In the end, the game was intended primarily as an experiment in gameplay (and I'm not just saying that because the graphics in the game suck!). I was initially thinking about creating a platformer that would contrast the exploring of one's imagination vs. the exploring of the real-world or creating a mini-rpg-ish thing about exploring the mundane real-world and finding gems. In the end, I couldn't really figure out a a good hook (plus, I imagined that there would a ton of other platformers about exploring that I couldn't compete against, and indeed the winner was an amazing platformer called Small Worlds). Instead, I ended up returning to some older ideas that I've been thinking about for a long time.
For a long time, I'd felt that there might be a latent demand for archaeology games in exotic locales. There are games that employ this theme, but the underlying game mechanic are usually unrelated and don't "feel" like archaeology. About three or four years ago, Pop Cap held a casual games contest, and though I didn't enter, I spent a while experimenting with gameplay mechanics. Back then, the most popular casual games were variants of match-three games or solitaire, so I came up with a theory that the key to making a good casual game was to find a simple cognitive skill (e.g. find matching colours/cards or counting or finding consecutive cards) that had to repeated over and over again and which could be made difficult by enforcing a time limit (plus a couple other additional requirements that I now forget). So I went about looking for little cognitive tasks that could be built up into a game. I found a couple, but the one that seemed the most interesting was to have a zoomed in view of a map, where the location kept moving around and turning, and you would have to find that location on a larger zoomed-out map. I could never figure out a proper narrative that would allow me to build a larger game out of this mechanic. I later tried to fit it into my archaeology idea, but it never worked plot-wise. But with this contest, I decided to have another go at it. I started thinking that I was using the gameplay mechanic too literally--sure you may never need to track someone moving throughout a map in real-life, but it could be used as a representation of searching. So if you had to find something in a city or a library, you could simply repeat this cognitive task 5 times within a time limit or something.
I originally wanted a plot about how your great-grandfather or something was a great explorer who died in the woods with a great treasure, and though you were initially only interested in the treasure, by the end you learn the value of the "explorer spirit" and are no longer interested in treasure. But I couldn't really think of a good ending (I was thinking maybe that you spend the whole journey complaining about why your ancestor left behind his travel journal but kept the treasure and how you couldn't understand why he kept on exploring--but then you discover some amazing site, or you really enjoy your journey, or you find that he discovered an important pass or something like that). I could probably have worked something out, but I was worried about creating a game that was "faux profound"--I am really turned off by games that play with grand themes like life/death/suffering/etc. but actually show no understanding of the topic. I find it trite, inauthentic, and contrived. So I instead went for a simple, straight-forward tale of a prospector lost in the woods--no symbolism, no allegory, just a guy in the woods. My biggest mistake was in creating the map before creating the puzzles for the game. I had a general idea of what puzzles I wanted, but I didn't make them concrete until later because I wanted to see if I could get the map to work first. Unfortunately, the map ended up being too plain to support a lot of clever puzzles or interesting story developments. Of course, the map (and associated drawings) took so long to make that it was not practical to create a new one. I was also thinking of making an additional level with a higher level of difficulty that involved a plot with ambushes by bandits, hiding in caves, extreme cockiness in the beginning about the scavengers who prey on the wealth of the strong, and a later renewed humility in the end as they promise to renounce everything if they could survive the brutality of nature. I was thinking of something like those western novels that spend a lot of time talking about the intricacies of tracking prey, setting ambushes, avoiding ambushes, etc. But, of course, time didn't allow for it.
The comments had a lot of complaints about the library revealing too much information. I guess I originally was thinking of the game as a stand-alone game where if people get stuck, they would get frustrated and leave. So although I toyed with the idea of making an elaborate clue system, I decided to simply put the answer there. What I forgot is that at Jay Is Games, there is a large community that comments on games, so it's in fact better to simply let players get stuck in the game. These players would then use the comment system to give each other clues and to make a walkthrough. In fact, putting the library feature into the game actually makes for a worse Jay Is Games game because the community becomes less engaged by it and make fewer comments. I'll have to keep in mind this "meta-game" in my future game designs.
In the end, I'm pleased with the result even if I know that it could be a lot better. I think I met my goals of creating a casual game that plays different from conventional casual game fare. It's sort of like a movie made by a movie critic for movie critics. The game isn't that refined and may not have a lot of soul, but I think the central mechanic and overall design break are different from what's out there and will be pleasing to people who play lots of casual games and would like to try something different every once in a while.