Tiff and Sax: Project 2
This article contains spoilers. Play Tiff and Sax first before reading on!
Tiff and Sax: The Game
Saxon has enlisted your help to figure out if his girlfriend, Tiffany, is cheating on him. While he distracts her, you scour her phone for clues and evidence of infidelity. Is she a cheater? The future of their relationship rests on you!
Players traverse an emulated phone, given free-reign to look through Tiffany’s private photos, messages, and thoughts. Along the way, the player must solve puzzles and break passcodes to progress through the game. You will come to intimately know Tiffany as you unlock new “places” on her phone.
Tiff and Sax is a twist on the classic crime or murder escape room game. The narrative breathes new life into the escape room genre by favoring playfulness and reality drama over seriousness and intimidation. In this way, I hope to introduce the genre to a new set of casual gamers, like myself.
Types of Fun
Narrative, Fantasy, and Discovery were the intended types of fun. As you’ll notice, challenge is not a primary type of fun. My hypothesis was that the puzzles didn’t have to be particularly challenging in order for fun to be achieved. In the extreme case scenario, I worried that players might feel lost or frustrated when they could not figure out a puzzle, hurting the immersion and stalling the story development.
What was most important to the success of the game was being able to immerse the player in the story and characters. This became my primary focus and the first hypothesis I felt strongly about verifying through play testing.
I initially decided on a lighthearted and funny narrative. I believed it would be important to offset the moral weight of invading someone’s privacy by making it extremely ridiculous and humorous. This became my second hypothesis to verify through play testing. Though many games, like Grand Theft Auto are generally considered morally repulsive, they still achieve fun. I needed to validate that people would still have fun and be willing to play Tiff and Sax, despite the “wrongness” of invading someone’s privacy.
Leaning into existing models
At its core, Tiff and Sax is an experiment in immersion. Due to the short timeframe for this project, I would not be able to achieve “believable” immersion if tasked with creating a whole new world of characters and environments from scratch. Thus, I leaned into existing mental models. The entire UI of my game recycles mobile phone UIs and flows. Players already know how to navigate these spaces, and do so with ease.
When played through an actual phone, your device “emulates” someone else’s phone, breaking the digital/physical barrier. I hypothesized that this approach would create real immersion despite its low-fidelity. In other words, you feel like you’re actually going through someone’s private stuff.
Leveling & Skill Progression
Levels were carefully designed so that they required no tutorials to get started. In other words, players learn through actual game play. This is reenforced by the steps required to complete each level, where the game forces the player to master low-level skills first in order to move forward. Moreover, existing skills are constantly reutilized, thus becoming cemented into mastery. When players become stuck, they can cycle through old techniques/skills which often leads to new clues or the final solution.
Testing and iteration history
In total, I tested this game with 6 different players who saw it at varying levels of fidelity. I’m going to summarize findings based on the hypotheses and the results of the play tests.
#1: Recalibrating difficulty, maximizing fun
The first two play test were generally successes!
The biggest issue I ran into was the difficulty of some of the puzzles. At some points, players appeared to be lost and frustrated, which stalled the narrative development. Interestingly, “easy” puzzles seemed to be enjoyable despite how quickly they were solved.
Further conversations revealed that players never felt that the puzzles were too easy. Both play-testers believed that they were just naturally good at the game. These findings validated my hypothesis that the true fun of Tiff and Sax is fantasy and narrative, not challenge. With these learnings, I revised my puzzles so that each solution revealed details about the greater story and characters. Moreover, the new puzzles erred on the side of caution; it was better to be too easy than too hard.
These play tests also revealed how hard it is to gauge difficulty if you are the creator. I realized that the ‘connections’ I made while designing the puzzle were not made apparent to the player, leaving them with gaps that made it too hard to find a solution.
#2: Reenforcing the immersion
On my third play test, I validated the puzzles and looked toward new ways of increasing the immersion of the game.
I had initially experimented with a phone call that played as soon as the player finished the first puzzle. This always delighted the player, and made the game feel “more alive.”
I attempted increasing immersion in a few ways. The simplest was to go through the tiring process of just building and replicating apps to fill the screens, so that every single button led to a realistic interaction. I created conversations, photo albums, and calendar events so that players received a realistic “search and discovery” experience.
Next, I added more phone calls throughout the experience. At one point, the phone owner’s best friend calls you and asks “tiff? you there? I can’t hear you…” before hanging up. This single interaction was enough to thrill players out of fear of getting caught.
Lastly, I added an interaction in which you literally have a text conversation with a NPC. In this conversation, you must state the name of the cheater, or lose the game. Players seemed to be delighted by being able to text an NPC and receive believable responses in return. They would smile out of surprise/shock. In the next iteration of this game, I’d go into further depth increases the quality and quantity of these interactions.
#3: Adding depth to the story
The first several play throughs felt flat once the players finished the game. I attempted to resolve this by building a stronger narrative arch. Through each level you complete, you learn new details about the characters and their relationships to one another. As you comb through the phone for clues, you stumble upon more backstory that add complexity to the simple “cheater” narrative. This adds nuance, blurring the moral integrity of the characters involved. Through some conversations, you learn that the cheater is struggling to reconcile her relationship with her future ambitions. Though some may still write her off as a cheater, others might find compassion and sympathy for the coming of age plot.
These details emerge naturally as you explore the phone, but are not forced unto the reader. I achieved this by identifying a primary flow and a secondary flow which reveals backstory and plot. For those simply wishing to solve the puzzles and be done, the narrative can be ignored. For those interested in the story and character, there are several “easter eggs” that enrich the experience.
#4: Clearer leveling and direction
In my final tuning during the last two play tests, I worked to make the game more cohesive. I found that at some points, players felt misdirected where they were retrieving facts from several steps back and being asked to use them to unlock a new stage. This didn’t feel natural. To resolve this, I reworked the flows and puzzles so that each prior step held clues to unlock the next.
After unlocking the messaging app, a certain conversation held a clue to unlock a hidden photo album. In other words, evidence from Point A unlocked the next level, Point B.
To improve direction for confused players, I added more explicit initial direction by revising copy and interjecting “missions” to direct users toward a next point. I also relied on existing mental models to make it easier to solve puzzles. Lastly, I introduced slight misdirection to make puzzles feel challenging.
One password asks the player to enter “Mom’s birthday.” One would naturally go to the calendar to find the date, but it’s actually not on the calendar. On the todo app, you find a task to “Call Mom” which infers a birthday. Once that’s identified, the password placeholder gives you a correct date format and you are able to break into the messages. Though this may seem straight forward with hindsight, this creates the right level of challenge and ease that makes the puzzle fun and engaging.
#5: Adding more thrill
A core type of fun is fantasy. Tiff and Sax gives players permission to invade another’s privacy. To feed into this type of fun, I add selfies and embarrassing conversations about diarrhea and 🍆 sizes. Moreover, players stumble upon conversations they should not be reading. For example, you might stumble upon a private “sexting” conversation or a fight between the main character and her dad. Through several iterations, I fought to achieve the right balance of thrill through making the phone more intimate and personal. At each point, players are meant to reflect on the conversations they should not be reading, and question their own morals for choosing to go through the phone.
Tiff and Sax is just an MVP for what could eventually be a full fledged game. I’m extremely proud of what I was able to achieve in a few weeks, and believe that it does demonstrate the potential for this concept. With all that being said, it is not perfect. With more time to design and build, one could refine the story, puzzles, and leveling to create a truly fun and outstanding game. However, I believe that I’ve managed to conceptualize and test a novel game with a great foundation for more work.
Some mechanics I’d like to continue to explore are:
- Collaborative Gameplay: I noticed play testers approached puzzles completely differently, when the solution required a mix of multiple methods or ways of thinking. I have a feeling that framing Tiff and Sax as a collaborative co-op game, puzzles will be more fun. This also opens up new possibilities for gameplay, as multiple devices can be utilized to further immerse the players in the world.
- Open-Ended Conclusion: I also noticed in play testing that some players would feel that they had all they needed to understand the story before it was officially over. However, the structure of the game is currently rigid. If it is redesigned to be more open-ended, players can explore at their pace and to their satisfaction. Moreover, post-game discussion among friends would lead to new insights about the narrative, introducing. a social mediation type of fun.
Try it yourself
Play the game here. Please ensure your audio is enabled. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!
Note: this is only a prototype, and shouldn’t be shared without explicit permission. All stories and characters are purely fiction.
Watch all play test iterations of the prototype here. Later iterations are labeled with a higher trailing number. Note: A few changes were made between these tests and the most recently updated prototype.