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Designing and Integrating Puzzles in Action-Adventure Games

December 6, 2002 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

Classical Adventure Games

When we say "adventure game", the first thing that comes to mind are images of inextricable puzzles and recollections of hours spent staring at the computer screen. Is an adventure game nothing but a string of puzzles? No. It's a mistake to think that gameplay in an adventure game is merely a succession of brain twisters and just as many opportunities to get hopelessly stuck.

A detailed analysis of the great adventure game classics reveals one key aspect in their gameplay: investigation. Adventure games rely on the same mechanisms as a real-life investigation. Indeed, gameplay is virtually always limited to a cycle where a player must explore locations to discover objects, clues or mechanisms until the player realizes he or she is stuck in a game area and needs to find a way to move on when finally, the player discovers the lock/unlock feature using clues previously collected.

Most adventure game fans confirm this analysis, saying that unraveling a mystery, discovering new elements (characters, décor, machines, etc.), and advancing within the adventure, are their chief motivators. Very few gamers are actually interested in the puzzles themselves.

What this tells us is that investigation is the driving force of adventure games; so puzzles should encourage the player to explore and interact with the environment, not spend hours on end in front of a static screen. The puzzle should not be limited to a lock mechanism. It must make a seamless whole with the clues surrounding it.

Action-Adventure Games with an Emphasis on "Action"

The key aspect in this game category is movement. This is directly related to the gameplay, which is combat-dominated; but movement is also provided by the script: characters make their escape, infiltrate, mount attacks, etc. Games like Alien versus Predator 2 or Star Trek Voyager - Elite Force are accomplished implementations of this principle. The player's actions are unchanged - move and fight - but the script regularly changes the pace of the game and the context of the action.


These games seem less capable of incorporating puzzles and still, almost all of them do. Indeed, puzzles respond to two basic requirements. First, they should diversify the gameplay. Action-adventure games biased on "action" often provide monotonous gameplay, and scattered puzzles are a way to liven up the monotony. Half-Life is one of the best examples. Moving ahead in the game often requires the player to understand how a particular gadget works and use it to move on. These puzzles are all related to the movement of the hero. Motion remains the dominant theme. I rate these under the category movement puzzles. Second, they should guide the player by bringing up goals to be accomplished. Simple puzzles such as finding three keys to open a door give the hero's action a purpose. These are goal puzzles.

Still, these two types of puzzles have their shortcomings. Movement puzzles threaten to disrupt the pace of the game and may fail to provide the desired movement to the player. Indeed, such puzzles can turn out to be frustrating if the player cannot find the solution quickly or lacks the necessary dexterity.

Goal puzzles, in turn, are often overly simplistic. The player quickly understands that they are nothing but excuses intended to keep him going, instead of challenges intimately braided into the story.

In conclusion, a good puzzle designed for action-adventure games with the emphasis on "action" should follow these rules:

  • As movement is the very essence of these games, puzzles should be kept simple to avoid breaking up the pace.
  • Movement puzzles are not platform challenges where the player's success ultimately hinges on dexterity. These puzzles rely on the player's capacity to understand how to use a series of mechanisms to overcome an obstacle or use décor elements to advance.
  • Goal puzzles should enrich the adventure instead of being an excuse for it.

Mixed Action-Adventure Games

These games provide a mix of seemingly incompatible genres. The player encounters mechanisms of a classical adventure game such as exploring and complex puzzle solving, as well as pieces of genuine action. Won't the action-hungry -- movement-hungry -- player be frustrated when the pace suddenly slows down for an investigation?

Still, this category boasts remarkable hits like Resident Evil 2, Silent Hill and Alone In The Dark.When a gamer buys Resident Evil, he is not looking for action before everything else. If that were the case, his choice would go with an action-oriented action-adventure title. Also, the player is not looking for a classical adventure game. No, what he wants first and foremost, is story.

True, a story is at the heart of any adventure game, but the kind of story we look for in a game like Silent Hill stands out in a unique way: in classical adventure games and in action-oriented games, the player controls the world; in mixed games, the world controls the player; he becomes the object of the game. The dramatic intensity of the narration is much stronger.

In Silent Hill, the hero finds himself prisoner in a city overcome by evil. His only goal is to find his daughter and make his escape. There is no "cleaning up" to do. He stands no chance in the face of such horrors. The city is stronger than he is.

Since the essence of this game family is the story, we won't find a specific type of puzzle here. There is a mix of investigation and movement puzzles.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

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