How board games helped inspire the Carto puzzle
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.
Carto, who was nominated for Excellence in Visual Arts at IGF 2021, follows a lost girl using her mapping skills to find her grandmother. Part of that power is rearranging pieces of the map, and in doing so, rearranging the world to change its path home.
Gamasutra met Lee-Kuo Chen, director of Carto, to talk about the challenges of creating puzzles that reshape the entire world, the thinking behind the game’s visual design, and how that design reshaped the game once the developers chose it. .
We are Sunhead Games, an independent games studio based in Taiwan and founded in 2012. I am Lee-Kuo Chen, director and game designer of Carto. Besides me there are 3 other developers in our team: programmer Chia-Yu Chen, artist Kuan-Hung Chen and sound designer Eddie Yu. We also worked closely with Nick Suttner as editor and developer commercial on Carto.
Before Sunhead Games, I had two and a half years of experience with another game studio as a programmer. Then, as a studio, we made two mobile titles: A ride in the mountains and Swords. Carto is our third title and our first on PC and consoles.
The gameplay mechanic came first. It was the only thing I wanted to deliver at first, and I didn’t think about other things like storytelling or art style for a long time.
As for the idea of tile placement, it came from the popular genre of tile placement board game, especially Carcassonne. I discovered the game around 2005 and have always enjoyed it. For the idea of swapping map tiles to solve puzzles … Actually, I don’t remember where the idea came from! I’ve had a design notebook for years to keep my ideas random. One day I found a line that said “Like Carcassonne, but you can travel on the tile you place. It looked promising, so we started to prototype it. It worked well immediately, so we continued to develop it.
Unity, Photoshop, Spine, FMOD and lots of graph paper (to make paper prototypes of the map tiles).
I didn’t know, actually. I just felt like I didn’t see any other game with this game mechanic, and it looked cool at first glance. There were tons of possibilities and it was great right away so we wanted to dig in to see how far we could go from there. For the rest, I have the impression that he conceived himself.
Creating puzzles was easy at first as the design space was completely open. But then when we started to think about history, art and sound, we realized the real challenge. As you can see, the puzzles are related to the tiles, and the tiles include the whole world. This means that if you want to change a puzzle, you have to change the world! Making art for the world took a long time, so we had to be very careful what we changed; once the art was finished, there was no turning back! So if we wanted to improve a puzzle, we had to find other ways to polish it. Phew! I’m glad it turned out well in the end.
We wanted players to be able to have a sense of discovery as they travel to new lands, to feel the joy of satisfaction in restructuring the world, to be amazed by the puzzles, and to feel happy as they discover a small but delightful story.
The first idea was to try and combine different styles like collage, map artwork, screentone, and puppet animation, to see what it would become. We tried a few different variations and found they were too complex. Eventually we found this kind of semi-watercolor style that made the visuals soft and relaxed, so we decided to go in that direction. The final art style is like a world of delicate paper. Every visual element is there to help the player feel pleasant and comfortable, which is what we were initially looking for.
In our case, the art style developed alongside the game and its theme. Before the artist joined the team, the game was all about puzzles and a few silly jokes. After he joined it and the art style was set, we felt the game needed a proper story to do justice to the art. Then we started to take the narrative part seriously. In retrospect, the artistic style totally changed the direction of the project.