A Rant About Winning

One of the stupidest things I’ve ever read about games was written by David Sirlin, a very smart game designer. He wrote it in a book that I picked up out of curiosity, and early on I encountered this quote.

I believe there is a great deal more of this “fun” to be had while playing to win than while only playing casually, but there is no use in entering that debate now.

David Sirlin

This was the quote where I put his book down, because it speaks to me of a fundamental misunderstanding about human beings. I’m going go through a fair number of anecdotes here, but I think every single one of them demonstrates that his point is wrong. They illustrate a variety of examples where Sirlin has completely ignored human behavior.

If you had board games or video games as a child, and had younger siblings, you likely had to play games with them. And if you did, you likely chose to throw games to keep them happy. Perhaps David Sirlin likes making his siblings cry. I didn’t. There’s no fun in crushing, or being crushed. This brings me to my second example.

In college, the dorm I lived in had Wii-U in the communal space, and it was used primarily for two things: Smash Bros and Just Dance. There was a set of two players who were simply much, much better at the game then everyone else present, and would often play against each other. At one point, one of them moved out, after which a funny thing happened: virtually no one wanted to play against that second player. The gap was simply too wide.

We often played Magic, AKA M:TG, in the dorm. Quite a few people played, and many had a variety of decks. One of the more popular formats was commander. I remember one particular game with 8 players, in which I got the following combo out.

For anyone keeping score at home: this combo destroys every single other card each player had in play, and would continue doing it every turn until someone stopped it.

Unsurprisingly, everyone scooped, and started a new game. I would not describe it as very “Fun”.

A few more quick ones: games like Diablo Immortal, where “Winning” is temporary, and based on spending cash. Playing games against newer players who you’re trying to introduce to the game.

There’s a reason that the Magic: The Gathering personas are Timmy, Jimmy, and Spike. Not every player is going to derive satisfaction from winning all the time. Sirlin’s thesis seems to be that “Every player should strive to be a Spike” which is one of the stupidest fucking things I’ve ever heard.

So why am ranting about this now? Sirlin’s book is 20 years old, there’s a zero percent chance anyone ever reads this post, and it’s not like any of this is relevant.

Well, I’m mostly ranting about this because of something someone said to me recently. I’ve been making Historic Brawl decks while trying to use every possible legal commander as a commander, and I got some feedback that I should make fewer decks, and more “good” decks. To this I have two responses.

First off, yes. Part of the reason I’m doing this is that it makes “easy” content. It’s much less effort to sit down, build a deck over a day or two, and then live stream myself playing it to YouTube 5 times a week than it is to spend a month tweaking and tuning a single good deck. Because guess what? I’ve spent two years writing things for this blog, doing interesting interviews, and here’s the sad truth: no one reads it.

I can play an entire fascinating indie game, spend a week doing a writeup, post it, tweet it, and it makes not GOD DAMN iota of difference. Nobody fucking wants good content. Everyone wants easy consistent content. We’d all rather have grey sludge every day than chocolate chip cookies once a week.

So yeah, if making shitty Magic decks every day and posting about them is what it takes to get an audience, I’ll do it. I started this blog so that I could avoid being shafted at conventions because I’m not an “influencer.” Don’t think for a second I’m not super passionate about games. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t still be writing this.

My grey slurry is making historic brawl decks with cards that aren’t good historic brawl commanders.

And secondly, some cards are just BAD. I ranted about how much I hate Jaxis as a commander recently. I’m currently trying to make a deck with Korlessa, Scale Singer. Not counting Korlessa, there are 26 TOTAL dragon cards in green/blue/colorless. Of those 26, maybe 6 are actually worth playing as bombs in Historic Brawl. So congrats, you go make a “good” deck based around a commander that offers absolutely nothing except the ability to see the top card of your deck, and do nothing with it.

I’d be in favor of arguing that Korlessa is just a worst version of Falco Spara, in both colors, statline, and abilities. There’s not even any REAL reason outside of flavor for Korelssa to be legendary. What are two copies gonna give you, two 1/4’s?

So when I encounter Korlessa, I have two choices. I can build a deck with those 26 dragons, and Maskwood Nexus/Whir of Invention, and I can try to do something interesting to show people.

Or I can build slurry. I can stuff the deck so full land ramp, return to hand, and counterspells that you could swap out commander to be Gretchen Titchwillow, and there would be literally no difference in playing the deck, except it would be better, because guess what, Gretchen Titchwillow is a better commander!

At which point, why bother? It’s not a Korlessa deck. It’s blue/green good stuff.

In conclusion: Winning is not always fun. Winning is not necessarily good content. David Sirlin is much smarter then me, a very good game designer, and his book reads like the 80 page manifesto at the end of Atlas Shrugged in terms of its relationship to a majority of the population.

An Interview with Jongwoo Kim, Creative Director of Lucifer Within Us – Part 4

This is final part 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 three, click here.

Headcanon, Scalpels, and Lessons Learned

Fritz Wallace: One of the things I mentioned in the writeup was that Lucifer Within Us does feel a bit short. Like, I solved the last case, and the big reveal happens, and I’m ready for the next part… and then credits roll. Was the game intended to be a setup for the next part of the adventure after those first three cases?

Jongwoo Kim: In my headcanon, Ada goes off and it’s a longer adventure in that world to find those acolytes, and exorcise each one. It would be much more episodic. LWU as it is almost functions as an origin story for this world, and Ada, to set up the other “Books” in the series, if we were using Sherlock Holmes as an example. I would love for her to go on more adventures.

Fritz Wallace: Another lore question, if you don’t mind. Is Ada’s ability to use the timeline a supernatural, or a technical ability? Or is it something else?

Jongwoo Kim: I think that’s an excellent question. She’s an exorcist, but what makes her special? When we initially envisioned the project, when the timeline was created, it was meant to be a mind’s-eye sort of thing. It’s someone replaying in their mind. But that was when it was one of multiple tools the player had access to.

Given how dominant it became, I don’t we ever really decided “how” it worked. I think if it was an actual supernatural ability, we would have had some visual of her engaging in the timeline mode, but we didn’t do that. So I think the reality of the game that we actually delivered is that Ada is just visualizing it in her head. It’s not magic, a special technology, or supernatural ability, it’s a skill she has. At the same time, given the setting, I can see why folks might view it as one of the first three.

Let me put it this way. Something I really wanted to avoid doing was… I feel very frustrated with Quantic Dream-style mystery adventure stuff. Occasionally the player gets amazing abilities. In Heavy Rain, the Agent gets Ari, where he can go into his own world, and solve stuff. But you can only do that when the player is allowed to. The game decides when you can do that.

It raises the question “Without this ability, is the Agent a worse detective?”
I didn’t want to diminish Ada, and by extension the player, by implying that this is just a trick, or magic. I wanted the player feel like they solved the case through their sheer intellect.

The only concession and supernatural ability is the ability to exorcise demons, and to enter the sanctums of the suspect. So, in that way, she doesn’t have any other supernatural crime solving abilities, because that would be truer to her character, and the spirit of the game.

Fritz Wallace: I feel like the game did that really well. Throughout the whole game, there was only one moment of adventure game logic: that bit in the second case where you have to pick up the scalpel, and then give it to the doctor to have them perform an autopsy.

Jongwoo Kim: God, that scalpel. Yeah, that case has a long history, and lot of iterations. I’m not super happy with how the scalpel stuff was implemented in the end. So I sympathize with you there.

I do want to comment on that a little bit. One of our challenges was figuring out if problems in the game were due to UI, or to mechanics. One of the things we ended up doing over time was simplifying down interactions you can take with a character. So instead of asking or presenting, it would be just one action.

Generally we wanted to avoid what you called “Adventure Game Logic”. Shouldn’t Ada be able to perform the autopsy herself? In terms of the scalpel, in terms of trying to ship with the assets we had, we ended up going that direction [having the doctor perform the autopsy]. If I could, I’d have Ada examine or autopsy the body herself.

Fritz Wallace: You’ve mentioned a few games whose mechanics you don’t feel do mystery very well. Were there any other games or stories that did influence Lucifer Within Us? I feel like the default suggestion is something like Sherlock Holmes.

Jongwoo Kim: So, as far as Holmes influence, I don’t think any specific case or book influenced the game. But it was important to me, as far as player experience or the dream of the game. The phrase I kept repeating during development as “The player should not feel like Watson, the player should feel like Holmes.”

I often feel that in a lot of mystery games, the rug is pulled from underneath you. As much as I like Dapangropa, I get frustrated with every debate, because it’s like “Oh my god, you’ve been withholding a critical piece of information the whole time. I could not have known the solution, or I could guess, but given the evidence in my log, I could never have solved this case the way you wanted me to with the given mechanics.”

In that way, Holmes is a big inspiration. While I complain about the Frogwares Holmes games, in some ways, Holmes had a very kinetic style of investigation. He got into scuffles, he was at the scene of the crime. Ada is distinct from that. It’s a very clean investigation, followed by exorcism. But within the space of the investigation, there’s no field work other than the scene of the actual crime.

So, for character and experience, Holmes was a big influence. Beyond that, Phoenix Wright for the contradiction system.

Fritz Wallace: It’s interesting, since it’s such a clean investigation, relative to a lot of other things.

Jongwoo Kim: It is a little ironic that to do that idea, we had to change the idea to be about the supernatural. I’m super happy with it too! But a part of me does wonder if it would have made a stronger mystery game [if it had maintained it’s Cyberpunk theme] even if the project is more interesting and compelling as a result of its unique setting. But I don’t know. I would love to try to make something with the timeline mechanic again to be sure.

Fritz Wallace: One thing that did happen to me was that the game gives you 3 demons, and by the third case, there’s only one demon you haven’t exorcised yet. So it feels like it gives the game away a bit.

Jongwoo Kim: I mean. I see it both ways.

On one hand, I think it’s inevitable that if a game has an overarching arc, the player gets some sense of it. I think rewarding them on that front is good. So at some level, I’m happy if an astute player can see what happens in the third case ahead of time.

At the same time, I was surprised by how many people were caught off guard by the victim of the third case, because they thought the abbot was set up to be the big bad, or what not.

If I learned nothing else, I learned that it’s quite hard to predict how someone else will perceive the intended arc of a mystery. And I think that makes it interesting from a mystery design standpoint. It indicates there’s more to explore, and different levels of challenge one can design, without overwhelming the player.

Fritz Wallace: I will say, I didn’t get the overarching structure of the game, with the spear and whatnot, until the second time I played it, and went “Oh, that’s how it all comes together.”

Jongwoo Kim: Awesome. Well, I’m glad that worked for you on the second playthrough for sure.

Fritz Wallace: I think that’s pretty much everything I had to ask. This is the part where if you want to give a shout out, or mention a current project, this would be the ideal place to do that.

Jongwoo Kim: Well, I definitely have something cooking right now, but it’s not ready to show yet. I’m excited to unveil it to the world, and it’s coming soon.

Fritz Wallace: Well, I’m looking forward to it. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me!

Lucifer Within Us is available for PC on Steam. If this interview has made you interested, you can find it here!

An Interview with Jongwoo Kim, Creative Director of Lucifer Within Us – Part 3

This interview is part three 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 two, click here.

Technical Troubles of Transforming Time

Fritz Wallace: Lucifer Within Us has an incredibly unique timeline mechanic that allows you replay and see what each suspect claims to have been doing at any given point in time, and to rewind and move around. How does that system work?

Jongwoo Kim: I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but most games with a replay system won’t let you rewind. For example, if you watch a replay of a game like StarCraft, or an RTS, it’s usually not actually a replay, it’s just a recording of all the button presses.

But for Lucifer Within Us, because the player needs to be able to smoothly rewind, we had to record the animation data for anyone point in time, in addition to recording all the animations and false testimony for any given point in time. And in addition to that recording, we had to make sure all of this was consistent with the audio for any given point in time.

For example, if Gideon says one thing, but is located somewhere else, it won’t be a smooth experience. So you have to be sure when things are going to play, aligning your time cube.

It’s actually a weird technical challenge that isn’t done often. It’s the kind of thing I’m quite proud of, like a very cool toy sort of thing. It’s quite satisfying for me to be able to rewind things back and forth, and see the characters move around.

Fritz Wallace: I’m curious about this, since I’ve done a small amount of work with Unity myself. What made it so difficult?

Jongwoo Kim: So certain parts are Unity specific, but the bigger problems are “How do you make a system where the player can rewind to any point, at any time, and still have it make sense?” And there are quite a few problems.

The first one is logistics. How do you ensure a character’s movements are believable and make sense if the player can watch every moment of what they’re doing? Especially if what they’re doing a lie. The simple solution is to have them idle for a large amount of time once they reach what they’re doing.

Before we implemented rapid scrolling/skipping, it was frustrating for the player experience to watch everything happen slowly, when you have idling like that. But if we’re assuming that the player should be able to navigate at any point in time (which is what you’d want to be able to do as an investigator), there are other weird challenges.

For example, characters say their lines, but that won’t necessarily line up with the length of a given section of movement. Initially we had extensive testimony lines, but we realized players don’t want read paragraphs of text. Also, any text that’s not explicitly describing the actions being taken tended to be misleading, and players wanted to ask questions. There needed to be coherence between what was spoken, what was happening, and what was seen.

But all of this still has to align with the logistics of the case, how the character gets there, and be continuous, because it’s a timeline. So the solution we came up with was that we had an editor built on top of Unity, that would allow us to record the case from beginning to end for every possible variant. And there are additive variants, it’s not like it’s just every single variation. So you’d have the vague testimony for every character, the true timeline for every character, and then every layer in between.

Fritz Wallace: So for example, in the third case, where each of three suspects has to still line up and make sense at any point in their stories.

Jongwoo Kim: So yeah, those three paths have to happen, but you have to keep in mind, sometimes the timing of objects involved in the case changes too. For example, in Gideon’s case, when and how he manipulates the coronet changes the testimony and outcome. The same is true of Abraham and the shovel. So you have to make sure certain objects disappear from the timeline, and only appear when they’re speaking.

The coronets explosion example, she (Alex Bull, 3D Artist) had to make an animation, and then adapt the animation so it’s rewindable, but with the pieces still appearing and being discoverable on the ground.

If you go back and look at everything side by side and where things are, you actually might notice a few small changes. There are some errors, and we tried to be very careful about avoiding them, but it was very tricky. We also discovered during testing that certain players are much more obsessive about certain errors then others. In the first case, the glass door and its position at the start of the case would frustrate players, because the door ends the testimony closed, but if it was open when the player gets there, it raises questions about who opened it, because someone must have.

And so any error like that in the recordings became frustrating to players because it both throws the player off, and breaks that sense of being a detective. The vision of the game was for the player to use everything they see, and figure out the answer themselves. It was damaging and misleading when we made mistakes like that.

From a very tech point, and this is Unity specific. There’s no built-in system in Unity that supports rewinding animations for the duration of the cases we have. While Unity does have a system that can work for 2 minutes in length, there was no guarantee that our cases would be under 2 minutes. It also has further restrictions: i.e., can only record during run-time. So a player would have to watch full case normal speed 1 before that system was usable.

So we had to figure out another way. I won’t go too much into details, since I’m not sure that’s interesting to anyone who isn’t trying to perfectly recreate the system in Unity. There was an alternative animation system available in the Unity made by the developers that allows you to play any animation arbitrarily. And so by using that system, and then another way to capture either every frame, or however many intervals you wanted, to take a snapshot of a character, their exact animation state, what they were holding. And we’d take snapshot after snapshot, and then using those snapshots, we didn’t have to use Unity’s animation system any more. And using those snapshots, we could interpolate between the states.

It’s a bit strange to say snapshots though, because that makes it seem like it’s an actual film in a way, right? But in reality, it’s still taking place in the physicals space of the game, the characters still are moving around, and have physical properties.

In the ideal world, I would have wanted it so you could just reverse time whenever you wanted. If someone threw an object, you would just have the physics system run in reverse, accelerate it in the other direction. But because the player could skip around to any moment in time, and physics going backward is not something Unity supports, the approach we took was different, by recording at every major interval and interpolating, and taking enough snapshots that it looks smooth.

Fritz Wallace: That’s a pretty intense technical challenge.

Jongwoo Kim: Yeah, I don’t think the studio ever talked much about the technology we built for this project, but it is certainly something weird and unique about the game.

Fritz Wallace: So it seems like a lot of effort was put into both designing these systems and making them work technically, which is fairly impressive.

Jongwoo Kim: Yup.

Fritz Wallace: Would you ever want to make more games using the timeline mechanics? Or more games in that setting?

Jongwoo Kim: Yeah, so if I were given the opportunity to revisit that world, I’d really love to. Would I like to revisit those mechanics, whether it was using that IP or not? My answer would be a careful “Yes”.

While we didn’t milk everything we could out of it, in terms of logistics and mechanics, it’s a very particular setup. In the sense of, not just the implications of the mechanics, as much as the logistics of making a game like that work. In order for that to happen, since I no longer have access to the code base, I’d have to rebuild a lot of things. And that’s the main thing I’d be reluctant to do.

If I could, I’d love to make more cases. I think a timeline based approach has a lot more space to be explored. I also think some of the choices we made for Lucifer Within Us do restrict some future possibilities because of the narrative commitments of that project. I’m very happy with those narrative commitments, but at the same time a digital exorcist needs to exorcise demons. So we have to provide demons, and that narrows the possibilities compared to a traditional investigator. I don’t think that pertains to the timeline though.

This concludes part 3 of the interview. The final part will go up tomorrow and involves the games lore, headcannon, and some of the lessons learned from the project.

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.