Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Adventure Puzzles in the Age of Internet Walkthroughs

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 29, 2010

Telltale Games is turning into a “big indie,” and I do not begrudge them their success. I’m really pleased with these guys for doing their part to keep the graphic adventure game genre alive, and doing a great job with their licenses. If you haven’t played any of their games yet, go try out a free demo or two. I highly recommend their Tales of Monkey Island series. It’s 100% authentic Monkey Island. The episodes don’t take very long to play – you can play one to completion in a single evening.

Last week I played through the first episode of Telltale Games’ new Back to the Future series. I encountered a couple of small issues, and thought the explanation for the return of the DeLorean was cheesy (but hey, how else would they bring it back?), but otherwise it seems like it’s shaping up to be another excellent series.

The game does have a lot more “newbie-friendly” additions. It spells out new objectives as they develop at the top-left of the screen, with an icon you can click on if you forget what you were trying to do last. And it includes a built-in hint system. Sometimes this includes progressive levels of clues – you can start with a small hint, and then opt for a bigger one. And fortunately, much of this is configurable, so that veteran players don’t have to be hit over the head with reminders.

The hint system reminded me a little bit of a staple of the glory days of Infocom, their cluebooks that used invisible ink that people could highlight and view as needed, often with progressive hints. Not that I ever had or used one at the time – I mainly heard about them and have seen the modern web-based equivalents. I think someone showed me a real one once, but that was a long time ago. Back when I was playing the Infocom games, I generally had to figure them out the hard way, or rely on help from friends or clues published in books or magazines.

Back in the day when the Internet was more about FTP, Telnet, and usenet, and generally restricted to college students, adventure games thrived. They were all about solving puzzles. Unfortunately, they also too often tested our patience as well. Or our ability to hunt pixels on a screen or guess what word or warped possibilities the designer (or “Implementer’ in the case of Infocom text adventures) had in mind when creating it. Back then, there was little free, instant access to solutions like there is today (unless you had a friend who’d beaten the game). More than half the time I spent in adventure games was simply exploring possible solutions or clues to get out of whatever had me stumped.

(I should note that co-designer Tim Schafer finally admitted on Twitter, on a replay of the special addition, that the monkey-wrench puzzle in Monkey Island 2 was totally unfair. I’ve been saying that for years, after that brought the game to a screeching halt for me for months! But I digress…)

But if you have tempting, immediate solutions to all puzzles handy – as we all have one Google search away – would that spoil the experience? Shrink these epic games down to a three-hour jaunt? Part of me theorized that it would – and has.  Was easy access to help and Internet walkthroughs a factor that helped bring the adventure game genre to it’s current niche status? Maybe, but the more I play modern indie adventure games (and RPGs), the less I’m inclined to believe that.

I mean, yeah — having some random, third-party walkthrough handy is a potentially nasty, spoiler-ific way to go through a game.  Been there, done that, accidentally stumbled onto some things I would rather have discovered for myself.  But a structured hint system built into the game, or well-indexed walkthrough or hint guide (by the game creator or third party, doesn’t matter)? I can’t answer for everybody, but I can answer a few questions for myself:

#1 – How many times have I quit playing an adventure game (or RPG) because I was stumped about what to do next for longer than I had the patience for? Answer: Lots.

#2 – How often have I ended up playing through an entire game mainly by stepping through the walkthrough? Answer: Never, in spite of referencing them for a number of games.

#3 – Is a game less fun if it lasts only half as long for me because I was able to get help on the parts that frustrated me? Answer: No, quite the opposite. But I always have more fun solving the problems by myself without help.

#4 – Have I ever felt like a game was “ruined” for me because I accessed a walkthrough or had to hunt down a hint or solution on a forum somewhere?  Answer: Nope. There have been places where I kicked myself for not noticing something important and had to have it spelled out to me in the walkthrough, or felt that a particular part of the game was too easy to get lost in or just unfair, but I never felt that peeking at the answers ruined a game for me.

#5 – Once I’ve located a walkthrough, how often do I find myself referencing it instead of solving problems for myself? Answer: Not very, though I admit that once I’ve found one, the temptation rises to access it more frequently than I would if I had to hunt down individual answers. It’s always hardest (and most pride-damaging) the first time….

#6 – Am I more likely to buy a new game from a developer who’s previous game I actually FINISHED or never finished? Answer: Duh.

So in the grand scheme of things, I think there’s evidence in my own behavior (if I’m anything close to the “target audience” for these games) that easy access to solutions isn’t really a threat to this style of gameplay.  One might even argue that the downfall of the adventure game might have been partly because they tended to go too hardcore for players, making it a frustrating experience for newer players.

Another thing this might suggest is that developers of adventure games and RPGs with a dependency on some adventure-style puzzles (as most SHOULD be, IMO… but that’s me) should embrace the concept and provide first-party support. Some indie RPG developers are doing that, offering their own hint e-books separately, or even bundled with the game.  They should be less stingy about in-game clues, too. That way, hints and solutions can be offered in a more structured way, so that players are less likely to stumble across unwanted help by accident.

But things can be taken too far — and have. That “unwanted help” thing…

The principle fun-factor of adventure games has always been figuring out the solutions to devious puzzles yourself. Games should never rob players of that opportunity. Step-by-step instructions and pathways marked on the map and on the main screen may be very helpful to a player that is hopelessly lost or confused or just somehow never realized that dark smudge on the map was supposed to represent a cave. There’s a reason I don’t just step through a walkthrough to play a game, and that is because it’s far more fun if I don’t have somebody holding my hand the whole way.

Filed Under: Adventure Games - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    It’s funny, I never thought that particular MI2 puzzle was difficult.

    I’ve had my fair share of moments though, there’s usually one moment in every game I’ve played where you just can’t think of the right solution, even if others find it obvious.

    My rule of thumb with walkthroughs is to try and go as long as I can without consulting one, and if I find myself checking it too often I generally will stop playing (my logic being that if a game requires you to constantly look to a walkthrough, then it’s not very well made).

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, it’s funny what stumps people. The monkey puzzle was really just a gag… but I also never realized that I could put JoJo in my inventory.

    Apparently the Babelfish puzzle in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is supposed to be one of the hardest puzzles of any Infocom game, but I thought it was pretty easy.

    What usually happens to me is that I’ve overlooked something major (like being able to pick up JoJo) and I’ve gone insane checking out every other corner. Sometimes it’s because of poor game design, or a hunt-the-pixel problem. But other times it’s just me being blind.

  • Noumenon said,

    Your post reminded me to check the walkthrough for Dragon Age. Apparently that elvish altar I just searched every room of the dungeon for in vain is in the same room you get the quest in. That’s a great use for FAQs. I mean, Dragon Age already highlights every usable item and loot with little sparkly lights and puts lighting cues to steer you in the right direction; if they have 1 in 100 quests or 1 in 100 players who still miss the altar anyway, a referencable FAQ is almost a better solution to that than programming big glowing arrows pointing to everything.

  • JadedDM said,

    Back to the Future, eh? Color me intrigued. Any DRM on that or is it clean?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    It only uses a license key, AFAIK.

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    You may like to know that modern text adventures have progressive hints embedded into the game file. But you still have to request them explicitly. Don’t want the puzzle spoiled? Just ignore the hints! But what happens when you just suck at solving puzzles (as I do), and you really want hints… and they aren’t there? Oops!

  • Viridian said,

    To me, the perfect adventure game was Day of the Tentacle. I only needed one hint to get through that game, and it wasn’t because of a puzzle – I hadn’t examined an environment closely enough and had missed a pickupable item.

    Not only were the puzzles straightforward to anyone who grew up watching Warner cartoons, it had an in-game hint system in the form of Dead Cousin Ted. Ted exists in all three time zones, and you can have your characters talk to him. This is almost an invisiclues kind of thing; the more you have your characters talk to Ted about their problems, the closer they will get to puzzling out the solution themselves (though the game never explicitly gives you the solution). Of course Ted never talks back; he’s dead. All three of the characters comment on what a great listener he is.

  • Craig Stern said,

    I came up with a novel solution to this issue in Telepath RPG: Servants of God. I wanted to put in a really devious puzzle in the form of a riddle, but I knew that it would stump lots of people. So I made it so you can ask your party members for help. If you ask the right person and you’ve built up a good enough relationship with him/her, that character will talk through the riddle with you and help you figure it out.

  • MadTinkerer said,

    I don’t have BTTF yet, but I found the hint system in Strong Bad’s CGFAP to be pretty much perfect.

    On a related note, many of those who have played Poker Night At The Inventory have blasted through it for the TF2 items and forgotten about it already, but I’ve noticed a LOT of subtleties with the character AI. At first it was realizing stuff like Max being a HUGE pain to bluff, and Tycho being irritatingly quick to fold… and then I started working their habits into my strategy and enjoying the conversations… and then…

    I realized that the chatter isn’t just for laughs or atmosphere. Each of the characters has a whole bunch of “tells” which are more obvious on easy mode and tougher to spot on hard mode, and if you’re doing badly the characters seem to be more likely to let slip whether they have a good or bad hand. In other words, they actually worked a hint system into the AI itself!

    Very clever stuff.

    (P.S. There is a poker tutorial and cheat sheet in the game for those who don’t know the rules. And it’s cheap.)

  • MadTinkerer said,

    P.P.S. I discovered yesterday that Homestarrunner.com IS UPDATING AGAIN for those that care.