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Designing Spirit Island!

A designer's natural habitat

After four months of prototyping, it was time to make The Game. As my professor Boyd would say, my prototypes had provided some “nuggets of goodness” and were ready to be integrated into a full experience.

My design process looks something like this:

The record player puzzle had been an especially big hit. So I started thinking: how could I build out this puzzle so that way a player could pick it up and have a full experience completely in the app? How would I teach them the controls, their objective, and - most importantly - why they should care? What’s more, I wanted to give them a really juicy reward for figuring out the puzzle.


Constraints have been the mother of invention for me as of late, and now I had loads of them.

The game must:

  1. Set up the player OBJECTIVE immediately. (Read up on my deconstruction of Bioshock Infinite here to see why this is important)

  2. Deliver enough backstory to the player for them to understand WHY the objective is important.

  3. TEACH the player the controls in an elegant way.

  4. REWARD the player with a juicy payoff for solving the puzzle.

I had my own, ahem, ulterior motives to layer on top of these constraints. This is a portfolio piece, and I wanted it to show off my skills. These included:

  1. being able to craft an episodic narrative arc in the center of a larger story.

  2. writing natural dialogue that communicates backstory without the player feeling like they are being hammered by exposition.

  3. creating tutorials and UI that feel elegant.

  4. intoduce new mechanics through novel touchscreen interactions that add to the immersion in the game story. (Insert Edith Finch deconstruction here)

  5. Create a bangin’ puzzle that people get hooked on.

The entire semester has been first-person point-and-click, so I’d be sticking with that.

Next step...


Nothing left to do but figure out how to make all of these constraints work.

Brainstorming messiness

This time, I recruited my friend Jovan Ellis for a collaborative brainstorming sesh. He had his own game to work on, so we did two hours of brainstorming together on my game, then two on his. Whiteboards were certainly involved.

I walked away with the outline for the demo. It would be four parts:

  1. Introduction and tutorial: The player-character (PC) Emma would start off in the backseat of the Sheriff’s car en route to Emma’s father’s cabin. Emma and the Sheriff’s dialogue would provide casual and believable story exposition. A few interactable objects would allow the player to learn the (very simple) mechanics of the game.

  2. Part 1: “Getting to the Island.” The PC is dropped off outside of Spirit Island. They need to navigate down the path to the island. The bridge is out, which means that they need to find an alternate way across the water, allowing an opportunity for novel mechanics.

  3. Part 2: “The Gone Home Zone.” The PC enters her father’s cabin and is given license to poke around. The cabin is littered with environmental storytelling objects and the record player puzzle.

  4. Epilogue: A new area is opened up after the player has successfully completed the puzzle. Another opportunity to introduce a novel touchscreen mechanic.


At home now, I sat with my personal white boards (yes, I have those) and imagined the player experience through each of the four parts. I sketched out every screen, labelling every possible interaction: what would happen if they tapped here? What will the screen framing be like? I haven’t always storyboarded, and the poor programmer who had to implement the game (read: ME) suffered as a result. Now I spell it out in as much detail as possible.


There was one more step before I could start producing, and that was to PRIORITIZE. I had one month to build this demo completely on my own, so I had to be smart about it. I knew that the “Gone Home Zone” was the meat and potatoes of the game, so that would be where I would start. The prologue and epilogue were important to my goals as well, but players wouldn’t be spending as much time with them, so polish there was not as necessary. As for Part 1? After reviewing my goals and constraints, I realized that I didn’t actually need it, so I cut it then and there. I could always add it back in if I had some time left over. (HA!)

Next up is production, wherein I make a radical design change to the aesthetics of the game like a total maniac. Read on here!


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