Teslagrad: Game Design 101
Hardship, mystery, and a sprinkle of Russian steampunk; these are just some elements of what Teslagrad has to offer. Released in 2013 by Norwegian indie developer Rain Games, there is a good chance you have not heard of this game. I did not know of this game until I got the opportunity to play a little of it during a lesson on independent games in one of my courses at school. In that session, my classmates and I overcame the first boss after dozens of failures. After the thrill of beating the game’s first boss, I knew I had to check Teslagrad out on my own time. After I finished my 4-hour experience, I was impressed by how much I enjoyed Teslagrad and I took away valuable insight from its game design. Teslagrad’s combination of mysterious setting and focused gameplay mechanics makes it a great game to learn from for aspiring game developers.
Teslagrad starts off with a runaway sequence where the player, a nameless boy, must escape capture from angry men in red jackets and fur hats. With no UI or dialogue, the only controls available to the player are running and jumping. This introduces mechanics to the player in a context where they can learn the physics of the game and discover a feel for the distances and judgments of their jumps. Additional gameplay mechanics come from items the player obtains throughout the game. These are spread throughout the length of the game so the gameplay constantly stays fresh. Each item holds viability and their powers must be combined with other items later on. Most of the items involve a magnetism mechanic introduced early in the game. The two colors, red and blue, work as magnets that manipulate the environments and provide tricky and fun puzzles for the player. The magnetism mechanic allows for clever level design and unique platforming puzzles that require precise horizontal and vertical traversal. It is up to the player to initially figure out how the mechanic works, but after experimentation it is easy to figure out how it works. Platforming puzzles dominate gameplay in an incrementally difficult way until the player encounters one of the 5 boss fights throughout the game.
A surprising feature about Teslagrad is the difficulty of the boss fights. Since there are only 5 bosses in the whole game, each one feels unique and has a place in the story. These bosses require the player to master the mechanics that they have been learning throughout the puzzle platforming portion of the game. The key to winning the boss battle usually involves the most recent item the player has obtained, but later boss battles require the player to combo their items together to exploit the boss’ weaknesses. Since the player character dies in one hit, the player must master their movements, the item’s abilities, and learn the boss’ move set. This constant juggle keeps the player engaged, and makes the player feel rewarded once they have overcome the challenge. The boss fights are a highlight of Teslagrad’s quality gameplay design because it is up to the player to increase their skill and overcome the challenge while the game does not hold their hand along the way.
The other side of Teslagrad’s game design is its story and presentation. In general, game designers should avoid loads of text and front-load exposition because too much reading or cut-scenes can disengage a player. Teslagrad has no dialogue and uses visuals to present most of the story. These visuals include paintings, drawings, and animated puppet shows. This puts the burden of interpretation on the player, but also allows the player to theorize and have fun with their imagination. The player can also collect scrolls throughout the game that give little bites of lore and story. These storytelling elements require the player to piece together a mystery in order to figure out what happened in the past and learn about the villain’s intentions for the future. The story has multiple endings, depending on how many scrolls the player collects. At one point in the story, the player needs a certain number of scrolls to progress. The game world is designed so players can easily revisit old areas and collect scrolls that may have been previously unavailable if the player did not have the correct items. While I was not the biggest fan of this game design decision, I see how it can appeal to fans of the Metroidvania genre or achiever type players who want to complete everything in the game.
Teslagrad is a hidden gem of a game. In an experience lasting only a few hours, players will be challenged but eventually rewarded when they master the game’s mechanics. The interesting story and difficult boss fights show that the developers paid attention to detail and good game design practices by focusing their design to deliver a narrow but quality experience. By giving the player agency and burden, they feel like they are improving their skills when they progress. Developers, video game analysts, and video game enthusiasts will all find a valuable experience in Teslagrad.
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