Those of you familiar with my writing on Gamasutra know that I typically write about various aspects of localization, languages, and culture within games, as well as my tendency to write posts that are rather long and thoroughly researched. This post is rather different than my others, as it reflects a specific design challenge I am working through within my own indie development work.
There is the tendency to discuss design challenges after some satisfactory conclusion has been reached, but it seems a more interesting discussion could emerge from engaging the game development community while working through design problems, rather than writing a post-mortem down the line. In fact, perhaps some of you know of game design presentations, articles, or theory I have yet to come across that could generate further insight into this particular design problem.
More and more, gamers have demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the traditional game model, wherein the game developer entirely guides the gameplay experience. Gamers are gravitating toward “bigger” games (i.e. Skyrim) and vocally dismissing games that seeming to under-deliver on the promise of being a “player-driven experience” (i.e. Mass Effect 3). The “standard puzzle model” (if you will) is derived from the concept that the gamer’s experience is entirely driven by the developer, in that puzzles typically have one “correct” solution, requiring the player to deconstruct the developer’s thought-process.
There are truly fantastic puzzle games that adhere to the standard, one-solution puzzle model, like Portal, but that doesn’t mean it is the only approach to creating quality puzzle games. Braid also maintained the developer-driven puzzle approach (with each puzzle containing one distinct solution). However, Blow was essentially able to pose different philosophical questions by changing aspects of the gameplay or modifying the way time behaves in various levels. He thereby allowed the player to explore the behavior of universal models (or constructs) in ‘puzzle vignettes,’ reiterating upon specific gameplay motifs while changing the way the player saw the proposed ‘question’ guided by these philosophical principles. But what if poignant moments of discovery (via in-game puzzles) could somehow be guided by the insight of the player, allowing multiple possible solutions to emerge for each individual?
Chris Crawford has cited his dissatisfaction with the progression of storytelling elements, as the same 3+ dialogue options continue to drive interactions within games. In his presentations, he has spoken about the lack of progress made in story-driven games over the years. He has proposed ways of implementing game systems to allow for more dynamic interactions, such as using a simple equation to reflect the impact of the player’s behavior upon other characters in the game world:
i.e. The change in how much Chris likes/dislikes Joe = Joe’s actions of niceness/nastiness toward Mary * How much Chris likes/dislikes Mary.
A formula like this allows human behavior to be modeled in simple terms, yet also allows the player’s actions to dynamically change the world surrounding the player, as each AI’s feelings towards him/her is impacted. (Each relationship in the gameworld would be modified based upon how you treat different individuals, as your relationship with others is impacted by how you treat the people they like or dislike.) There are ways of expanding beyond the traditional gameplay model to reflect the complexities and nuance of the world around us, yet the majority of games continue to follow the same branching dialogue trees, usually converging toward the same overall conclusion to the game and resulting in player choice having very little impact on the game’s outcome. Puzzles in games traditionally have similarly restricting results.
Instead of building games around the premise of predestined outcomes, what if developers constructed puzzles to enable the creativity of players, so that player insight could somehow be applied to these puzzles, thereby expanding the overall understanding of the story surrounding the puzzle? By flipping the concept of developer-guided systems, perhaps there is a way to build more flexible game systems that allow for greater input from the player. These systems would subsequently allow players to end up at multiple solutions (or conclusions to various puzzles), reflecting the diversity of player experience and the unique thoughts, philosophies, and even prejudices that they bring to the game. By so doing, players would naturally construct their own gameplay experiences and develop their own conclusions, limited or enhanced by their own insights.
Games provide a unique way of interaction, yet there are many untapped possibilities for furthering that interaction, basing puzzle design upon deeply human interactions. Static mediums like literature and plays are able to reveal certain truths of humanity and insight into the human experience, despite the medium’s inability to integrate input from its audience. With a dynamic medium like video games, it is feasible to construct a system that allows further insight into humanity and each of us as individuals, allowing games to build upon new content and ideas from users and essentially serving as an evolving library of human thought and experience (though not necessarily by relying solely on user-generated content). By digging deeper into the potential of multimodal puzzle systems (and overall game systems), we can come closer to broadening the medium toward the personalized experience gamers seek.
I look forward to your feedback on how developers can effectively utilize this user-based approach toward puzzle games, thereby allowing multiple solutions to emerge from player insight.