Designer's Diary: Arkham Noir by Y. Tourigny
Published by Forgenext
Few projects have engaged me as completely as the series of solo card games based on Lovecraft’s oeuvre that I am currently working on.
One salutary effect of working on the Arkham Noir games has been the improvement in my ability to illustrate them. These four examples should suffice to give examples whereof I speak. The graphic design for the final cards, shown below, was done by Ludonova’s David Prieto Gómez.
First, a digression on archaeological looting. Looting is the removal of artifacts of value from their archaeological context. Large, valuable artifacts are sold to collectors while small ones with little commercial value (but inestimable cultural and scientific value) are damaged or destroyed. As fascinating and captivating as the looted artifacts may be, without context they lose much of their meaning, and our understanding of their significance, and of our collective history as a species, is correspondingly impoverished. Unless it is done conscientiously, adapting literary material to another medium runs the risk of turning into literary looting.
There has been a popular resurgence of games based on the Cthulhu Mythos, inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s stories and the countless writers who have set up residence in his sandbox and played with his toys. Lovecraft’s stories are rich with details that get overlooked by games which emphasize the alien monsters, strange artifacts, and forbidden books. Divorced from their context, and thrown together like so-many toys and action figures, we are discarding the elements that make Lovecraft’s stories successful where those of numerous imitators are not.
One such element is their structure as detective stories, with a slow piecing together of information by a lone protagonist. This is the lens through which I’ve chosen to re-interpret his stories: as noir mysteries. Each game is presented as a solo investigation by a private detective. Each case presumes that the original narrators of the stories either didn’t survive the events or failed to piece together the mystery. The cases present elements from multiple stories united by setting, theme, threats, characters, or all of the above. Each is a careful excavation, executed with fine brushes and mesh screens, rather than a careless looting job.
The design process
As befits the detective story, the game is a solo affair. Like classic solitaire card games, the puzzle-solving is procedural. Working with the deck-as-shuffled, it is up to you to make the decisions that will lead to a victory – there isn’t a single solution. Like any solitaire game, it is infinitely replayable. Increased familiarity with the cards in a set enhances the experience, rather than spoiling it, and adjustments to the difficulty level are easy to implement. Familiarity with the stories is not necessary, but likely also enhances the experience.
The design of the game was… not effortless, but largely subconscious. It recycles part of the card system from a previous prototype, adapting it to solitaire play. The rest was built up logically from the theme and general thrust I wanted the game to have. The first draft of the game would be difficult to distinguish from the current version to the untrained eye. Many refinements were made after a great deal of playtesting by myself (one of the advantages of designing a solo game) and a half-dozen others, but the game was in a good shape from the start.
Like many games, a great deal of the work that went into it is largely invisible. The design process involves a lot of reading, note-taking, and working with a spreadsheet.
The gameplay involves linking clue cards together in a chain of evidence, or line of investigation. Each line is an open case, which can be closed only when five different clue types have been played there. Some of the clue cards have a puzzle icon – playing a sufficient number of these, and closing the cases in which they have been played so that you can score them, is your objective. Running out of time or stability before doing so leads to defeat. Simple card effects and hand management slightly complicate the picture drawn above, and add to the tension essential in any solo game.
Each case draws from a very close reading of a few stories, chosen because they share thematic elements, locations, and/or characters. ‘The Witch Cult Murders’ is set in Arkham, and adapts the Lovecraft stories “The Thing on the Doorstep” (TD), “The Dreams in the Witch House” (DWH), and “The Unnamable” (U). Common elements from these stories include: Meadow Hill (DWH, U), standing stones (TD, DWH), Miskatonic University (TD, DWH), complex angles leading to other dimensions (TD, DWH), objects from “outside” (TD, DWH), witchcraft (TD, DWH, U), witches’ sabbat (TD, DWH), centuries-old witches (TD, DWH), attic spaces either secret (DWH) or locked (TD, U), the Necronomicon (TD, DWH), old diary/papers (DWH, U), creatures conjured up by witches (TD, DWH, U), and the restless spirits of the wronged dead (TD, U). Specific elements from each story are also part of the clues you’ll be working with.
Using the elements described above, it’s a simple matter to tell a detective story. Arkham’s historical and contemporary witch cult problem forms the core of the case – the victims tend to be newer initiates (TD), often University students (TD, DWH), who either fall victim to older members of the covens (TD, DWH) or are undone by the things disturbed by their investigation into the occult history of the city (U). The specifics of the case will vary from game to game, and may differ from the specifics of the stories, but I think the game does a good job of capturing the essential qualities of the stories, and tells its own stories using the same elements.
Four basic investigative technique icons (search, interview, observe, research) are found in different configurations on both sides of the clue cards. Each card thus has an investigative technique that leads TO it (on the left side), and one or two that lead FROM it to the next clue (on the right side). The cards are played in a line, and symbols must be matched. Some considerable effort has been made to place those icons in ways that are thematic – the people you meet in the course of your investigation typically have the “interview” icon on the left side, for instance, whereas artifacts you might find will typically have the “search” icon there instead.
Each case is an independent game, and has a few rules particularities that differentiate it from the others. While Ludonova is publishing the core sets, based on Lovecraft’s stories, they are also co-producing secondary “Collector Case” sets, with limited availability, based on stories by other weird fiction authors, classic or contemporary, whose works I admire.