Link to play our game: itch.io
[Please don’t play in incognito mode!]
redFlag is a fun, memey dating simulator in which the player has to embark on a series of dates with Stanford students to discover who killed Jim, the player’s roommate. We initially wanted to create a dating simulator for Stanford students that captures the struggles of dating on campus and humorizes the types of personalities commonly found at the school. We also wanted to incorporate a ‘murder mystery’ aspect to make it a bit more outrageous and capitalize on the ‘memey’ nature of the game.
The premise of the game is that the player’s roommate, Jim, was murdered at Lake Lagunita and went on a series of Hinge dates prior to his death. The player’s responsibility is to go on 3 different dates with Jim’s ex-romantic interests to discover any new pieces of information that could help reveal the murderer’s identity. Certain dialogues that the player chooses reveal more clues than some others – eventually, after going on the 3 dates, the player can pick which individual to incriminate based on the information that they’ve gathered from the 3 dates.
Throughout the game, we’ve incorporated a lot of pieces of information and clues/puzzles that the player can solve. We wanted the player to be engaged in the game outside of choosing dialogues and wanted the story to be immersive.
When we initially started brainstorming for our game, there were 2 game ideas that immediately stood out to us. One was a dating simulator based off of Stanford stereotypes, inspired by Amy Lo’s introduction of “the Ratchelor”, and the second one was a murder mystery that occurred at Lake Lagunita. Immediately, it was clear to us that the space that we wanted to work with in our game was Stanford’s campus and we wanted to adopt a more comedic approach. We found that the game idea that we were most interested in pursuing was at the intersection of our 2 big ideas.
Initially, we wanted to focus more on the dating simulator aspect and make the identity of the murderer really obvious. We chose 3 stereotypes to represent Stanford students – startup oriented students, really geeky cs students, and students in greek life. The dialogues were very outrageous, and we weren’t focused on developing a fleshed out plot: our main focus was creating content that was relatable to our audience, especially because we know that a lot of Stanford students complain about the dating scene on campus.
However, we soon realized after a couple of playtests that our graphics and general story line were funny to our players, but they weren’t quite engaging. We realized that our game would be a lot more captivating if we invested more time into the storyline and made identifying the murderer a lot more difficult.
The biggest challenge of developing a narrative based game, especially of the murder mystery genre, was creating a coherent storyline that pieced together our characters, tropes and spaces naturally, while still maintaining pace and suspense. We used this system map to draw out the intended path for our players through the game.
We divided the game’s elements into mechanics controlled by the game and ‘narrator’ (in yellow), characters in pink, hints in greyscale and decisions split into friendly and unfriendly paths. Red, green and pink notes were those that were in the players’ controls while the rest were coded into the game by us. Keeping in mind loops and arcs, we segregated these elements into parts of different arcs in the storyline and grouped them in a way that made sense to the typical flow and structure of a story.
We then used this overarching structure to flesh out what mechanics would be best left to the user and what should be encoded into the game. This decision process led to the idea of having a chatbot style predefined dialog option game that would ensure that the game converges but would still give players room for exploration and discovery.
Formal Elements & Values
We intended for this game to be played individually, functioning almost like an interactive book with storylines and where characters are explored and discovered. Keeping it single-player makes it entertaining and playable in any context at any time and allows players to experiment with pace, paths and narratives without being bogged down by time constraints and the accountability that fellowship can often entail.
We’re labeling the game as a dating-sim-murder-mystery but the game largely falls in the bucket of satire, with the story, characters, and locations being an exaggerated caricature of people and tropes at Stanford. We used the mystery to tie these elements together and give them a plot while still maintaining the sarcasm and satirical aspects of the game’s humor.
The objective of the game is to determine the correct sequences of dialog and exchange between their character and the characters in the game in order to obtain the appropriate clues to solve the mystery of their roommate’s murder. This also involves solving puzzles that have been woven into the narrative and piecing together hints and evidence they might find along the way.
The outcome is zero-sum: either the players solve the mystery or they do not. They always have the option to restart the game or revisit narratives that might help them discover clues they might have missed.
Since much of the narrative relies on pre-existing stereotypes and the assumption of shared context, the only resources we present to players are in the form of vague clues and strategically placed emblems that lead to puzzles. While the story itself might be more entertaining for someone with all the required context, we wanted to create a game that was playable for everyone, not just Stanford students. Thus, the stereotypes were designed to toe the line between highly specific references and generalizable archetypes, making it fun AND funny for everyone.
While developing the story for this game, we wanted to ensure that we were being mindful of pacing by really fleshing out the loops and arcs that constitute the narrative.
We wanted to maintain the classic linear structure of mystery novels and lore by keeping scenes distinctive enough to build up to the climax. However we also wanted to incorporate the repetitiveness of games and ensure that redfLAG maintained the mechanical momentum of digital games by having users play through the ‘dates’ loop. These loops were also constructed to pay off similarly in that users would gain clues once they took the ‘friendly’ path to the end of each date. The loops allow players to figure out this pattern through the first one or two dates, making the play of the final date easier.
We also included the evidence arc as a separate step to account for the time the player might take to solve the puzzle formed by the hints. Each arc has different actions, objectives and learnings that lend themselves to building a story with variety and excitement.
Space & narrative
Since our game is intended for Stanford students, we wanted to make the narrative centered around Stanford’s campus. The locations that we chose for the dates weave in with the stereotypes. We chose Coupa at Green library for the startup girl because a lot of VCs typically frequent that area; Huang basement for the CS nerdy guy because a lot of engineering students work there; party setting at a frat for the frat guy because it’s his dorm.
While the primary function of these background location choices is exploration and spatial variance, we really wanted to ensure that we were using space as a device in the narrative that conveyed intentionality and function.
These choices built on Ernest Adams Gamasutra’s idea that comedic effect, familiarity and cliches could be secondary functions of game architecture without being in-your-face comedic devices. Date with a CS nerd at CoHo? Pretty predictable. But a date in Huang basement is so unexpected (and terrible) that it is typically perceived as funny. Given our target audience, these images, even statically, evoke comical associations by leveraging familiarity with building on campus and locational cliches like startup being born at Coupa.
We designed redfLAG to be as intuitive as possible, giving that it’s of the playable format and has preset dialogs for most things that prevent the player from wandering too far from the solution. Playable parts are just clickable dialogs and typically require zero onboarding except for the context of the story which we provide at the very beginning of the game.
Types of fun
There are 3 main types of fun that we incorporate into RedFlag: narrative, challenge, and discovery. Our entire game revolves around the premise that the player’s roommate was murdered at Lake Lag after going on a series of Hinge dates. Outside of exaggerated stereotypes, all of the dates offer similar types of information that leads to the identity of the murder. This narrative fuels the purpose of the game. We also add ‘challenge’ to our game by offering the player clues and pieces of information that they need to use to solve the game. The clues contain puzzles that the players need to solve to reveal the murderer’s identity – this forces the player to critically think and piece together all of the elements of the game. Lastly, our game has elements of ‘discovery,’ because the main objective of the game is to discover who the killer is.
Playtesting and Iteration
- Is the premise coupled with the interactive fiction-style of the game engaging and fun for players?
- Where should the balance be between interrogating date prospects and buttering them up like in a normal dating sim?
For our first iteration, we created our initial slice of the game by coding up the first date with the “start-up guy” and wanted to use it as a test run for the date interaction style of the game. The assets that we utilized were just placeholders found from around the Internet and we mostly just focused on answering the core guiding questions above.
Consequently, we ran our first playtest with Julia Kadie. While she found the game fun and interesting, she noted that it was excessively text-heavy. Additionally, Julia requested more emphasis on the dating/buttering up aspect, which would be integrated into subsequent iterations.
- Does the narrative flow well and make logical sense? Is it interesting enough?
- Are the clues too easy or too difficult, and do they fit into the context of the narrative?
For our second iteration, we had finished most of the script and so, was able to put both the “CS guy” and now “start-up girl” into the Renpy gameplay, but kept the frat guy out of the playthrough and on Twine because we were still updating the script for his story. With this iteration, we began to incorporate the clue element into the game and wanted to test the difficulties of the clues as well as see if the narrative flowed along with these hints. Again, because of the importance of the narrative for our game, we wanted to continue adjusting and adapting our script to see if it was interesting enough and if the plotline made sense to the players.
We conducted several playtests with Julie, Amy, and Krishnan. The feedback we received indicated that we were currently on the right track but that the narrative needed more complexity to keep players engaged. We were encouraged to lean heavier onto classic Stanford troupes of what it means to be a CS student, start-up founder, or a frat guy on campus and to make the dialogue even more satirical / humorous. Additionally, the playtesters found the clues to be too obvious and pointed out a logical fault in one of the puzzles. Krishnan noticed that all of the conversations with the “dates” pointed to the “frat guy” as the suspect, which made the plot a bit less interesting as it became far too obvious. We also received feedback that the text elements could be broken even further into smaller pieces to be less text heavy. Lastly, because we hadn’t really updated our assets yet, it was suggested that we unify the artwork under a single artistic style rather than have several conflicting designs throughout the game.
- Have we finalized all the scripts and effectively emphasized the humor aspect in the game?
- Is the hint system now more complex and multi-step, rather than overly obvious?
In the final iteration, we focused on polishing the game based on the feedback we received. We leaned further into the humor aspect, adding a lot more satirical references and humor into the script to really highlight the nature of the game . We also reworked the hint system to provide a more intricate and multi-step puzzle, ensuring that players would have to think critically to progress. Players now need to solve a cryptic puzzle, which will lead to a new dialogue option with the “CS guy” that will provide additional clues as to who the true suspect is. We hope that this addition will make the mystery far less obvious while further adding to the puzzle element of the game. Additionally, we made the decision to change the suspect to the start-up girl, aligning it with the modified hint system and narrative direction we had developed. Lastly, we changed the narrative and dialogue of the characters so that the player is encouraged to suspect various characters throughout the interactions with the various NPCs in a loop-like fashion, so that the suspect isn’t immediately obvious and the game becomes more intriguing.
We playtested our game with several new playtesters and wanted to summarize the feedback and experiences of two primary playtesters below:
We noticed that he tried to click on the date profile cards instead of the provided options. He observed and liked that the background images changed based on the character. Unfortunately, he also attempted to call the police early after dating the startup girl and the frat guy.
Humorously, Hyunseok admitted to insulting and interrogating every character, highlighting an engaging interaction with the game’s dialogue. During his interaction with the CS startup girl, he chose upfront options and continuously grilled her due to a sense of suspicion. However, as he progressed through the dates, he sought ways to speed up the process by looking for “skip” options and expressed a wish to exit the date at some point.
When it came to the clues, he encountered confusion regarding whether to save the access key, unsure if it would be available later in the game. In addition, Hyunseok experienced some difficulty in figuring out how to obtain and utilize the clues. Furthermore, he suggested indicating which dialogue choices have been visited before when revisiting characters.
Dylan expressed an interest in playing mind games with the startup girl during the date, which was amusing, but he admitted to being unsure about the game’s premise, suggesting a need for clearer exposition. In addition, he found the amount of text in the game overwhelming and expressed a desire to skim through it, similar to Hyunseok. He wanted to reach the answer faster and opted to grill the dates for information, finding both the startup girl and the frat guy suspicious. Notably, in grilling the dates, Dylan believed that the upfront strategy was effective in his gameplay experience, even though it was actually doing the opposite.
Unfortunately, Dylan ended up accusing the wrong suspect, indicating a need for clearer guidance and a more explicit understanding of success / failure. He suggested that the game should provide more hints and inform the player about their role in finding clues. Specifically, he recommended providing a hint for finding clues on the first date to set the tone for the rest of the dates.
Incorporating the feedback from both playtesters, “redfLAG” could primarily benefit from a clearer exposition of the premise and investigative mechanics, streamlined text, a refined hinting system, visual indicators for previously selected options, and a revamp of the clue system so that it’s a bit less difficult. These enhancements would contribute to a more immersive experience that doesn’t feel like it drags along as much. We plan to incorporate some of these suggested changes into our final 2.0 version before we submit the project as a whole.
In addition, if we had more time to fully flesh out the project, we would have loved to incorporate some of the amazing audio that Emilio had fleshed out as well as added in a few more “dud” characters that further play into the humorous Stanford tropes we often see on campus.
Overall, our team had a super fun time working on this project! During our first meeting as a team, we were just throwing around ridiculous concept ideas and the idea of a dating simulator / murder mystery had randomly come up. Looking back, it’s hilarious to see how that idea, inspired by Amy’s (the CA) introduction of the Ratchelor, has come this far into its final form. All in all, our team is super proud of what we’ve created and we hope that you enjoy playing our game as much as we’ve enjoyed developing this satirical dating sim!