As you could probably imagine, most casual game developers set out from the beginning to make a game. After a time, it’s inevitably required that said game be encased in a story, some narrative thread propelling the player from level to level.
But Gamenauts’ Cate West: The Vanishing Files arrived a different way entirely. Stanley Adrianus, founder of the company, had a lead character and a story he wanted to tell about her – he just needed the right game for the job.
Seek and ye shall find
"The main impetus comes from my passion for narrative based games, especially the old adventure games from my childhood" Adrianus said. "I also had this Cate West character that I’ve been developing for a couple of years."
Adrianus was so anxious to use his clairvoyant author that Cate had almost found herself in two other casual game titles before she cracked open The Vanishing Files.
"Both were different genres and one was actually a Mahjong game!" he said. "I was really just looking for the right kind of game for Cate to live in."
Early sketches of Cate
Eventually, Adrianus decided that the seek and find genre was probably the best for communicating his story of mysticism and intrigue and giving Cate a world in which to live.
But he wanted more than a seek and find game, he wanted a title with substance, variety. The problem he kept running into was how his team could add other genres without it seeming forced.
"The one thing I wasn’t satisfied with were the lack of true, coherent purposes to these mini games. Things such as: why do I need to find 10 wine bottles? Or why am I matching stamps? Wait, I’m putting together a jigsaw… again?" he said.
The other directions of West
His solution came from his story, actually, and in finding gameplay that was a natural extension of a detective story. Most were fairly straightforward variations on the seek and find genre. But when it came time for players to pick out the prime suspect for a crime, Adrianus wanted something completely different.
"I needed something to tie all these 4 previous types together," he said. "You can see the culmination of all the clues and info that you’ve found being used in this part."
What he settled on was sort of a modern update on the old board game "Guess Who?", requiring players to use not only their observational but deductive skills.
In a twist, players must put objects back into the scene instead of removing them.
But Adrianus says he was most satisfied with the last gameplay type, in which players are asked to reassemble a crime scene.
"My basic motivation behind it is to turn the traditional hidden object gameplay on its head – instead of you taking stuff out, you’re putting stuff back in," he said. "I thought that it was a pretty cool and innovative twist and we’ve received a lot of very positive feedback on it, so we’re really happy that it worked out."
Seekers and mystics
Though the game was originally developed as a method to tell a story, the narrative not only evolved during development but was, in a sense, influenced by some of the gameplay.
Throughout it all, psychic Cate was at the center of the story, but the game’s more mystical elements evolved from Romani gypsies to the biblical Three Wise Men. It was in their story he discovered an odd connection between his characters and those Magi from long ago.
An early sketch of Cate and Ben’s first meeting
"Then when I came across the names of the Magi, it all just came together for me: Caspar for Cate, Balthazar for Ben and Melchior for M (Wesley’s W is an upside down M)." he said. "The weirdest thing was that I had come up with the names of Cate, Ben and M long ago, so it was honestly a really pleasant surprise that their initials correspond to the names of the 3 Magi! So I took that as either a lucky fluke or a good sign that I should try this route for the story."
Though his story and heroine were settled, deciding exactly what should should look like was the final hurdle. It turned out to be quite the headache.
"The only difficult part was getting the right artist to nail down Cate’s character design and style," Adrianus said. "I think I went through about 4 different artists before getting the right one.
The big finish
When Cate West reaches the end of The Vanishing Files, players will discover themselves in different situations depending on how they played through the game. Adrianus said that there was a very practical reason for developing a branching end.
"Hidden objects are typically known to have a shorter than average gameplay length and also limited replayability," he admitted. "So I wanted to try and solve this by having different endings based on your final score to encourage players to replay the game to get the best ending as possible."
Police station progression (click to enlarge)
Even though The Vanishing Files features a richer, more diverse story than most casual games, players might be surprised to hear that it’s only half what Adrianus originally envisioned.
"We ended up cutting almost 50% of the story. I was a little disappointed initially, but in the end it made for a much better pacing and flow of the game," he said, before jokingly adding: "Maybe there can be a Director’s Cut of the game one day."
Seeing the future
Fans who are bummed that they didn’t get to see Cate’s whole story should take heart though. Adrianus says that there’s much, much more to tell.
"The story in The Vanishing Files is actually a small part of a larger tale for Cate," he said. "I’ve mapped out the entire story and it takes a bit of a left turn after the events of this game. It will still be wrapped up in a lot of religious mysticism, but will go way beyond the Three Magi story."