Keyhole is a game about exploring the timeline of a world inhabited by various people, cities, kingdoms and civilizations, and determining how and when to help the people you meet deal with the situations they face, if at all.
Because the inhabitants of this world aren’t aware of your presence, nobody will ask for anything outright. A chimney sweep who’s down on his luck might need money for a meal, and providing him with a silver coin would help him survive long enough to make it to his next payday, which would eventually lead to him falling in love and raising a family, inventing a new style of electric motor in the process, which you can collect as an item for use somewhere else in the game.
This whole scenario has a pretty arbitrary outcome: give a character an item, wait a bit, then collect a different item in return. But this sequence of events is the very nature of a specific gameplay trope that’s been used for ages in video games: fetch quests. And I’ve got a fairly strong opinion on fetch quests.
Fetch quests are lazy game design
Having grown up with a number of JRPGs, I’m familiar with this style of item trading. Often it’s one character, say a distraught girl longing for her lost father, who also happens to have found a golden orb on the beach last night. And it turns out said orb has the power to lower the drawbridge to the next castle on your journey. But instead of giving up the orb when you ask about it, she says she’d gladly surrender the item if she receives word that her father is alive and well.
So, rather than explaining how important your goal of defeating the alien wizard or whatever is, and that she and her dad likely perish, along with everyone in the universe, if you don’t get that orb, you happily go on a quest to find this girl’s father. When you find him, he hands you a piece of paper addressed to her, and you trek back to her village, through whatever swamp or volcano or magical palace you fought through to reach him, and when you deliver the paper, she’s so excited that she just hands you the orb, allowing you to finally continue on your way.
TV Tropes has a short but good article on fetch quests, and the list of examples containing them is incredibly long.
Now there’s nothing wrong with interrupting a game’s main story with a few tales on the side. A father-daughter story that turns out well in the end warms the heart a bit and adds to the personality of the overall experience. But fetch quests like these seem so forced, so lazily communicated to the player, that it detracts from the majesty of the thing. It’s a little jarring to explore a world of poetic characters and cryptic messages, only to hear “I’ll give you this magic thingie if you bring me my daddy’s paper.” There have to be better ways to do it.
Building a better fetch quest
So Keyhole is full of these scenarios, where giving at item to a character eventually yields a completely different one. But I’m dead set on not designing trite, lazy quests. Here are a couple ways I’m going to do that.
No “This for that” nonsense
While characters will occasionally say things like “I wish I had a new pair of shoes,” they won’t point out what might result if they receive those shoes—at least not in your favor. Giving shoes to a character might let them go to a dance, but the item that results from that situation, maybe a trumpet or something, would never have crossed his mind when he was wishing for the shoes. He just wanted to attend a dance. You may draw the connection between the dance shoes and the trumpet, but not once was it explicitly said that one would lead to the other.
Inhabitants don’t address the player
Because your presence is unknown among the inhabitants of this world, they have no reason to spell out what will happen if they receive what it is they’re looking for. This ties in a lot with the above point, but even if some burdens do fall a little toward the Lazy Fetch Quest side of things (which I’m sure will happen, since item trading is a major component of the game), at least nobody will say to your face, “I’ll give you X if you bring me Y.” If nothing else, that’s a huge relief to me.
It isn’t about how to help—it’s about whether to help or not
I like to tell people that Keyhole is full of one-dimensional characters. They have titles like The Historian, The Jester and The Pilot. They often have one apparent goal in life, as far as you the player are concerned, and will accept a small handful of items that could help them reach their goals. There won’t be much challenge in discovering how to help people; the interesting part will be figuring out when to help, and when not to, as both decisions may have equally important ramifications.
So yes, there will be a good deal of fetching in Keyhole. But I’m trying hard not to frame the player’s tasks in the same tired RPG-style side quests weve all seen so many times. I want the burdens of the characters to feel more realistic, the solutions more obvious, and the results, due to the seemingly chaotic nature of life, in a way more believable.
The Explorer: a fetch quest with a twist
Early in the game, you meet an explorer who wants to build a boat, but has no tools to do so. When she can’t find a way to chop down any trees, she gives up and decides to travel to the mountains instead. As the player, the first time you encounter the explorer, you have no way of helping her, and must continue to the next day without offering anything to her.
The next time you see her, she’s trapped on a cliffside, clinging on to a rope, without any way to safely descend. Her monologue explains that she’d found a hatchet at a campsite earlier that day, and was heading back to get to work on a boat, when she slipped and fell down the side of the mountain. “If I’d only had this hatchet yesterday,” she says to herself, “I’d be on the ocean right now instead of hanging from this rock.”
That clue becomes the prompt to your first sort of fetch quest in the game. Picking up the hatchet, you rewind time to the first day the explorer was wishing she could build a boat. After giving it to her, you advance to the next day again, this time to find that she’s chopped down a tree and is diligently crafting a boat with her mysteriously found hatchet. Days later, after disembarking for new lands, she returns with a small group of settlers, and they begin building a town.
Tasks like this will be a large part of Keyhole, and this first one will be a little more obvious than later puzzles, in that it practically tells the player how to solve it, to teach how items can be removed from the world and replaced at a different time. Later on, while we’ll be keeping predicaments fairly simple, they won’t always tell the player what items may be used to solve them. Because that’s how things work in the real world: you might know what’s got you down, but there’s usually more than one way around it. And the beautiful thing about being able to change every decision you make is getting to try every possible solution as often as you’d like. That’s one of the most challenging and most rewarding things about working on Keyhole: all the possibilities a player will encounter during the game.