Adventure Puzzle Design
Writing recently about A New Beginning, I thought it would be a nice time to talk about adventure game puzzle design, and just adventure game design in general. Puzzle design in traditional & click adventure games is arguably one of the weirdest facets of Game Design. For the most part you’re not really designing actual puzzles, more like situations that require some sort of a logical solution. And the ‘logical’ part can be problematic.
Let’s say you have to go through a door that has an important item. You can’t just place a door and allow the player to go through it (well, you can, but for the sake of the argument let’s say that’s a really important plot item, so you can’t). So it’s locked. How do you open it? Well, the most obvious conclusion is that there is a key hidden to it somewhere.
Maybe it’s under a rug by the door, but that’s too anti-climactic and easy to figure out. Maybe the owner of the door hides it in a pot in one of the cupboards. Now this is a little bit trickier. Or maybe, there is no key (or at least there is no way to access it for some reason, let’s say the owner has it with him at all times and he’s on the other side of the world). Lockpick? Maybe. Where do we get one? Do we improvise or get an actual lockpick? These are the thoughts that go through your head as a designer, you want to brain tease a player.
But in an effort to make puzzles more interesting, one should always be wary of the danger of them getting absolutely non-sensical. The solution to opening the door could be punching a bum in the face to get a tooth out of him which we then dip into honey and wrap with a metal string which we attach a gum to and then put it through the lock of the door, not forgetting to take the hairbrush which will be used to rotate the improvised ‘key’. This may seem ridiculous, but there have been quite a few of adventure games with similar puzzles, some making less sense than others. Have you heard of Gabriel Knight 3? It’s got one of the most infamous adventure game puzzles ever due to the amount of logic being equal to zero.
Though when it comes to logic, it’s kind of subjective. People think differently after all. So it’s very important to set-up an internal logic to the game, even if it is set in the real world. So that whole thing with the tooth opening a lock to the door? It’s not as bad if we, for example, saw the bum open up a door using one of his teeth, or… something like that. Still seems ridiculous out of context, but the point is, it’s context that matters. If you show the array of possible actions without directly revealing the solution, then you’ve got on your hand an answer which can be logically deduced. The deduction part is very important.
In the movie Inception, there are two tasks that are able to be done in the minds/dream of the subject – extraction and inception. Extraction is stealing ideas, inception is planting them in. The goal of an adventure game designer is to perform inception on its players. If the player has to perform extraction from the designer’s mind – that’s bad. Trying to guess, using every item on every item, thinking about why a certain thing is in the game because it most likely would not have been there had it not been important, those are all ‘extraction’ actions. As a designer you have to put hints, to make the player, paraphrasing a quote from the movie, conceive a thought about the elephant themselves.
On a side note. There are a lot of things that I don’t miss from adventure games of old. I don’t miss dead ends, for example. Not being able to complete a game because you forgot to check a locker at the very beginning of the game is not good design. But what I do miss is alternative puzzle solutions. Sierra’s old adventure games usually had two solutions to most puzzles. I feel this is very important as it opens up a broader range of possibilities for the player (on the other hand, it’s more costly for the developer). But it’s important for the designer as well, as thinking in terms of alternative solutions allows you to look at a problem from different perspectives and weed out the non-sense that may plague your design.
Another danger of adventure design is padding. Adventure games are usually very story-heavy, so in this door example, there is a danger of adding stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with the plot at all. Let’s say to get a lockpick for the door we’re introduced to a thief character who doesn’t play any role in the main plot, and we go to locations that are there just to get a way to open that single door (let’s say the thief asks for a favor before he gives his mega-awesome lockpick). This is padding.
I’ve always felt that game mechanics and game narrative should play off each other, but this is especially true for point & click adventure games – since the mechanics are so simple that gameplay (and puzzles) pretty much derives from the narrative. I think the Blackwell Legacy series does this very, very well. Probably the most wonderfully designed adventure games of late. They do a wonderful job of providing a bunch of different, and seemingly disconnected, situations (which brings variety) that then are tied up neatly together.
Those games are not without flaws, though. Sometimes they fall into pitfalls of adventure games such as exposition dumps (bleh!), arbitrary puzzle solutions, and some other things. You can see the evolution of the developer’s design philosophies as you go chronologically through those games. And when you do, one thing sticks out: Blackwell series (at least for the most part) does not fall into the most dangerous pitfall of adventure games – passivity.
Let’s face it, adventure games, at least the traditional point & click variation (a game like The Walking Dead by TellTale is a much more active type of adventure genre) are very passive. Lots of dialogue, lots of examining rooms, and all that stuff. You’ve got to give agency to the player.
Don’t start a five minute conversation – keep dialogues to short informative (and character defining) boosts and allow to change topics or leave the dialogue entirely when the player wants to. Keep non-interactive cutscenes to a minimum, – use them to set-up events/situations and convey important events. Let the player explore as soon as possible. Respect the player’s time – don’t hotspot absolutely irrelevant or not interesting objects. Allow him to change the pace if he wants to – quick travel or dialogue skipping.
Keep the player active, engaged. A wonderful story with amazing characters is not enough for an adventure game if the ‘game’ part itself is not up to par. And for the love of everything that is sacred in this world, don’t make us fake mustaches by using syrup to glue cat hair attained by duct taping a hole and scaring the cat to run into that hole.