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CarTuners: Puzzle and Story Design

If you’ve been keeping up with Trivium Games on social media or if you’ve visited us lately, you may know that we’re working on building our next game. (Yes, finally!) It’s called CarTuners! As we gear up to launch, we’re releasing a series of posts to talk about our design process. Each post will highlight a different aspect of game development and we’ll share an interview with the developer who’s most responsible for that facet of the project.

  • Post 1: Brian Mendenhall (Story-Puzzle Integration)

  • Post 2: Jesse Morris (Tech)

  • Post 3: Greg deBeer (Lights and Sound)

  • Post 4: Jenn Mendenhall (Set Design)

Enough about the future though, let’s talk about what’s happening now! For this post, I interviewed Brian, who shared what makes an escape room’s story and puzzles working in tandem so special.

First off, tell us about yourself and your role at Trivium.

Of the 4 of us, I’m the one responsible for creating the original concept and game flow for our experiences. Basically, I develop the story that becomes the backbone for gameplay. I’ve been a 3D animator working in the VFX world for over 20 years, and I create the original concept art for our games as well as some CG effects and animation. Before Trivium, I also wrote and designed puzzle hunts for a couple decades before Greg got the crazy idea to open an escape room.

How did you decide what to build for your next game?

We wanted to create something quickly, so naturally we’re two years into development. We also wanted to create something for smaller teams. Ghost Patrol was not designed for small groups, and in the height of the pandemic, we were getting a lot of calls from pairs and nuclear families. Even now we get a lot of calls for 2–3 player teams and we wanted to create something that was more accessible to these players.

Brian working on the prototype car.

The original thought was to make a portable game or "escape room in a box," that we could deliver to people. But at some point, someone (Jesse) said "bumper car" and we fell in love with the idea. I mean, it’s on wheels right?! That’s kinda transportable. Then it was a haunted bumper car and that turned into a bumper car that runs on "clown logic" and then we finally landed on a cartoon car. Eventually, we all got so deep in the development process that we decided it did not need to be portable. Classic.

How do you go about designing the puzzles?

We consider ourselves to be very puzzle-forward in our game design, but it doesn’t make sense for puzzles to just exist in the world we’re creating. They have to somehow make sense, so our puzzle design is very dependent on the fiction we’re inviting players to enter. It’s this fiction that establishes how puzzles can exist in this reality. For example, maybe you’re a team of psychics so you can access information that eludes others even if it’s fuzzy. Or maybe a ghost is manipulating the environment in cryptic ways. Whatever the fiction is, it’s the framework for why we have puzzles in the first place. Of course, it turns out that’s really hard to do, so we end up making some concessions, but it is absolutely the primary driver for puzzle design.

Then of course, we try to put the players in the actual story of the game. In our games, we give players a job to do — we train you to be Ghost Patrollers, or in this case CarTuners, and send you on your mission. This is not unique to Trivium by any means; all escape rooms do this on some level. Our hope is that by integrating puzzles into the fiction of the world we’ve created, we’re giving players a more immersive experience and, hopefully, one that is deeply engaging and fun!

Brian working on a prototype puzzle
Brian working on a prototype puzzle with some help from Petey.

What is the fiction and story for CarTuners?

The fiction is really simple — you are cartoon car tuners. (Please don’t think that is the only pun we’re going to subject you to in this game. I assure you it’s riddled with them.) Your job is to fix up an old, broken down cartoon car and help the cartoon run smoothly. Of course, Cartoon Cars run on silly cartoon logic, so things don’t work the way you might expect.

Why are we fixing up the car? What’s the story? In short, the car is old and keeps breaking down while on set filming the cartoon. Sadly, cartoons lack the technical know-how to fix things. They’re more about dropping anvils and blowing stuff up, so they need to take advantage of our mechanical prowess in the real world. Obviously we’re outsourcing this work to the general public because that makes good financial sense. We’re a business after all!

What are you most excited about in the new game?

CarTuners is very different from Ghost Patrol and, in many ways, from most other escape rooms, so I look forward to seeing what people think. We're having fun making it, and we're really packing a lot into a small space. And there's a lot of teamwork required. I guess for me personally, I get to essentially create an entire cartoon short which is a pretty good time, and I look forward to launching it. I’m also excited to be able to pick up the phone and tell potential customers, “Yes we do have a game for two people!”


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