WORDS LEFT UNSAID

WORDS LEFT UNSAID DEVELOPMENT PROCESS –
JUMP TO FOLLOWING:

Words Left Unsaid is a noir mystery game about a detective, an author, and a haunted hotel.

They say the sensational crime-fiction author Sandra Axton has murdered a young criminal —  Jay Rayner. You, detective Spencer Byrne get yourself assigned to the case to get Sandra’s name cleaned up.

You arrive to the familiar Hotel Lexicon to investigate the crime scene, knowing you cannot allow yourself to fail. However, the hotel welcomes you into its arms with an unexpected twist.

Explore the different rooms of Hotel Lexicon to investigate the clues behind the weird occurrences in the hotel, and figure out what happened to Sandra Axton. Your choices matter — who knows what will happen… if you cannot solve the mystery.


Words Left Unsaid is published on itch.io, and is available for Windows for free:

My main responsibilities in the Words Left Unsaid team were the overall creative direction, game design and narrative design. In addition to those, I directed the voice actors, illustrated and implemented the game’s cut-scenes, as well as designed the UI assets.

Words Left Unsaid was pitched in the Aalto University Game Design and Production MA course by me and Laura Rantonen – after being chosen for production, it was developed in 8 weeks, and released on December 2020. Words Left Unsaid also gained attention amongst indie game-youtubers and was well received.

CREDITS:

Development:

Virpi Väinölä
Rolands Tiss
Pietu Arvola
Laura Rantonen
Kaan Ünlü
Jesse Nukarinen
Antti Mäkipää

Voice Acting:

Tuma Heinonen
Mikael Salo
Kaan Ünlü
Ella Pitkänen
Axel Liukkala

A key goal for Words Left Unsaid was to gain experience on working with voice-acted script on a narrative based game, and to design game mechanics that were directly tied to the script, the two working in tandem.

Snappy, informative and satisfying audiovisual feedback is a goal for all my projects, and Words Left Unsaid utilizes audio cues and visual effects to convey information such as who is speaking, if and when a flashback is being played to the player, successful completion of a puzzle or failure.

USER RESEARCH:

Selected summaries of the survey data

Even during a short development time, I conducted a short survey in order to get an understanding of players’ expectations regarding horror games and narratives with mystery. Although the game’s genre changed a bit during iterations, the survey results were considered in the outcome.

Qualitative answers in addition to check boxes and multiple choice questions revealed the players’ preferences – for example, many participants were really interested in the main character’s story and wished for an FPS protagonist who instead of being a blank canvas, also had their own personality.
I took this into account when writing the synopsis for the game, and ensured that the character the player controls is directly tied to the murder mystery. The main character’s story was made more central as that correlated with the interests of the people surveyed. All in all, streamlined UX was a key motivator for how the story was shaped.

As fear of the unknown was also mentioned many times, the goal was to create the monster in the game in such a way that it directly addresses the player, yet doesn’t explain its origin until the mystery unravels.

I gathered insights from the survey results and presented them along with commentary to the rest of the team:

Example of Survey Key Insights

I wanted to focus on diegetic means of guiding the player: I designed and built the on-boarding stage to rely only on diegetic voiceover / script and conveying the puzzle mechanics using easily understood information the player picked up from the main character’s narration in the introduction cutscene before they get forward.

The game was made in a short time-frame and if more development time had been available, we would have implemented more additional interactivity to the flashback voice overs.


NARRATIVE:

SPOILERS FOR THE GAME AHEAD

In Words Left Unsaid, the player needs to find evidence pieces from four different rooms, one at a time. Each evidence piece plays a flashback that unravels the case a bit, after which the monster spawns phrases on the walls. The player has to pick the correct phrase that corresponds to what happened in the audio log of the evidence piece. After listening through all evidence pieces within the room, the player has to sort them in their notebook according to the order of the events, and then proceed to the next room.

The player can confirm their solution to each puzzle, but after they do they’re locked in it. The notebook displays whether the solution was correct or not. If the player manages to get all correct answers, they get a “good ending”, and if the player answers wrong they get another ending.

As the game is heavily based on narrative and the murder mystery, inside the developer team we wanted to get the experience of directing voice actors, even within the short time frame we had. Audible story also made the experience more accessible, and along with the subtitles made it easier to follow and thus solve the mystery.

Based on the narrative synopsis, I wrote the game’s script with Kaan Ünlu. It went through many iterations, and finally I split the master script according to each character’s dialogue in order to distribute the relevant pieces of the scrip to the actors.

The story is interactive and both the main character and the monstrous antagonist react to successful or failed puzzles with different script. This also affects the endings. All in all, in each play-through the player can reach one of two endings and a one of a few variants in how the story progresses towards it depending on what choices they make in the puzzles.

Each character had their own script: An example script for the game’s side character, Terry Rayner.

Read the full game script here as a pdf:

We implemented a replay option along with skip to all of the evidence pieces. However, in order to help the player remember all the characters, we decided to add small biographies of the characters to the notebook. I wrote the biographies diegetically from the main character’s perspective, as he was solving the mystery and knew of many of the involved characters already. The challenge in writing the biographies was to avoid revealing any crucial information that spoils the puzzle, but also provide enough relevant information.

Read the notebook biographies as a pdf:


PUZZLE DESIGN:

The game’s puzzles were conveyed through acted script. As the story itself is a key part of the puzzles, the player has to pay attention to it in order to progress, and this makes the players more involved with the narrative in comparison to just having it as a backdrop. Mechanics support the player listening through the story and rewards them with the mystery unraveling more and more after each completed room.

As the mystery of the narrative unravels through the clues the player picks up and sorts to the correct order, the correct answers needed to explain the story piece efficiently and independently, yet still make sense within the context of the answers from other rooms. The wrong answers – herrings – are based on details mentioned within the dialogue heard inside the same room, but are not entirely true. The herrings were iterated multiple times based on play-testing feedback in order to adjust the difficulty of those.


THE USER INTERFACE:

Based on play-tests, we added subtle ways to help stuck players forward, e.g. indicators on how many clues the current room has and how many the player has interacted with, and made clues to appear only near their respective piece of evidence that had been listened to. Additionally, we added different cursors to indicate game states and if something could be interacted with how e.g.whether the player is able to pick up the clues or not, and if they’re listening to audio at the same time or have already picked up clues from the same clue-cluster.

I designed the following cursors and UI elements to provide visual feedback for the player when an action regarding the clues on the walls or in the notebook is available, unavailable or the player has interacted with it.


ILLUSTRATIONS:

Examples of illustrations made for Words Left Unsaid’s opening and ending cut scenes:


ITERATIONS:

Visual guidelines for Words Left Unsaid
The initial storyboard for the Words Left Unsaid trailer

First concept arts I created for Words Left Unsaid:

Profile of Sandra Axton – the author

Published by Virpi Väinölä

Designer