Sexy Brutale: a master class in narrative puzzle design

I was recently lucky enough to come across a hidden gem in narrative driven puzzle games called Sexy Brutale. Here’s a small teaser:

The game, developed by Cavalier Games in collaboration with Tequila Works, delights with its cheeky art style, polished UX, and a very peculiar atmosphere and sense of humor. However, it’s the narrative implementation that I found remarkable and I’d like to analyze in this article.  

OMG! CAREFUL! LOTS OF SPOILERS AHEAD!

In Sexy Brutale you play Lafcadio Boone, a preacher who’s invited at Lucas Bondes’ anual party, where he gets assigned with the mission to prevent other guests from being murdered in an assortment of ways. A heroic task for which he’ll have to use… time travel! 

Nonlinear storytelling 

Guests with very different personalities and personal stories let the player focus on the current goal and know what she needs to look for at any moment.

To figure out how each murder was committed, the player will need to explore the mansion and navigate time replaying the same day à la Groundhog Day, until she reconstructs the events and plays a strategy to outwit the fatality of destiny. 

As all the murderers happen in the same day, and the player has access to most of the events that take place from the very beginning, it’s in her hands to follow the cues that will allow her to solve its mystery.

Linearity unfolds the sequence of events that lead to each murdered, but it’s not there to determine an order of need actions, but as a resource the player can use to solve the puzzles.

Then also the player progresses in each plot, she also casts new light on the holistic mystery of what the heck happened in the mansion, which provides with a satisfying and organic sense of discovery. 

Observation of routines

Lafcadio, you sneaker!

On a more granular level, gameplay in Sexy Brutale relies on mechanics such as spy, dodge, overhear, and other actions that allow the player to immerse herself in the story, and not just staying a passive witness of it.

Then also, a meta progression allows her to expand her abilities even more as she saves the lives of other characters, to unlock the secrets of the mansion that are protected by different types of obstacles, and expand their knowledge gradually.

Time travel done the right way

Oops! Time is over!

As someone who’s tried to use time travel as a motto in fiction, I’m aware of some of the paradoxes and challenges it means for storytelling, even more when we’re talking about a nonlinear implementation.

Despite these challenges, in Sexy Brutale time travel works in a way that’s intuitive and easy to grasp soon. Some of the main principles the player needs to work with are:

>> It’s only possible to travel forward in time. 

>> Being seen by a character results in a fail condition, which provides with some fun extra challenge.

>> It’s only possible to travel to three different times; three checkpoints that coincide with the main events taking place. 

>> The repetition of cues in each iteration of the day let the player orientate herself and internalise the sequence of events little by little.  That’s the case, for example, of the sound effects that can be heard from all points in the mansion. 

>> A time map lets the player check in what room the characters were during each moment of the day so that she can support her direct observations. 

The navigation bar at the bottom lets us visualize changes on the map.

Respawning feels good!

Lafcadio waking up once again near the time clock. This is what I call a long day…

After the player gets a new guest she needs to rescue, she needs to perform an arranged sequence of actions before the day ends, or otherwise, the day will restart, and she’ll have to start from scratch. 

However, she will remember the information she gathers in each attempt, so in a way, the progression is not saved in the game, as would typically be the case, but in the players internal reconstruction of the events. 

For this to work well, the design of the puzzles is balanced in a way and the cues are distributed in the rooms so that the player always makes small discoveries here and there, and thus, failing and respawning doesn’t feel bad. Every new attempt you feel like you see things a bit differently, and you feel encouraged to try a new itinerary or to check a new hypothesis.

There are many other design choices and adjustments that make the whole formula work well, like simple but juicy point and click puzzles and interactions, or a story structured on guests that need to be saved, which sets clear goals. 

Other cherries on top are a book with notes about the lore, a collection metagame that unlocks an alternative ending, and many other flavourful details that make this game perfectly worthy of a world expansion.

I’m looking forward to see what Cavalier Games will come up with next!


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