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Design Diary 4 [Tarot Series] - On Collaboration

This is the fourth post in a series of design diaries about PostCurious' next game, The Light in the Mist, a tarot-card-based narrative puzzle adventure created in collaboration with Jack Fallows. You can find the previous posts here. Please note that these posts may contain some (very slightly spoilery) details about the game--if you want to play it without knowing anything beforehand, it’s probably best not to read this!


Since I have some background in illustration myself, the question of why I also choose to collaborate with other artists has come up a few times, as well as the question of how to go about doing so when the artist doesn’t have experience with illustrating for puzzle games. With hopes to make this post more helpful to other creators, I thought I would outline why and how such a collaboration might function and what our process was for creating The Light in the Mist.

Why work with another person?

We all have our individual strengths and limitations, and it’s important to know when to get someone else involved. When conceiving of a game, I usually have a certain vision of what I want to accomplish, and sometimes that vision requires efforts that are outside of my skill set. For example, despite illustrating the entire set of game components for The Emerald Flame, I decided to hire an artist to create the cover, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to convey what I wanted with my limited painting skills. I did, however, design the cover--I created a composite image in photoshop with a layout of the elements and added notes about how I wanted it to look and what items needed to be included for the hidden puzzles in the cover (but the design was, in part, inspired by the artist's existing paintings--don’t underestimate the effect that someone else’s work can have on your own design.) Then, I sent that diagram to Liiga Klavina and asked her to draw it in her style, and the result was far and beyond anything I could have created myself. I knew that hiring an artist was the right decision, and the outcome was absolutely worth the investment.

This is often the case when choosing to work with a professional, and it is not limited to artists. (In retrospect, it seems so basic and obvious to work with someone who knows what their doing, but us stubborn DIY-ers sometimes need a reminder.) I had a similar experience when creating The Tale of Ord and needed a page coded in Javascript. At first, I thought it might be a simple enough task to do by myself and took it as an opportunity to learn a new skill. While it was great to learn something new, after spending several dozen hours trying to hack something together, I realized it was not going to look and function as smoothly as I wanted it to, and I was better off handing the project off to someone else who could take it from start to finish in a day. In the end, there are only so many hours, and making a game the best it can be is a more worthwhile endeavor than insisting on doing everything yourself. However, even if the collaborator has an overlapping skill set, two heads are usually better than one, and what you come up with together will likely be greater than what each of you could do on your own.

Ways to work with others

There are many talented people out there that can bring something new to the table and change an entire project for the better. However, the scope of the collaboration is something that is important to determine before you start the work. You must decide if you’re hiring someone to do a task (such as create a drawing) or if you’re actually going to develop the project together. How much input do you want the other person to have? Are they going to simply follow your instructions to create something using their skill set or will they be involved in the design itself? (It goes without saying that designing takes a lot more thought and careful planning than following directions, and the person should be compensated according to their level of involvement!) To that end, here are a few different ways to delineate a collaborator’s role, from least involved to most:

  1. You convey something very specific and ask the person to render it according to your directions (for example, the javascript project mentioned above.)

  2. You outline certain requirements that must be included in the work and give the person artistic liberty with the rest (such as The Emerald Flame box cover.)

  3. You discuss the intent and desired result of the project and work together to come up with a design. Then, the collaborator executes their role.

With The Light in the Mist, I had a certain vision for the puzzles and artwork, and knew Jack would be the one to bring it to life. When we began ideating, we decided the story and overall concept should represent both of us. Since we both had experience with narrative as well, our collaboration ultimately ended up being a fairly equal joint effort, but... sharing your work with someone can be scary, and we didn't dive into this project completely blind. Before we started working The Light in the Mist I asked Jack to create an illustration for a postcard in The Emerald Flame's companion Apprentice Pack. Once we knew we could work together, we were much more prepared to collaborate on a larger project. Naturally, the reasons for choosing one direction or another will vary depending on the project, but starting off with someone small is a great way of testing the waters before diving in head first, especially with someone you don't know very well.

Communicate your intentions

Luckily for me, Jack was already familiar with illustrating for puzzle games, which made the process a little easier, but what’s the best way to convey your needs for a puzzle while still allowing an artist to have the freedom to add their own voice?

Before you embark on a project, make sure the person you’re working with understands what you’re doing on a fundamental level. Someone who has never played an escape room or puzzle game may not fully realize what a product like that entails, and the degree of specificity that is sometimes required in order to make a puzzle work. It is important to be transparent about this in order to avoid surprises and frustrations down the line. When it comes to art, if you're going for a certain vibe, a mood board or a folder of reference photos can go a long way in communicating what words can't.

Measure twice, cut once

Before you provide any instructions, make sure your idea works. Create a draft of the puzzle and test it out at least a couple of times before moving forward with anything that would be time-consuming and/or expensive to redo. In the case of our tarot deck, I created a full draft version of all 78 cards in order to test the whole game before Jack even put a pencil to paper. This draft included only the bare minimum elements needed to solve the puzzles, without any clutter. This allowed me to be confident in the functional elements of the puzzles while giving Jack the artistic liberty to do whatever they wanted with the rest of the image, so long as those basic elements were incorporated.

A set of draft cards

Be clear and specific

Add notes to your drafts and sketches. If something needs to be exactly as shown, make sure to mention this in your instructions. Whether it is placement, shape, color, or scale, always be specific about elements that have rigid requirements. For example, you might say, “Item x needs to be to the left of item y, and both need to be yellow. Item x will have a blue diamond on it, and item y will have a red circle. Make sure to leave a 1”x1” blank space on the bottom right-hand corner for an element that will be added later.” Knowing this information ahead of time will help avoid extra work down the line.

If you already have a puzzle or design planned out, explain its purpose and function in detail. You can even walk the person through each step in the puzzle so they understand the reason behind every decision in the design, and keep in their mind which details matter most and which have flexibility. For example, in this image all we needed was four objects. They had to be placed in a very particular way, but the rest of the scene was left up to the artist.

Usually my instructions for the cards would read something like the above example, and the general rule was “have fun with the rest, just don’t add anything too distracting or cluey-looking.” Of course, “cluey-looking," being a technical industry term, may not be understood by everyone, so you'll likely need to explain that further. Basically, the goal is to avoid red herrings and elements that look too intentional to feel like natural parts of the environment. For example, if a puzzle includes five potion bottles of five distinct colors, I would avoid using those specific colors in a way that could potentially connect them to the bottles and cause confusion.

Expect revisions

No one is a mind reader; you can explain your intent in as much detail as you think is possible, but it’s likely there will always be something that feels a little off. Revisions are to be expected, but don’t get too lost in details and nit-picking or you may drive your artist crazy and they won’t want to work with you again. In short, be reasonable. If something is throwing people off when they’re trying to solve a puzzle, of course it’s going to need to change. If it’s a teeny detail that doesn’t actually matter, consider if it may be better to just let it go (I know, I know, it's hard.)

Test every step of the way

Every time you make a major revision, test it before moving forward. I tested The Light in the Mist in its draft art phase, pencil art phase, and colored phase, and will conduct a couple more tests when all the art is 100% complete. Don’t be tempted to cut corners and move on to the next phase before making sure something works as anticipated--this will save you a lot of time and effort in the long run. Plus, mistakes can happen, or people may interpret things in a way that you did not expect--it’s better to catch these things before committing them to ink.

Do you have a story about a time you collaborated with someone on a project? How did you do it and what was the result?



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