Time for a Timeline

August 11, 2017

Later this year the Sleuthhounds Christmas adventure game releases. Among the gifts it contains (it is a Christmas game after all) is the return of the venerable timeline puzzle from earlier Sleuthhounds games. It was pointed out to me on multiple occasions that the most recently released game, The Halloween Deception didn’t include a timeline puzzle to solve. Such a puzzle didn’t really fit that game but it does fit this newest game and so…it’s back!

[The newest timeline puzzle in progress.]
The newest timeline puzzle in progress.
Click to view larger.

Timeline puzzles are a little tricky to develop, but they’re worth it for several reasons. Aside from the obvious – that players seem to enjoy them – the timeline puzzles are a good way to put across exposition and backstory.

When you think about a typical detective story you actually have two stories going on. You have the story about the crime itself and the suspects who are directly affected by that crime. You also have the second story which is the detective or the detectives coming in to learn all about the first story in order to solve the crime. Since detective stories are usually seen from the detective’s point of view, this means there’s a lot of exposition about the non-detective story that has to be put across. In something like a novel or a movie this exposition is usually done through long dialog scenes of the detective interrogating suspects.

With the timeline puzzle in the Sleuthhounds games, I can provide players with a little bit of exposition and then have them directly piece together the events of the story. Ultimately this is still conveying exposition and backstory but because it’s done in an interactive way it’s (hopefully) more interesting than might otherwise be the case.

For the timeline puzzles the player first has to gather facts about the events that have happened in the case being investigated. Those events then need to be arranged in chronological order within the timeline to draw conclusions about the crime that has been committed. For some events, the game gives the time those events happened. For other events, the player has to figure out where they fit in the timeline based on their relative time as compared to other events. For example, if dinner was at 6:00 then the dinner event can be placed directly at 6:00. If dessert happened after dinner then the dinner event must be placed first before the dessert event can be placed on the timeline after it.

The tricky thing with developing timeline puzzles is that they involve multiple parallel timelines. This means there has to be enough events in each of these timeline “lanes” that, when one event is placed relative to another, players can figure out the exact relationship. Following from the dessert example, the player may know that dessert happened after dinner but did it happen right after dinner or much later in the evening? More events may be needed to pin that down.

It becomes a bit of a balancing act figuring out how many events the player can place directly in the timeline (i.e. have a fixed time associated with them) and how many events are placed relative to those fixed events. Too few fixed events and it doesn’t feel like the player is making progress because they have to get so many other events in place before things start locking down. Too many fixed events and the puzzle isn’t challenged because everything immediately locks into place.

On top of the technical considerations of building the puzzle there are also the story considerations. It’s not just enough to have arbitrary events in the timeline. Those events, when properly arranged, need to convey the story that the detectives are investigating. All of this means that the timeline puzzles tend to come into the games fairly late in the development process. In fact, in the Christmas game the timeline puzzle is the last major puzzle sequence I’m implementing into the game. Once it’s in place, it’s on to refining the game, fixing all the outstanding bugs, and giving it a proper title other than “the Christmas game.”

On that note, the timeline puzzle has been really helpful to me because it has, in fact, helped me settle on the title for the game:

[Sleuthhounds: The Yuletide Tail]

I had thought of the title “The Yuletide Tale” early on in development. Since the Sleuthhounds series deals with anthropomorphic animals I was also thinking “The Yuletide Tail”. I felt the latter might be a little too punny even for me. However, then I started working on the timeline puzzle.

In previous games, the timeline puzzle has been used to sort out the whereabouts of various suspects. In The Yuletide Tail, our fearless detectives Jane Ampson and Pureluck Homes have to piece together the history of two other characters, in essence having to follow or tail those other two characters. Once I made that tailing connection I knew the game couldn’t be called anything else.

So spread the word, Sleuthhounds: The Yuletide Tail is coming to Windows PCs this Christmas.