Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 23, 2013
I love puzzles in my RPGs – except when I hate them. I have a low threshold of tolerance for the kind of frustration they can yield, but I enjoy great satisfaction in solving them. It’s like having a sweet tooth and an allergy to sugar.
When Legend of Grimrock was released, I was ecstatic. I loved the old puzzle-heavy RPGs that LoG was styled after. I found LoG to be even more puzzle-heavy than I expected. It was fine for a few levels. But I’ve yet to finish the game, because at a certain point I just got tired of them – even when I had the option to hunt down a solution if I found myself “stumped.” But I wasn’t so much stumped as tired of memorizing patterns through trial and error. It was really fun up until the point where it wasn’t. Those represent what I’d call the “action puzzles.” These are the puzzles that require you to learn and then execute complicated sequences of actions.
I have always felt the same about platform-game levels… which is probably why I don’t really get into them very much. And why I haven’t been quite as excited about that particular trend in indie games. For people who were practically born with a Nintendo controller in their hand, it’s an awesome time, and I appreciate their fascination, though I don’t quite share it. Yeah, I got through more levels of Super Meat Boy than I thought I ever would, but it’s not something I truly embrace. But then there are times when they are just spectacularly well done, as in the Portal games. If only all “action puzzles” were as brilliantly well-done as Portal!
Then there’s the adventure-game style puzzles… which generally fall into the category of “inventory puzzles”, although ‘inventory’ may mean much more than physical items in your TARDIS-sized pockets. Basically, you acquire something – knowledge, physical items, attributes, whatever – in one location that you can use or combine somehow with something else to gain access to something new – often new locations and new inventory items (which can then be used to solve more puzzles).
Now, these adventure-game puzzles are the kind of puzzles I can really sink my teeth into. I love them – right up to the point where I hate them. In the past, the problem might simply be because I was stumped. My least favorite puzzle of all time – which Tim Schaffer FINALLY admitted to being unfair – was the Monkey Island 2 puzzle where you are supposed to use JoJo the Monkey as a wrench – get it? Monkey Wrench? – to fix a pump. I quit the game for a year because of that one. There was always the supposition that somewhere I’d missed some item, its pixels hidden away in some scene that I’d failed to recognize.
Even with a solution a quick Internet search away, these kinds of things – in excess, or when poorly designed and not providing enough clues to the player – take me out of the game and can ruin my enjoyment. Still, sometimes I still enjoy a good adventure game (or even a bad one), and I like the occasional adventure-game style puzzle in my RPGs. For many years, they were a staple of the genre. Then – perhaps with the advent of Diablo – they became relatively scarce, replaced with more straight-up combat, other puzzle types, and of course “quests” that explicitly stated the items you needed to acquire to move forward. Recently, possibly because of the indie movement, they’ve been making a little bit of a comeback in RPGs.
Then there’s the “true puzzle.” These are obstacles that literally block progress until you solve some kind of puzzle or brain-teaser. You cannot take the battle to the evil overlord until you’ve solved this crossword puzzle! Or solved the Towers of Hanoi yet again! Unlike the action-game “platform puzzle” elements, these depend on more on logic (and sometimes outside knowledge) than trial-and-error, memorization and timing / execution.
Yes, these get irritating. And yes, I had a couple of those in Frayed Knights. Used sparingly, I don’t have a problem with them, and I think they can help add pleasing variation to the gameplay of an RPG. But they can also get very frustrating, particularly when the end-user doesn’t “get it.” It’s very difficult to gauge the difficulty of the puzzle. While a “medium” difficulty Soduku puzzle (not that I’d ever recommend one in an RPG!) would be a piece of cake for an experienced Sodoku player in the middle of a game, a player who has never played anything like that before might find it completely impenetrable and unplayable. It will effectively shut down the game for him, probably forever. That’s not “adding variety” to the gameplay – it’s ruining the game.
That’s a very fine line to walk…
A fourth type of puzzle – and possibly the best of this list – is what I might term a “tactical puzzle.” This is a standard combat that provides some additional rules / exceptions that requires some logical problem solving to resolve. If the player doesn’t re-think their usual tactics, they’ll face a very difficult encounter.
These are very common in action games. In RPGs, they are either relatively rare or so “baked” into the system (as they should be, IMO) that they aren’t quite so noticeable. The nice thing about this is that in an RPG, there’s often an automatic “bypass” to the puzzle if the player can’t figure it out… they can usually just gain a few levels and buy a few magic items and brute force their way through the challenge if they can’t out-think it. It may even be a stretch to call these sorts of challenges a “puzzle,” but it’s one way of thinking about it.
The big problem here is that when players can customize (or optimize) their characters a particular way, there’s a chance that a boss or other encounter that changes the rules may invalidate that specialization, and result in a combat far more difficult than intended. Once again, this has the potential to be a game-wrecker.
So in the end – I love ‘em and I hate ‘em. I want my adventure games to use them sparingly – sprinkled about to add variety, the spice to the meat. While there are a very few games (like Grimrock) that perhaps overdo it for my personal tastes, there are far more role-playing games that could benefit from a healthy injection of more puzzle elements. So how does a designer walk that fine line between adding variety to the gameplay and ruining the role-playing game?
I suggest the following:
1. Err on the side of easy. The point is to provide an interesting additional activity for the players, not to stump them with a challenge. If a player finds it too easy, then it may be a useless or forgettable element. But if it’s too hard, it’s a game wrecker. It’s an RPG, not a puzzle game, so avoid the latter.
2. Make them optional or bypassable (is that even a word). Allow an alternative solution to the problem that doesn’t require solving the puzzle. Or – as in the case of “tactical puzzles” – don’t completely prohibit the “brute force” option.
3. Use tiered rewards with a puzzle that can be solved at different challenge levels. So an “easy” solution removed the obstacle, but if the player chooses greater challenge, they get that plus additional bonuses. This might help the more puzzle-oriented players keep up with the more action-oriented players in an action-RPG, for example – giving the puzzle-solvers an advantage.
4. Provide in-game hints. This way the player won’t feel quite as motivated to exit the game to look up solutions online. Whenever a player exits my game, I want them to leave happy or wanting more, not frustrated.
5. Don’t require too much trial-and-error to solve a challenge. And if you do, don’t penalize the “error” too heavily (if at all). Otherwise, it’s not a puzzle, it’s simply an exercise in frustration. Dumping the party into a pit of diseased monsters every time they choose imperfectly in a game of “mastermind” is really a bad idea.
No doubt there are plenty of additional puzzle types and suggestions for better implementation (feel free to add your own in the comments). And there are some people who may HATE any semblance of puzzle elements in their RPGs. I’m not one of them. I like ‘em, I just want ‘em done right.
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