The making of Paradigm, a surreal adventure game

Features
8 months ago by Jack Yarwood

A chat with indie developer Jacob Janerka.

Over the last few years, the adventure game genre has seen quite a revival. No longer do critics and fans consider it dated! It’s home to tons of new ideas -- and you can see this by looking at the response to games like Night in the Woods, Kentucky Route Zero, and Burly Men at Sea. Paradigm, a new adventure game developed by Jacob Janerka, is another fresh take on the genre.  It takes many of the old-fashioned features associated with the genre and changes them to be more satisfying for a contemporary audience. This is on top of developing its own unique personality players can enjoy.

In the game, you play as a genetically mutated child prodigy, Paradigm, who’s been dumped in a post-Soviet town. Your goal is to piece together the mystery surrounding your birth, overcoming obstacles put into place by an evil sloth businessman. You’ll do this by solving inventory puzzles and exploring landmarks like a junkyard, a drug dealer’s mansion, and the inside of a genetics factory. If any of that sounds weird to you, that’s because it is. The game is full of surreal situations and designs that are unlike anything you’ve likely seen before. You just need to look at Paradigm himself.

“I got the initial idea for the game in 2012,” says Janerka. “It actually was a 2D sidescroller at the beginning. Lots of the core story was in place then, but it eventually kept evolving until I decided to go down the adventure game route. Midway through my studies I also went to Europe. Specifically, Eastern Europe inspired me a lot, which then fed into the game.”

The game also had many other influences, most obviously old Lucas Arts adventure games like Sam & Max, Full Throttle, and Day of the Tentacle. These titles skillfully combine comedic writing with intricate puzzle design and memorable characters -- something Janerka aspired towards with his own project.

"The majority of my ideas come from just spending hours with A3 pieces of paper and vomiting words and sentences till something makes me laugh."

To realize this goal, he turned to Kickstarter. This ensured he’d maintain complete creative control, and allowed him to pursue stranger ideas without unnecessary interference from a publisher. Some examples of these stranger ideas include the optional dog tutorial that involves a video of a confused golden retriever trying to explain the mechanics of the game, and the JRPG boss battle with a glam metal pug. I told you it was weird.

Janerka states, “A lot of those more intense sequences were a product of, ‘This puzzle is not cool enough. It’s shit and terrible. How can I make it better?’ So I would have the core design down, but I would constantly think of a flurry of ideas on how to make it funnier or more enjoyable. The majority of my ideas come from just spending hours with A3 pieces of paper and vomiting words and sentences till something makes me laugh.”

Humor was clearly an important aspect of the game for Janerka. Throughout Paradigm, he included tons of clever jokes and visual gags, which help to relieve the player’s frustration if they find themselves stuck on a puzzle. These include a dancing desktop advisor you can discover by poking around in the factory’s IT support, and a rapping refrigerator in the factory’s canteen. Both of these serve no purpose other than to reward the player’s curiosity and provide a break from puzzle solving -- something I was thankful for as it allowed me to mull over my options and get better acquainted with the world.

Beside humor, music is another significant part of the game’s appeal. It plays a huge role in the story, as not only is Paradigm an electronic musician, but there’s also a glam metal cult and multiple in-game records to stumble across. These tracks were written by the freelance composer and sound designer Jonas Kjellberg, who delivers an appropriately eclectic score.

"I definitely had a fantasy of being an electronic music artist, but I did the painty, not the beep boopy."

“Music was crucial very early on in the process,” Janerka replies, when asked about this. “I really wanted a game with a DJ-like character as the protagonist. I definitely had a fantasy of being an electronic music artist, but I did the painty, not the beep boopy. This naturally influenced the whole game.

“Jonas Kjellberg came in a bit later when I finally wanted to take the project seriously and start a Kickstarter,” he adds. “He found me on Reddit and we had instant rapport. Out of pure chance, he was probably the best composer I could ever ask for, especially because of the eclectic nature of the game and he was willing to slap his belly for art. See Belly Slappin' Live 88' in-game.”

Of course, all of this effort would be wasted if the game wasn’t fun to play. This is why Janerka included a choice of two difficulty settings: to ensure players wouldn’t lose interest in the game’s harder puzzles. Paradigm’s easier difficulty gives inexperienced players access to a helpful hint system by talking to the tumor on Paradigm’s head, while experienced adventure gamers can play unaided. This feature means you won’t have to bludgeon your head against your keyboard, unless that’s what you expect from an adventure game.

Janerka recalls, “The biggest thing I wanted to stay away from was just player frustration or fatigue. Obviously if you design it well, it shouldn't be a problem, but not all adventurers are made equal. It’s also hard to tell even if you play test multiple demographics.”

He continues, “So I made a lot of fallback for certain player’s skill levels. The real hardcore crowd would normally get through the game with no help. Then there was an in-game hint system in which you can talk to your tumor. Then if you badgered him enough, he would literally give you a walkthrough. The next obvious step is me personally coming to your house to help you. But I was advised otherwise.”

"Personally I think it's wonderful that adventure games are making a comeback."

Paradigm has many of the same mechanics you’d expect from an adventure game, like inventory items, dialogue trees, and problem solving, but Janerka successfully stamps his own personality on all of them. You can see this in the offbeat puzzle solutions, the humorous character interactions, and the game’s tutorials. It’s this imagination and the game’s accessibility that prevents unnecessary stress, providing players with an experience that, while challenging, is fun throughout -- something that’s absolutely necessary for the genre’s continued success.

“Personally I think it's wonderful that adventure games are making a comeback,” says Janerka, commenting directly on the genre’s resurgence. “New younger players get to experience the games they normally wouldn't have and the old get to re-experience their favorite childhood memories playing these kind of titles. You can never have enough adventure games!”