Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 11, 2011
It felt somewhat serendipitous that I found this excellent interview with Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games – maker of commercial indie graphic adventure games – while I was in the middle of adding some more adventure-game-esque puzzles to Frayed Knights. It provided extra fodder for thought on things I’ve been a-pondering lately, including puzzles in RPGs.
Dave talks about how he stumbled into becoming an indie, and from there stumbled into becoming something of an indie publisher. And he talks about the adventure game genre – with some really choice quotes about them. Including what sucks. Like getting stuck in puzzles. And it’s very true. There are a number of adventure games (and RPGs, for that matter) that I simply quit after banging my head against the wall on a puzzle a few times.
But I also think back on some of my favorite moments of these games, and they often involve solving said puzzles. They are a blessing and a curse. I love beating them, I hate being beaten by them. Dave’s sentiments echo those of Jeff Vogel, recently, when he discussed RPG difficulty. No matter what happens, somebody’s going to get stuck on whatever challenge you throw at them in the game, and they’ll probably not be too happy about it.
I know this has been done before by many other people, but I’ll try detailing the different types of “puzzles” that I find myself working with in my RPG…
The Self-Contained Puzzle: This is a classic puzzle or logic game that requires no external tools to resolve. Worst-case, these may often be resolved by brute force. Some players hate these. Some players think they are kind of fun. Sometimes they take the form of a mini-game. Examples that I’m dredging up from past games might include the riddle-protected chests in Betrayal at Krondor, or a mastermind-style puzzle in Wizardry 7. Or a twisty maze of little passages, all different.
The Sequence Puzzle: Sort of a variation on The Self-Contained Puzzle above, this is a puzzle that requires the player to take actions (often, simply moving) in a specific sequence. Failure may result in having to start over. The key to making these puzzles not suck is twofold: Making sure that there are clues to the correct sequence so that it’s not a pure trial-and-error experience; and making sure that failure is not too punitive. If each stage of an 8-stage sequence takes a full minute to complete, it’s going to piss off players.
The Inventory (“Lock and Key”) Puzzle: This is a challenge where you need to use a specific inventory item on an object to acquire… well, whatever is needed. You can abstract this down as Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw (of Zero Punctuation fame) did to the idea of an inventory item being a key by any other name to be used on a lock. This is pretty standard adventure game fare, but can also among the more boring (and potentially frustrating) puzzles.
The Flexible Solution: This is a puzzle that has a fixed solution, but isn’t quite so specific on how the solution is resolved. I’m thinking of things like the pressure-plate puzzles in the Eye of the Beholder games, where you had to find something to weigh down pressure plates to hold the right doors open. What you used to weigh down the the pressure plates was up to you – discarded weapons, skulls, stones, whatever you felt you could part with.
The Multiple-Choice Problem: This is a problem wherein the player is given a number of fixed options (usually two or three) to resolve it (or bypass it). You can fight the dragon, or sneak past the dragon, or solve an adventure-gamey puzzle to convince it to move to the right spot so you can drop a loosened ceiling block on its head.
The Open-Ended Solution: If the game has a complex enough system to support these kinds of puzzles, they are my favorite. This is a puzzle that is more of a problem-solving exercise, which may have a preferred approach to solving the problem without barring alternative approaches. Games with a physics system often have puzzles like these, where an out-of-reach item can be acquired by any number of weird approaches.
Just Using The Right Tool for the Job: Another favorite of mine is really not considered a puzzle – it’s more frequently dubbed something like “tactics.” These are simply situations that normally occur in the game mechanics or mini-games (like combat… and in Frayed Knights, traps) which may have tricks or preferred approaches that make it far easier. This can be as simple as finding Armbands of Fire Resistance for the party before taking on the fire-breathing dragon.
I don’t think puzzles are anything that should be avoided in an RPG. Going back and replaying the first few levels of Eye of the Beholder reminded me how much fun and entertainment puzzles and puzzle-like challenges can add to a game. If they don’t piss the player off.
How can they avoid pissing off a player? As Dave says in the interview, “If the player has to Google it, you are doing it wrong.”
- RPGs should provide in-game hints. Sometimes it’s just the right keyword that an NPC might suggest that will help the player figure out the solution.
- RPGs should make more challenging puzzles optional. They should either relegated to optional side-quests, or be capable of being bypassed entirely (made “multiple choice”).
- RPGs should use a variety of different puzzle types from the above list. Just to make sure things don’t get stale.
- RPGs should recognize that brute force is not a sin. If the player can’t figure out what the designer thinks of as a “simple” sequence to get through an array of pits, he shouldn’t be forced to go back to the beginning of the sequence each time. Let the player power through the traps and get to the end.
- If it’s not an action game, RPGs should not have a mandatory action sequence / timed puzzle. If you want chocobo races on the side, fine. But a more “cerebrally paced” game shouldn’t suddenly require a high-speed rat chase through a maze. Fortunately, I don’t recall seeing those much anymore (probably because there aren’t many “cerebrally paced” mainstream RPGs being made anymore).
- The designers should assume that while 25% of their customers will love getting to use their brain more in the game, another 25% will hate and resent these puzzles and will want to get back to moving along the story or beating the crap out of monsters as quickly as possible. The games should always find ways to please one group without pissing off the latter.
These are the kinds of ideas that help me enjoy puzzle-solving in RPGs, instead of being filled with anger and resentment. Fortunately, I don’t recall too many RPGs that have really failed in this respect.
And by the way, you should check out the demo for Gemini Rue, published by Wadjet Eye. I need to do a write-up on it. I was pretty dang impressed. It really did make me feel like I was playing a new Sierra adventure game in 1992. Only – in some ways – better.
Filed Under: Adventure Games, Design - Comments: 9 Comments to Read