Although we can all agree that games with
tricky puzzles have their place, not every player wants to scratch their head
and be stuck on a problem during their playing time. And yet, an astonishing
number of games have no provisions in their design to help the player through
to the end, and it is difficult to estimate just how many players turn to a FAQ
when the frustration of being stuck becomes overwhelming. While it is a great relief that gaming resources like FAQs
exist, do we not have an obligation as game makers to ensure that players can
complete the games they want to play without having to turn to FAQs for help?
Firstly, it is necessary to be clear that this is not an argument against puzzle play, by which I mean the kind of play inherent to adventure games and their kin. I had the privilege of working with Gregg Barnett on two classic point and click adventures, and on Ghost Master (which also used some puzzle play), and I have a great deal of admiration for Gregg’s instincts in constructing and auditing puzzles. A good puzzle is immensely satisfying for players preferring a certain play style, although regrettably the commercial prospects for this play style have become increasingly marginalised.
But a large number of games being made are
targeting a broad audience, and these mass market games must be careful when
using puzzle elements – and even more careful that the course of action is
always clearly defined, otherwise just progressing in the game becomes a bad
puzzle. If a gamer hobbyist gets frustrated by being stuck in a game, they may
turn to a FAQ – but do casual players know to do this? If they get stuck, they
must either purchase a game guide, or give up on the game entirely. I’m not
convinced that either outcome is acceptable.
I suggest that when targeting a broad audience we should avoid sending the player to FAQing hell, as exemplified by the following FAQ ups.
Where am I supposed to be?
If progress through the game requires the player to be in a particular place, the player needs to be communicated this fact clearly. The safest option in a mass market game is to spell this out with no ambiguity, as with the event circles in the Grand Theft Auto games, although a more elegant alternative may be to have a funnelling system which guides the player to where they should be (as discussed in Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames) such as dialogue from one or more characters which guide the player towards their next destination.
Some ideas for letting the player know
where they are supposed to be are more effective than others. For instance, in Project
Zero/Fatal Frame 3, an old film visually shows the player four locations
they are expected to visit. But this relies on the player recognising the
locations, which is actually rather unlikely in a game where many locations
look alike. The net result is the player mostly ends up searching at random for
the four locations. After watching the film, it might have been nice to mark
the map with the locations the player is supposed to recognise.
What am I supposed to do?
Similarly, the player may be in the right place but not understand what they are supposed to be doing. The most dangerous repercussion of this is when the player, failing to establish what is expected of them, assumes they are in the wrong place and then begins searching for where they should be. Frustration must surely result.
Explicitly marking task locations on the
map can help avoid the second problem, and the first can be obviated by a task
list which specifies the objectives the player has been assigned.
However, it is often the case that the task the player is supposed to be completing consists of a number of smaller constituent tasks. For instance, in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, when the player reaches the Forest Temple, they can be certain they are in the right place (because of the fuss made upon arrival, the fact that it is an entirely new location, and the sure knowledge that dungeons are played in linear sequence) and that their task lies inside – but it is not necessarily clear how to get inside. The player must work out that the hookshot, which until now is only used on specially marked targets, can be used on the wooden trees here.
In this instance, excessive frustration is
prevented by the effort the game makes to emphasise that the player is on the
right track. Use of camera cases (short establishing shot-style cut scenes) and
audio themes can help communicate to the player they are following the
designated trail along the spine of the game.
Constituent tasks may be a problem because constantly identifying them will prove tiresome. However, one possibility is to mark them on the map (perhaps with a ‘?’) when they are encountered – at least this way, the player can have some confidence that they are in the right place.
It is worth considering the use of emphasising
tricks (such as the camera cases and audio themes used in a Zelda game)
to reassure the player is on track. Silent Hill marked everything of
interest the player found onto the map, producing one of the most supportive
map systems we have seen. In the Project Zero/Fatal Frame games,
the player knows they are on track because while they are walking along the
spine of the game, they trigger spooky ghost encounters. It is a shame that
these are not marked on the map so that the player could use them more
explicitly to follow the trail.
Where is the thing I’m looking for?
Closely related to both of the above are
situations when the player is stuck searching for an object (or equivalent)
needed to progress. Again, a funnelling mechanism such as a helpful character
may help, but this can become patently ridiculous in many situations.
One solution is to mark the map with areas successfully searched (crossing them out, perhaps) so that the player can tell they have finished in a particular area – as typified by the map marking in Resident Evil Zero, for instance, which changes the colour of the room on the map when it has been completely searched.
Another option is to provide the player
with a tool that helps them locate the items in question; this can be provided
at a cost to the player, such that they can use this as a “get out clause”. For
instance, in a game with magic, a spell can be provided at a cost in game
resources to guide the player to the destination. (In a sci fi setting, a
gadget can do the same job). Players will want to avoid the cost, but at least
it is there as an emergency option when necessary.
Total Information Puzzles
Another way to avoid these problems, although one that I don’t necessarily favour, is to provide the player with total information puzzles only – that is, to block the player’s path with puzzles for which everything they need to solve them is provided in full in each case. The player then simply solves the “mini-game” puzzle to progress. Something like The Dig exemplifies this approach, although there were many other adventure games which also used this approach.
It has recently fallen out of favour,
probably because the commercial prospects for puzzle play have apparently decreased.
The basic guidelines for environmental
exploration games seeking to target a broad market (one where being stuck on
puzzles cannot be guaranteed to be desirable) may be termed as follows:
- State clear objectives
- Guide towards target locations
- Emphasise the spine as the player progresses
- Use the map to communicate effectively with the player
- Provide supporting plot devices at a cost, for when all else fails
However, ultimately all
these preparations are no substitute for blind testing – the only definitive
way to determine where the spine of your game is not being communicated clearly
is to watch people playing your game, and observe where and how they
become stuck. A little frustration is perhaps acceptable, but don’t send your
players to FAQing hell if you can help it.
What do you think? Do you have anecdotes of frustration with a game sending you to FAQs, or causing you to give up? Or conversely do you object to a game ‘nannying’ you with too much assistance? Please share your viewpoint in the comments.