more assets and options for re-use.

But the unique setting made this difficult. What does a futuristic theocracy look like anyway? It was virtually impossible to use any pre-existing assets, and that put a strain in our production pipeline. It made it difficult to have lot of content without overworking the team or going over budget, and there were challenges on that front.

I feel a bit regretful about it. It is a cool setting and I wish we did more to flesh out the experience the and the world.

Fritz Wallace: Were there any big changes in the scope of the game, as a result of those challenges?

Jongwoo Kim: I think everyone on the Dev team would tell you that if it was possible to have more content in the game, more cases, or more buildup to the finale, we would have done it. Whatever the situation, there was interest in having more at release. But as noted above, various factors didn’t line up.

So working under those limitations, we decided it was better to make a polished version of what we knew we could deliver, than taking the risk to add content we didn’t have time to polish. So as an example, sanctums were supposed to be more expansive in terms of what you can do.

Sanctums are the the internal mind and psyche of the NPCs in the game.

In an earlier stage in development, they would have been actual areas you could explore. That would be cool!

But given our limitations for 3D art production, implementing this was causing great strain. Each person would presumably have something different, right? And this is an abstract space. What does the internal mindscape of each of these characters look like? It added a lot of strain while not actually being critical to the mystery solving portion of the game. While you could argue it was essential to the premise of the game, it still ended up being cut.

Fritz Wallace: It sounds like it was a challenging project, and that versions of sanctums didn’t fit with the resources you had. Is that a part of why the released version of the game is somewhat short?

Jongwoo Kim: I think it would have been nice in the “Ideal” version of the game, if the sanctums hinted at the underlying psyche of the character. In retrospect though, we didn’t have the resources to commit to that mechanic.

I think if certain things had been different, such as if the team had gelled before, or if we had greater success at launch, it would have made sense for the studio to continue supporting the game. For example, new cases. I think that post-game content would likely have been the only way in which more content would actually end up in the game. But that’s not something that actually happened.

Of course, Sanctums weren’t the only cuts. This is a bit of a downer topic, for me at least, but it does have to do with what actually led to Lucifer Within Us.

This concludes part 1 of the interview. Part 2 will go up tomorrow. Jongwoo Kim discusses the idea at the heart of Lucifer Within Us, and how that influenced the rest of the game’s systems.

Perfect Heist 2

I like Perfect Heist 2. It’s a fantastic asymmetric deception game about robbing, or preventing the robbing of banks. So does that mean the game is as perfect as its name implies? No. It has a lot of problems. But it’s fun, and that’s really all that matters.

Writing the intro paragraph for this article is an exercise in deciding what watch list I want to get placed on. Do I make the joke about how the game is unrealistic because you get punished for killing civilians as a cop? Do I talk about how I love games that let me lie my way to victory? Do I talk about how my favorite thing in games like Project Winter is convincing someone to work with me, only to bludgeon them to death in an enclosed space once they’re out of earshot of the rest of the group and no one can hear their cries for help?

Do I just make all of them?

Oh right, I’m supposed to be writing about a game.

Perfect Heist 2 is a multiplayer deception game about robbing banks. Players join either the robbers or police, with the robbers trying to get as much money out of the bank as possible, while the police try to stop them. If the robbers successfully extract a certain amount of money and make a successful escape, the robber team wins. If time runs out, or all the robbers are killed, the cops win.

You’ll note that I didn’t say, “If the robbers kill all the cops, the robbers win.” It’s technically true, but is incredibly rare. This is because Perfect Heist 2 isn’t a game about running and gunning; it’s a game about being sneaky.

In addition to the human players in a game, there are also dozens of AI-controlled civilians. They generally just meander about, and don’t do very much, but they provide the cover for the robbers to infiltrate the bank. However, there are some things the AI won’t do. They won’t ever sprint, they won’t ever pick up money, and they open doors.

Perhaps most importantly though, they’ll never go into areas they aren’t supposed to be in. There are two general types of AI units: bank employees and civilians. Both types have different clothing patterns, and wearing the wrong outfit for the area you’re in is a great way to get shot in the head.

As a general rule of thumb, cops have more damage mitigation, and better guns, which means that if you, as a robber, get into a fair fight with a cop, you’re likely going to lose.

Secondly, unlike robbers, when a cop dies, they just respawn. There’s a shared a pool of lives for the cop team, and a recently respawned cop now knows where you are and what you look like. Cops can’t just go trigger happy though, because if a cop kills a civilian AI even by mistake, the cop instantly dies and can’t respawn.

Team balance also influences the general sneakiness of the game. The police can never have more players than the robbers, and usually have 2-3 fewer members. As a result, the teams consist of a larger number of players with no individual respawns and generally weaker stats (robbers) against a smaller number of players, with superior firepower and respawns, but a heavy penalty for misusing them (cops).

So let’s talk about how you actually steal money. Maps in Perfect Heist consist of the bank, the area surrounding the bank, and a few generic buildings around the bank that can’t be entered. The bank is the interesting part though, as it contains vaults, where a majority of the gold and cash needed to win is kept, along with jewelry, and secret documents, all of which can also be picked up for cash.

There are also ATMs, which can be hacked once to drop money. While the vaults need to be either blown open with charges, or unlocked with various specific classes, the other valuables can usually just be grabbed, albeit with some risks. For example, jewelry is usually in glass cases, and the sound of breaking glass is great way to broadcast where you are to every cop in a 3 mile radius.

TLDR: there are valuables littered all round the bank, and different classes have advantages for going after various types.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about classes. There are a lot of classes, both for the cops and robbers. Each class has starting weapons, a passive, and an activated ability.

In terms of actual playability, classes vary pretty heavily. Some are straightforward, like the Demo who can carry explosives without them being visible, or the Tech who can open all vaults after hacking three computers, and has a drone that can carry money bags. Some offer alternative playstyles, like the Crypto-Enthusiast, who can hack computers to install crypto miners, and generate passive cash, or the Fed Chairman who can quite literally print money.

Others are situational, like the Sniper. And some are just bad, like the Pickpocket, or Safecracker. It’s a pretty even split between those four groups. There’s enough variety to keep things fun, but some classes just don’t really function.

The same is pretty much true for the cops. Classes like Riot Control and Spy offer straightforward and always-useful mechanics. IT is situational: useful against classes that want to hack computers or ATMs, but doesn’t do much otherwise. Fed Chairman (no, not a typo, both cops and robbers can use this class) can increase the amount of money robbers need to steal in order to win and offers an alternate playstyle. And then there’s the Digital Forensics officer who…. can see how long ago a computer was hacked. It’s pretty pointless.

I do think the classes are part of the reason why I enjoy Perfect Heist 2, though. The different playstyles and options available mean that you’re not locked into a single strategy, and you can switch between rounds if it feels like something isn’t working. It adds a lot of replayability, and there’s also some interesting synergies (though these synergies tend to be more in favor of the robbers than the cops).

With all that covered, let’s talk about what I don’t like about the game. First, the game options menu is practically non-existent. Resizing your screen is advanced technology, so I hope you like playing in permanent fullscreen forever. Second, game balance. As a general rule, the game feels balanced. HOWEVER, the way team selection works means that you can get locked into having two teams of the same players go against each other over and over, with one team just crushing the other. Finally, the guns. The guns kind of suck. They feel slow and laggy. Aiming down sight is buggy and doesn’t always actually aim down sight, and shooting without aiming down the sight results in firing bullets somewhere within an 180 degree radius of where you were pointed.

These aren’t deal breakers. Honestly, if I could change anything about the game, it would be to fix some of the bugs, clarify wording for mechanics for a few abilities, and fix the options menu. If they did all of that, the game would be fantastic, as opposed to the ‘pretty good’ it currently is.

If this sounds fun, and the issues don’t sound like deal breakers, you can grab Perfect Heist 2 for $10 on Steam.