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The Great Escape...Key

Johan Peitz's maddening puzzler and the 48-hour competition that birthed it.

The most annoying problems are the ones staring you in the face the entire time. John Locke blew his up.
The most annoying problems are the ones staring you in the face the entire time. John Locke blew his up.

I want you to load up a game called Bathos, and come back when you finish it. Click here. It should only take you a minute.

Not so simple, right? Or maybe it was. Puzzles are curious business, and there are few things more maddening than watching someone struggle with a puzzle when you already know the solution.

There's not much in the room, which is what drives you crazy. Why, keys, why?!
There's not much in the room, which is what drives you crazy. Why, keys, why?!

In Bathos, the solution is right in front of you, but the game goes out of its way to convince you it’s actually not. Why else would the character have a health bar? Why would someone create all these keys if one of them didn’t actually do something? Both thoughts ran through my own head.

“As a player, being watched trying to solve a puzzle game, you’re very vulnerable,” said Johan Peitz, the designer of Bathos, during a recent conversation. “You really have to show ‘this is how I think.’”

Peitz, whose day job involves running social game developer Muskedunder Interactive, created Bathos as part of a 48-hour themed competition called Ludum Dare.

These competitions are often referred to as “game jams” in the development community. Peitz made the competition harder on himself because of prior commitments, meaning he had only 24 hours to put together a game for it.

Participating in the Ludum Dare is a particularly daunting challenge, too, since it requires the participant to wear all creative hats simultaneously--artist, musician, programmer, designer, tester, etc. Peitz finds having broad skill sets crucial to game development, and usually hires similar people. Braid designer Jonathan Blow has been a vocal advocate of the all-in-one philosophy, arguing it avoids the often difficult communication gap of having to explain an idea to someone else.

“It’s very much you and your computer and nothing else,” he said.

The theme Peitz worked with won't surprise you: escape. Bathos isn’t even the only game submitted for the Ludum Dare that required hitting the escape, but more than any other I played, it was the one that tried to make you feel totally crazy.

There was no particular inspiration for how Bathos game together. Peitz was under a time crunch, an idea came to mind--he ran with it. That’s largely how competitions work, and why many tend to result in game ideas that sound great...before imploding.

“I’d say every other jam results in nothing,” he said. “Usually, once you get an idea, you don’t spend so much idea on actually figuring out all the quirks, so you just hope that it will work and you can go ahead into it. And if it’s the wrong decision, it’s really hard to find the energy to restart. It’s more like ‘Okay, it didn’t work out quite as well this time, let’s try to go play video games instead.’ [laughs]”

After Bathos went into the wild, Peitz observed how people reacted. He included hints within the game, but they were definitely subtle, and with a mass of keys in front of you, it was easier to focus on figuring out what the hell to do with them.

“I really wanted the player to think about keys, but not the actual escape key, so it’s the juxtaposition between what’s a key and what’s not a key and things like that,” he said. “And also, the only screen shot I ever released was the guy holding a key saying ‘It’s not the right key.’ I always tried to focus the player to think it’s about keys but not that kind of key.”

Playing with keys is summarizes my time playing Bathos. I mean, there’s all these keys, right? One has to work. Even at the time, I knew that made no sense, and acknowledged the keys were a red herring, but without anything else to go on, I started sorting the keys on one side of the room.

Surprise, surprise--none of them worked.

The response to Ryan and I playing Portal 2 co-op on TNT recently was...interesting.
The response to Ryan and I playing Portal 2 co-op on TNT recently was...interesting.

I spent a few minutes staring at the window on the right side. Light’s streaming in, so there must be something to that, right? What if I stack all keys on top of each other? As it turns out, there was something to that. Sort of. One of the glitches he missed allowed players to get some keys in the wall, suggesting there was a way to jump on the keys and reach the window.

Look at all those keys, man! Don't you just want to put those keys into the door! I sure do!
Look at all those keys, man! Don't you just want to put those keys into the door! I sure do!

“The window is actually open, so if you could have jumped up there, you would have been able to get out, but there’s no way to get out,” he said. “There’s a hole in the collision detection. You can get out of the window, but you can’t get to the window. Nobody knows that, of course.”

Clever girl.

Since there’s so little to do in Bathos, it’s not uncommon for players to stumble across the solution by accident, hitting the escape key as part of a rage quit. Peitz hasn’t heard of anyone staring at the screen for longer than 15 to 20 minutes, but also isn’t surprised “Bathos walkthrough” is the most popular search term related to his game.

People must be pretty disappointed when they click through.

Most of Peitz’s game work it outside the puzzle realm, but creating Bathos has given him some ideas about how one might design a larger scale game that relied on people talking to one another to solve puzzles. Sounds a bit like what’s happened with From Software’s Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.

If you’re interested in seeing more of Peitz’ work, head over to his official website.

Patrick Klepek on Google+