Has the internet robbed games of any sense of mystery?
I recently played through Polytron's Fez, a wonderfully absorbing little platform adventure game from the Xbox LIVE Arcade. The standout thing about Fez is its sense of mystery, the way it creates an ethereal feeling of wonder with a range of often obtuse, mostly logical, but at times seemingly impossible puzzles. It's the first game I've played in years with a notepad next to my control pad, and this made me pleased.
Except the whole time I played, every time I scrawled down a potential solution to a stubborn question-mark labelled room, part of me knew I needn't have bothered. I puzzled away for the joy of it, but I knew that at any point I could just turn to the internet and solve the whole game in minutes.
And eventually I did. I don't have the patience or the mental ability to decipher entire languages and counting systems, and I always knew that eventually I'd turn to the net to get those last few pesky cubes. And as soon as I did, the game wasn't fun anymore. That sense of wonder was lost, and the game boiled down to a mechanical process of visiting rooms and punching in codes until I'd hit 100%.
You could argue a lack of fortitude on my part, and certainly there will be a few stalwart individuals who will refuse to look online until they have solved every puzzle for themselves, but most people operate on a sliding scale of patience. If a solution eludes them to the point of true frustration, they'll hit the net for an instant solution.
In our interconnected, always-online world, is there any way to counter this? And is it even something we should try to counter? After all, genuine, point-of-anger frustration is something that should generally be avoided in videogames. No one wants controller-shaped dents in their walls. But I'd argue that games like Fez, which place such an emphasis on puzzles and mystery to engender a sense of wonder in the player, are somewhat undermined by the easy access of instant solutions the internet offers.
So how can designers overcome this? One way is to offer an in-game hint system. Leaving a game to check the internet, though quick and easy, is both an effort and an admission of defeat on a player's part, and most players will want to exhaust the options offered by the game itself before going online for a solution. An in-game hint system can offer a stop-gap between frustration and a cheap cheat-sheet, and a smart developer can weave such a system into the game's fiction in a way that doesn't cheapen the experience.
This was demonstrated rather well in Amanita Design's Machinarium. Machinarium is a point-and-click adventure title with a heavy emphasis on puzzles that, in the tradition of the genre, often initially seem obtuse and nonsensical. The game offers an in game hint-book with one caveat: to access a hint for any screen, the player must first complete a mini-game involving steering a key around hostile spiders.
It's a great system. First, the spider mini-game is deliberately somewhat unpleasant to play, which stops players from immediately accessing the hint-book as soon as they enter a screen, without at least trying to ascertain the solution for themselves. Second, the hints provided are clues rather than outright solutions, which, while making the actual solution to the given puzzle much more obvious, means the player still feels a sense of achievement upon finding the solution.
An important point is that the spider mini-game is never so difficult or frustrating that a player won't at least try it before turning to the internet. Certainly there will be some impatient completionists who won't waste their time with it and will go online immediately, but this system offers most players an acceptable middle-ground between bewilderment and frustration.
It's a system notably absent from Amanita's latest game Botanicula, which, incidentally, is a lovely little adventure title highly worth a look. There was one point, however, where I found myself stuck in a reasonably large environment with absolutely no idea where to go next. It turned out I just hadn't clicked on the right things in the right order in a previously explored room, but without any clues from the game, I found myself turning to net, which resulted in me kicking myself for not trying the solution earlier and enjoying the rest of the game slightly less from that point.
A well thought out in-game hint system in one way to stop players turning to the net. Another option would be to offer non-binary solutions to puzzles. That is, to make the solution to the puzzle dependent on the players actions within the game, rather than a single pre-defined method.
Most of Fez's puzzles have one solution, usually a code, which means an aspiring cheater can just download a list of rooms and their corresponding codes and have most of the game solved in minutes. There's one puzzle, however, where the solution is dependent on the time (in real hours) that the player started playing Fez. This means that while a player can look online and find out how to solve this puzzle, the solution cannot be given to them directly. They still have to go back to the game and figure out how the solution relates to their particular instance of the game world.
There are many ways of tying a game's solution in the player's previous actions; maybe a puzzle depends on how much of the map they have explored, or which order they visited certain rooms in, or how many of a certain object they have collected. This relegates internet cheat-sheets to a similar level as the Machinarium spider-book hint; they can shape the solution of the puzzle for you, but the player still has to go and actually solve it for themselves, and as such they retain some of the sense of achievement and participation from the puzzle.
A third, potentially more powerful (but definitely harder to design and manage) solution to the problem of internet cheating is to take a look at ARGs, or Alternate Reality Games. Extra Credits have done a great piece on ARGs for the uninitiated, but basically an ARG brings elements of a videogame into the real world, through the internet, presenting a puzzle that can only be solved by online cooperation, and relies on interactions, sometimes physical, sometimes digital, in the real world.
The previous two 'solutions' I outlined treat the internet as the enemy, as something to be avoided or circumvented in order to retain a game's sense of mystery. An ARG embraces the internet, and makes online communication central to the game experience.
There is a particular puzzle in Fez which, perhaps inadvertently, led to an ARG-level of cooperation across the internet to find the solution. The solution was found by an organised brute-force testing of all possible solution, and as far as I'm aware an 'actual', in-game solution has yet to be found.
Now, ignoring the fact that the final solution to this one puzzle is still just a code that anyone can now find and input in minutes, this puzzle is interesting in that it brought players outside of the game, onto the internet, to discuss possible solutions. Rumours of possible solutions have sprung up, been tested and declared false, all by people who clearly love the game. In this instance, using the internet has actually increased the sense of wonder and mystery about the game, and has created such a sense of connection that certain players are effectively playing the game even when they're not actually playing the game.
That's quite powerful stuff. Now, integrating ARG principles into a normal, non-ARG game would be an incredibly difficult task for any developer. And even then, they would have to try and ensure some kind of ongoing solution, otherwise all their efforts would achieve would be a prolonging of the usual internet cheat sheet approach (despite, or in fact thanks to, the efforts of the online community, the Fez Monolith puzzle can now be solved with a cursory glance at the top of a Google search.)
Still, these methods prove that there are ways to combat internet cheating, and potentially embrace it to enhance the game experience. If nothing else, it proves that the internet doesn't necessarily spell the demise of mystery and wonder in game; it just means that developers must employ some puzzle-solving thinking of their own if they want to avoid their players effectively spoiling games for themselves.