Thursday, April 11, 2024

Design review: Botany Manor as a quiet dark detective game

Botany Manor is a 3 hour first person puzzle game about growing plants while exploring a big beautiful fancy house that smells like British Bake-Off.

The main design inspiration here is obviously Gone Home, with a central family-based ambient narrative, household duck homages, and gradually unlocked doors. Many would also compare this to The Witness' soft visual style and sprawling sunny gardens. 

But when you actually play this, it turns out neither of those are useful comparisons. Gone Home anchors its story focus with voice acting, narration, simpler puzzles, and wry realism. The Witness fully commits to hundreds of puzzles at the scope of an open world game. Neither of these really get at the player experience in Botany Manor.

Instead, I think Botany Manor is most usefully compared to The Case of the Golden Idol / Return of Obra Dinn.

SPOILER WARNING: this post spoils the game's overall design structure / puzzle patterns, and spoils the general story and ending.

There are 9 puzzles. Each puzzle is a plant that you must grow under special conditions. 

To figure out these conditions, you must walk around and search for clues. 80% of these clues are textual readables like signs, books, or papers. The clues will usually help you configure a specific machine (e.g. a heater) to grow the plant.

So like for the first tutorial puzzle, you have to grow a plant at the right temperature -- but to figure out the right temperature, you read one clue that mentions Sicily, and then consult another clue that lists several locations to see that Sicily is 50 degrees.

Thankfully, you can solve puzzles without finding all the clues. You can solve some by brute force, or even guess what the puzzle is about. Which means this isn't just a puzzle game. More specifically I think Botany Manor is a information game / detective game like the Golden Idol / Obra Dinn.

This type of investigation gameplay is about: (1) gathering clues, (2) filtering what's relevant, (3) to construct and test a theory.

Here's how Botany Manor handles its investigations:

1. Where are the clues? 

Most of the clues in Botany Manor are text readables, usually books or papers on desks. Sometimes there's also visual pattern matching, like matching a bird in an illustration to a bird chart. Every clue's utility is obvious and every clue is always relevant to something.

The clue gathering is probably the biggest level design weakness here. It's random information scattered in random rooms. Find the coins in the Orangerie, find the pH analysis at a picnic table!... This isn't how people think, nor how people organize their world.

While the game does wisely stay away from "I can't believe I left my favorite soil analysis under my favorite rose bush" there's never any gorgeous brain leaps like "her evil mentor hid the soil data so it's actually in the opposite room" so overall it often feels disconnected from the characters and  environment.

I'm disappointed, but I understand why the devs made these choices. It's not that kind of game, because the clue placement had a more important level design / pacing function...

2. How do we filter the clues? 

After the tutorial chapter, you'll be juggling clues for 2-3 different plants at once. Which is for which?

First, there's a UI-based solution. If you correctly assign all of a plant's clues in your notebook, the game locks them to the page and removes the clues from the pool, allowing you to narrow down your choices. (This is especially helpful when the clue button label is just like "Newspaper" and you don't remember what it actually said.)

But there's also a more subtle level design nudge here. Consider some background: lead developer / studio founder Laure De Mey is a programmer and tech artist who worked on second wave ustwo puzzle games like Assemble With Care -- elegant minimalist jigsaws with minimal confusion and friction. This careful cleanliness permeates the puzzle design. 2-3 clusters of 2-3 clues, all in the same / neighboring rooms. To gate this further, you can't begin to do each puzzle until you find the corresponding seeds -- and the seed packet is usually tucked away next to an unrelated cluster of key clues. This helps promote complete exploration before you start sifting through your clues, which I appreciated.

3. How do we construct and test a theory?

Since all the clues always fit conveniently together, this is a botany-themed game, not a botany game. 

Everything has a clean 100% correct answer with no lingering dilemma or doubt. This fits its branding and audience, I get it... But this isn't how scientists have constructed botany (or any science) which involves trial and error, uncertainty, and genuine mystery.

There are hints that the game used to be more systemic / experimental. The initial steps of every puzzle involve choosing a pot, filling it with soil, planting a seed, and watering it. You do this all at once at the workbench, but these steps are all very rote and don't really vary from puzzle to puzzle... except one of the final puzzles, where different pots + additives can result in different flower colors.

A more scientific game would get you to design an experiment, to perform your own science and collect data. What affects this plant's color? Is it heat, wind, light, acidity, soil sugar content, or any of the previous puzzle mechanics we spent the last 2 hours tutorializing? What if the game, for once, didn't spoon-feed us the answer? What if "failing" a puzzle still produces a pretty flower that we like?

So no, there's never any big picture puzzle systemization / climactic puzzle that utilizes the whole puzzle space / embodies the scientific method. All the puzzle mechanics are one-time one-off things.

Again, I get why they didn't make it more nonlinear and systemic: it'd be complex to design, time-consuming to develop, and maybe their target "wholesome games player" wouldn't appreciate the friction and anxiety. They were probably already getting enough complaints from testers struggling to remember clues for their already streamlined linear puzzle design.

But I still wish they took the risk, I still wish this nice-looking tasteful game had some friction, some anxiety -- some messy noise to contrast with the clean quiet. It would've embodied how science isn't a "pure" thing but rather something made by imperfect humans in conflict with each other and themselves. 

The game we actually got -- it still works, but in a surprisingly sad and possibly unintended way. 

Throughout the game, all these letters and books hint at a background narrative about a frustrated woman botanist kept down by patronizing misogynist male scientists. Men take credit for her work and deny her support at every turn. Well-meaning women in her life suggest that this is all for the greater good of furthering the field of botany, and anyway, she should really find a husband by now!

I'm not sure if there are multiple endings, but at least in my ending, this feminist protagonist fails -- sexist publishers decline to publish the herbarium book you've spent the entire game making, and none of the evil men get their comeuppance. Instead the player protagonist quietly finds personal peace in opening a manor house botany school for women, yet still likely doomed to obscurity.

In this sense, it's a subtle condemnation of incremental feminism: a quiet well-behaved game about a quiet well-behaved woman trapped in a beautiful prison. It hints at the darkness buried deep in every cozy comfy wholesome game.