Cantaloop: A Breakout Hit


Friedemann Findeisen points and clicks us in the right direction in the narrative adventure game, Cantaloop

Words by Christopher Johnn Eggett

Friedemann Findeisen has been making this game for ten years. Originally conceived as a video game during his student years, Findeisen had it almost completed – with voiceovers, music and so on. The only things that scuppered the digital game was the fact that students aren’t exactly known for their work ethic “it was a complete failure in a lot of ways.” So while he has the whole story, many of the puzzles, the illustrations were never finished by his friends from the art departments – “it was a very long time and things just not really moving on, nobody meeting their deadline, you know, students.”

Findeisen, a music teacher, musician and now game designer amongst other disciplines, spend the intervening years playing Kosmos published Exit games and the Unlock! series. These games inspired him to create what is now Cantaloop. Before a meeting with games publisher Lookout, for an entirely different title, he whipped up a new prototype. When he showed the game to the team at Lookout, they leapt at the chance to publish it.

Cantaloop is an inspired love letter to the point and click adventures of the 80s and 90s.

“If you are familiar with Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, and those types of games from the 80s and 90s, you’re going to feel right at home here,” says Findeisen, introducing the game, “it’s basically a direct port to the board game medium. And it was made for people who used to play those games who want to have a nostalgia kick, who love struggling with some puzzles and enjoy having a good time combining weird things with other weird things.”

UNRELIABLE NARRATOR 

The source pleasure of these games comes from the weird lateral thinking, and sometimes absolute obtuseness, of combining something from somewhere else with something in your current environment. Cantaloop applies much of this logic using scenes with code markers on different items in the room, and using your magnifying glass to inspect them, or combining them with a different object. This leads players look up the scrambled text on the opposite page, or in the inventory combo booklet, using a red filter. The filter reveals the text which will in part be there to help you – telling you to take an item from the three card decks, or sometimes, if you’ve done something silly, make fun of you. What did you expect to happen when you tried to apply the teabags to the prison guard?

The first book is all about trying to put together the perfect team for a heist, Ocean’s 11 style. The main character, Hook, had to flee the country after an old associate, Mr. White called the police on a job they’d done together. Mr. White’s grip on the city has meant that all of Hook’s old heist teams have moved away. Instead, Hook has to start afresh by tracking down a ‘woman in red’ – which he quickly realises should be the jazz singer from a local bar, and a hacker – who happens to already be in prison. Shlocky stuff, and a pleasure to engage with on your gaming table.

Naturally, it being book shaped, we asked whether the game should be considered a ‘narrative game’?

“I think the first part of Cantaloop, isn’t really a narrative game. It’s the puzzles are definitely the biggest part of it. But that’s just because of the nature of the game,” says Findeisen, “originally when I pitched the game, I said, I wanted to do all three parts together as one as one big game. And so it was originally structured as a three act thing. Act one is just the exposition, which introduces the characters and place. It gives you an idea of what the world is like. And then in act two and three, that’s when really the story happens. So act one is pretty light on story. Acts two and three are definitely more narrative.”

The book is spiral bound, with tabs for easy navigation. The decks are broken into three, numbered so you can easily pull out the right cards when instructed. Progress is marked on a card with letter-number combinations. So when you’ve completed part of the story, you’ll mark off ‘A1’ and then when you reach a piece of text in an investigation which says ‘A1: take card 45’ you’ll be able to action it. While Findeisen might suggest there’s not as much of a narrative in the first part of the game, it’s very quickly evident that the world is going to tell its own story through its offer of open exploration.

OPEN WORLD GAMING

The true pleasure of Cantaloop comes from its openness. Players can freely move Hook between locations, and in each location you could, in theory, spend your time looking at every item in the scene, applying everything to everything, and brute forcing your progress. Or you could just do the sensible thing, which usually leads you to something like advancement. It’s a weird thing to relearn as a player – especially if you’ve played a lot of Exit and Unlock games. 

“I’m often moved by frustration and I, as much as I like the Exit and Unlock games, a lot of it also frustrated me as a storyteller,” says Findeisen, “because I thought, although the puzzles are very creative you can exchange a vial for swords and you’re going from a laboratory theme to a medieval theme but it’s the same idea, right? It doesn’t matter.”

“And what I wanted to do was create puzzles that make sense in the world. Now the challenge with that is, and I tried to make Cantaloop a fairly realistic game, there’s no moon logic,” says the designer, “that’s the really tricky part about it, when you solve a puzzle or when you see the solution, want players to be like, ‘Oh, of course that’s what the solution is’. But you don’t want people to go ‘well, that was obvious – obviously that was the only thing I could do.’ That was the hardest thing about designing Cantaloop is you have to figure out a way to stay realistic and make the riddles live in a in a real world while also giving the player a little bit of a challenge, making it lateral enough. So it’s not just, well, you have a key and there’s a door.”

Instead, there’s the aforementioned openness of the world. The puzzles aren’t gated in the same way as other games, and there’s likely to be times when you return from one side of the island to the other because of an ‘aha!’ moment. The fact that there’s sensible real world logic behind everything makes the game flow naturally, you don’t necessarily just need to apply every item to every other item, there’s no point trying to brute force it either as the amount of amusing dead end dialogue is going to keep you in check.

DEAD ENDERS

Dead ends are a big part of a game where players can nearly do anything they want. Want to fix the shower with a bag of PG tips? You can try. You’ll probably get told this is a silly idea by the author of the book, and the protagonist themselves.

“There’s a few ways to deal with dead ends,” says the designer, “a lot of the interactions give you a funny line, funny comebacks, and in some cases you’re being told you’re an idiot. But there’s also a help section at the end of the game, if you really do run into a dead end.”

“But the most important thing for me, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this often in other games, is the non-linear the non-linearity of the puzzles,” says Findeisen, “so the story is very linear. There is only one story that you’re following, but the order in which you solve the puzzles is very non-linear. You could decide you want to do this first or that. At almost any given point there’s always at least two things you could be doing. So the chances of you getting stuck are greatly diminished, hopefully. And in in future games, in the second and third parts, I went even further with that – there’s at least three puzzles you could be solving at any given time.”

When players bump into those dead end combinations however there’s two ways you can go as a writer, says Findeisen.

“You could either help the player solve the puzzles they’re in when they find a combination that’s not correct. You could say, ‘Oh, that’s, that’s incorrect. You’re an idiot. But maybe you should try this’ right? So you could help them steer them in the right direction. I decided very early on that this was not what I want to do. Whenever I’m in a game, when I’m being told the answer, I’m just like: ‘well, you didn’t give me a chance.’”

Findeisen’s favourite puzzle in the game is one that players will encounter early, where Hook needs to get the jazz singer off stage so he can talk to her. Getting there however, sees you crashing through a whole host of bumpy interactions. It’s like you’re not playing as Hook, but guiding him, and there’s another voice as well, that of the designer.

“It feels a little bit like a dialogue,” says Findeisen, “I think any good games should do that in a way it should give you feedback for your actions. And it makes you feel good if you get something.”

 

WHAT’S NEXT?

Findeisen has two more acts of Cantaloop coming out with Lookout soon.

“There’s part two where we try to do something a little bit different. One thing that we learned from part one is that the city still feels a little empty. The locations still feel a little empty to me now that I see it,” says Findeisen, although we have to say we didn’t notice, “and part two there’s a lot more dialogues. There’s more characters that you can interact with and there’s more puzzles with them. And in part three, I can already say, you are not just controlling Hook, but since you are have a three part crew there will be other people that you can control as well.”

Naturally Findeisen is writing another game in the series – different from Cantaloop and “much more story driven.”

“It is even more Monkey Island – more nostalgic in that sense,” says Findeisen, “Cantaloop is like movie logic, whereas this other one is really like cartoon puzzles and really like Monkey Island with some really ridiculous moon logic puzzles. So that I’m really excited about. It’s about a, about a vampire in his midlife crisis.” 

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You can find our review of Cantaloop by clicking here, or you can hear us discuss it in the Tabletop Gaming Podcast.


This feature originally appeared in Issue 53 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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