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subrosa-newYesterday I began the retrospective on Sub Rosa. Today I’m getting to the fun stuff and discussing the puzzles that made the grade. Expect all the spoilers you could ever wish for.


We try to do something different each time, and that means thinking of a novel mechanic and a novel setting. The nature of the puzzles then flow out of that setting. Basic puzzlecraft is relatively straightforward: you think of something the player wants, and then you add a complication to getting it. It’s best if the solutions to these complications use existing elements. Most items should have multiple uses especially if the mechanic is unique. In Sub Rosa there’s all the usual suspects (hidden doors, codes, research, object manipulation, burning, throwing etc.) but there were also a few more standout elements:

  • The refresher. This is the first artefact I came up with and the best. The refresher is a device for taking an object back in time three days. This time-reversal mechanic is neatly contained and is used for at least three of the puzzle-chains. Indeed, the idea of unburning a letter suggested the whole notion of searching out secrets to begin with. We always try at least one unique mechanic and this was Sub Rosa’s.

  • The movable secret rug. This started out as a bug which became a feature. Originally it was just a rug that concealed a stairway down, in playtesting we discovered that you could take the rug and open up a stairway elsewhere in the house. I thought that was a marvellous idea, so we implemented it robustly and scrapped a weak solution involving a trough in favour of looking under the rose with the rug.

  • Reverse alchemy. For the longest time, the magical metal in the game was just a placeholder name ‘Melvinium’. When I made it lead, the whole occult setting clicked into place. Setting the game in a fifth wondrous age (after the ages of gold, silver, bronze, and iron), and making lead the significant metal of the age, I was able to cohere lots of the different background strands together. This culminated in the delicious moment where the player has to turn gold into lead. This deep reversal of expectations in both theme and puzzle pushed the game for me from being a goofy treasure-hunt into something more significant.

  • The library. Originally, all the books were there mostly just to hide the one book you wanted. They were just going to expand on the weird setting and backstory of the game if you were interested. But in the process of writing the other secrets there were several occasions where I’d have to info-dump why such-and-such was a secret, and so instead of doing that I made them into research puzzles using the library. Usually in games, either only one or two books can be consulted, or an entire library is consultable as if it were a single book. Actually implementing all the books in a library is a bit more unusual. If I had infinite time and patience, there’d be 10x as many books (101 barely covers a bookcase in real life).

  • Smells. This isn’t wholly unique, but every object has a unique scent. This is just because a few things had a smell and so I ended up implementing smells for everything as an additional means of conveying hints and setting details to the curious player. Both the books and the smells of things were implemented entirely using tables, which made writing and testing a lot easier.

[Tomorrow I’ll be discussing the puzzles that didn’t make the grade.]