The mechanics of Keyhole are pretty basic: rotate the planet to go back and forth a day at a time, zoom in on inhabitants to see what they’re thinking, take items from them, or give items to them. Aside from the book, which serves as a shortcut to ages and inhabitants and a log of your quests, that’s really all there is to the game—at least mechanically.
But those mechanics lend themselves to a handful of other details that the player needs to understand to play the game. They’re certainly not so complex that it would take a traditional tutorial (or even worse, a manual) to explain to the player how things work.
Learning from the master
There’s a great video in the Egoraptor’s YouTube series, Sequelitis about how Mega Man X teaches the player how to navigate its new world without explicitly spelling it out for them. I really want to be able to ease the player into my game in much the same way, and I’ve got a list of lessons I’d like to be revealed similarly in Keyhole.
Anyway, here’s that Mega Man X video. It’s really good.
Nine lessons Keyhole teaches in the very first age
1. Rotating the planet advances time
You really can’t go anywhere without this first interaction, so the game’s Start button turns out to be the same arrow that rotates the planet forward for the rest of the game.
2. Selecting markers zooms in on inhabitants
After the planet comes to a stop on the first day of the game, a marker appears that prompts the player to select it. This zooms in on the Historian, the first inhabitant, and from here on out, there will be plenty of markers that all work the exact same way.
3. Items can be taken from inhabitants
The next day, a merchant arrives, selling animal traps. A visual indicator lets the player know that the traps can be selected, and selecting them moves them into the player’s inventory.
4. Rotating the planet in the opposite direction reverses time
If the player advances to the next day without doing anything else, the Historian will be found dying from a wolf attack. The game will prevent the player from advancing further, and the only option will be to go back.
5. Items in the player’s possession are unaffected by time
Because the Historian appears on a day prior to the traps being available, the player must travel back a day or two to save him from being attacked. This forces the player to use the item earlier than it was found, chronologically, and realize that time travel has no affect on things in the inventory.
6. Items can be given to inhabitants
At this time, it should be obvious what the player needs to do. After zooming in on the Historian on any day prior to the wolf attack, the animal traps will appear on the screen, and selecting them will make them appear near the Historian.
7. The player’s actions result in alternate realities
After placing the animal traps and advancing to the next day, the Historian is alive and well, and the wolf that would have attacked him is instead snared in the trap. This shows the player that every action creates a new timeline.
8. Not all puzzles can be solved the first time around
The next inhabitant is an explorer who wants to build a boat to cross the ocean. The player doesn’t have the necessary items to help him, so the only option is to go further into the future and let the explorer give up and pursue a different path.
9. The player’s actions can always be undone
The player eventually helps the explorer, but later finds a reason to prevent that from happening. Returning to the day when the tools had been provided to help him build his boat, the player opts not to place the items, reverting to the original timeline.
So those are the main lessons I hope to teach the player without having to actually tell them. We’ll see how it goes. It’ll take plenty of playtesting, but that part’s always fun.