Matthew Gatland

Spirits in Auckland - discussion

October 14, 2012

This is a puzzle trail I worked on in December 2011.

I wanted to take a break from making digital games, and make something that had players interact with the real world.

The game is inspired by Message from Z, an alternate reality game set in San Francisco. The 'fill in the letters' puzzles of my game are directly copied from the puzzle trails in Message from Z.

Writing the game

This game took a lot longer than I thought it would. I don't yet know if this is just because of inexperience working on this kind of game, or if it is just naturally more time consuming than I thought.

Scouting for suitable locations was the first challenge. While San Francisco is a city densely packed with intersections, Auckland has a lot of long roads with few intersections. These are not great settings for a puzzle trail because the player has to walk a long way between being able to choose which way to go next.

I used Google Maps to try to find places in Auckland with lots of 'decision points' close together. I wanted the player to start their journey and quickly find themselves somewhere where they did not expect to end up.

Once I found a suitable location, I took photos of anything along the way that could be used as a clue.

Creating the missing letter puzzles was also more time-consuming than I expected. The time-consuming parts were in keeping track of which letters the player had and didn't have, and making sure that every 'clue' the player found was actually used somewhere.

Formatting the PDF to look nice was also time consuming for me, so I created an initial draft with rougher, plain-text formatting, to use on my first few playtesters.


I watched a few playtesters play the game.

This showed two main problems:

Story - the paranomal themes arrived too late, and seemed out of place when they did. I've since revised the game so that it's obvious from the start that this is a story about ghosts.

Puzzles - once the playtesters collected some letters, they liked to skip ahead through the whole document and fill in the letters that they found.

I didn't want them to do this, because it results in them reading the whole trail and spoiling the surprises.

Message from Z has a solution to this problem. The trail is broken into sections, and letters collected in one section are not used in later sections. (Letters in the first section are labelled a1, a2, a3 and so on. The second section uses b1, b2, etc.) This stops the player from skipping ahead.

I haven't changed the trail to solve this problem, mainly because it would be a lot of work - I would have to rewalk the trail, find new 'clues' and redo all the puzzles.

A later playtester found an interesting issue - one of the plaques that I asked the player to read from has been removed! I guess the real world is like that. I have worked around the problem in the new release of the game.

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