A Puzzled Look At the Adventure Genre.

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The adventure genre is one of several genres on the PC that have been declining over the years. The days of Myst and the Lucas Arts era of developing games are behind us. Telltale Games met success with the Sam and Max revival and a lot of gamers were hoping that they would help revive the genre. However, while last year they had a hit, this year saw a downward turn with negative reviews of both games based off of Back To The Future and Jurassic Park.

Reading reviews of BttF, one common complaint I kept seeing was about the puzzles. Having played both the Sam and Max seasons and BttF, I tried to remember if the same puzzle design was featured in both and why one was praised and the other scorn. As I thought about it, it seems like puzzle design is one of those elements that has not grown as much compared to other genres.

Looking at the concept of a traditional puzzle in a video game, the components of a puzzle can be represented simply as a locked door. The door represents the goal, the lock represents the obstacle, and the key represents what has to be done. Disregarding story and writing as player hooks as another reason to play adventure games, there are several aspects of puzzle design that we can examine.

1. Trial and Error: To me, one of the defining elements of bad puzzle design is trial and error. Trial and error can occur from two situations, first is by design. Personally, I think this is where a lot of people’s complaints about Telltale’s games come into play. A lot of their puzzles are based around going through dialogue options to find the one that will set up the solution, or trying to figure out how something works by playing around with switches or buttons, which is a throwback to classic adventure design. The second situation is when you have no clue of how to solve the puzzle, and your only option is the brute force method. Raise your hand if you ever had a number-pad puzzle that you just sat there for a few minutes trying every combination imaginable.

The problem that I have with it goes back to my favorite puzzles to do. As a brief tangent, I love doing Picross and Sudoku puzzles, but for the life of me I can’t do cryptograms while my mom is the exact opposite. The reason I like them is that the solution is right there, you just have to decipher it and there is a feeling of accomplishment for solving it.

Puzzles built around trial and error design do not rely on thinking or player skill to finish and can feel more like busy work. Compared to a puzzle where the player has to solve the puzzle using their own thought process, there is less satisfaction with a trial and error type puzzle.

2. Puzzle Environment: Puzzles fitting into the game-space have also hit a snag in terms of growth. In the old days, the size of a puzzle section took up multiple screens with puzzles placed around. The player would not know where to use certain items, or even what puzzles to do in what order without spending a lot of time wandering around. Sometimes an item would be picked up, that won’t be used until further in, leaving the player to guess what it is supposed to do.

Recently with adventure games like Amnesia and the Penumbra series, the game space has become more hub based. How it works is that when the player enters an area, there is one main problem stopping the player from moving forward. In order to fix it, the player will have to go through several areas that are specified to find items, or activate devices that will open up the way forward. The difference between this design and past adventure game design is that each area is closed off from each other in terms of items: if the player is in area A, they will not need to find any items to help them with area B.

The advantage of this design is that it removes some of the trial and error nature of adventure games. You know when you enter an area that everything you need is right there and you don’t have to worry about missing an item that will come back to bite you later on. The disadvantage is that you lose some immersion to the world and exploring in the process. The player knows that whenever they enter a new area, that there will be at least 3 doors leading to puzzle areas.

3. Esoteric influence: Another throwback to the adventure games of yesteryear, are puzzles with unrealistic solutions. While giving the player the ability to feel like MacGyver is cool, bending the rules of reality to do that is not. This issue also feeds back into the trial and error problem, as players will have to go through their inventory item by item to find the one that works.

One other part of this is using real world knowledge or skills that everyone may not know, for example, having a puzzle based on chemistry or understanding Norse Mythology. Whenever you want to include real world information in your puzzles, it helps to leave notes or clues that explain what you expect the player to understand. For instance, in the Penumbra series there is a puzzle that requires the player to create an explosive and right next to the chemistry set is a note detailing what exactly that entails so that even if you are not familiar with chemistry, you can still figure it out. Physics based puzzles have become very popular as everyone understands how gravity and weight works, leaving the player to figure out how to use them to solve the puzzle.

4. One Way: Designing amazing puzzles is a great feeling, however the more unique the puzzle is the less freedom there usually is in solving them. There probably is another game design debate here on the subject of adventure games as interactive stories or games. One of the major pulls that designers use to get people to play adventure games is the story; it’s one of the reasons why so many people jumped at the latest Sam and Max games. What this means is that once you played the game once, there is very little reason to replay it other than coming back to watch the story again.

Some designers in the past have tried ways of having replay-ability or multiple solutions in their games. In Portal 1 and 2 with how physics can play a factor in the design, it is possible to find unusual solutions to many of the puzzles, and there are expert variants of the puzzles available to try.

Another game that attempted multiple solutions was Zack and Wiki on the Wii. In the game the player is graded on how they solve each puzzle in the level, with many puzzles having a “good”, “better”, and “best” solution. The best solutions usually involve getting a puzzle right on the first try, or using the tools in the most optimal way and the end of the level, score is used for unlocking bonus features.

The idea of using randomized puzzle layouts and design is an intriguing one, and it will be discuss in the next section.

5. Living Puzzles: The last point for this post has to do with the concept of integrating puzzle design into the world. One of the best examples of this is with the final section of Portal and part of the second act in Portal 2. During these sections the player is not confined into a set space with a specific goal to achieve. Instead they have to find their way around using the same tools that helped them in the puzzle chambers. The game, Limbo is another example, the game flows seamlessly from one puzzle to another and while it is technically segmented, the illusion of the world helps.

What this comes down to in my opinion is the actions the player has available in the game. For this post, the term “actions” will be defined as: the ways the player interacts with the world. For example, in Grand Theft Auto, the player’s actions involve shooting, fighting and driving vehicles. The more actions the player has access to, the more the world opens up and this idea of letting the world become a puzzle takes shape.

In the Assassin’s Creed series, the player’s main interaction with the world is through movement, just about every edge can be used to climb up and help the player get around. With so many actions available, the world becomes a living puzzle with how the player can figure out how to move around the city in the best ways possible. The only real shortcoming of the first two games (I have not played the latest two and can’t comment on them,) is that there isn’t more freedom in performing tasks, such as having missions where enemies and targets are randomized instead of being in the same place every time.

I’ve been playing around in my head with the idea for an adventure game with a randomized world. The concept is that there is a murder mystery and all you know is who died and where. As a detective you have 24 hours to figure out the rest and each time you play the details of the case are randomized. The game is played in quasi real time, every time the player performs an action time moves forward a little bit and eventually time will run out and you’ll have to present your evidence.

A few months ago there was a great piece in PC Gamer looking back at some of the more unique adventure games that came out in the late 80s and 90s, like Maniac Mansion and The Last Express. Creativity and uniqueness are not strange concepts to the genre, but the challenge is figuring out how to implement them without falling back into old patterns of design.

Josh Bycer