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Designing and Integrating Puzzles in Action-Adventure Games

December 6, 2002 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next

The Golden Rules for Integrating a Puzzle

Puzzles can be categorized into one of three large groups, regardless of the games genre: investigation, movement, or goal puzzles. We have also established the ground rules to follow in designing good puzzles. Let's take a closer look at how these rules need to be implemented.

Integrating an Investigation Puzzle

The rules for integrating an investigation puzzle come as four basic principles:

  • Maintain consistency between game pace and gameplay.
  • Use an appropriate game architecture.
  • Respect the universe of the game.
  • Assist the player in solving puzzles.

Maintain Consistency Between Game Pace and Gameplay
If the game alternates between investigation and action, the puzzles should follow in line. Don't break up the pace of an action sequence with a puzzle that requires concentration, such as opening a chest.

Resident Evil 2 does an excellent job implementing this principle. The player reels between action and investigation. Investigation scenes, however, retain the game's general atmosphere - the fear of being attacked is permanent. The puzzles are simple and require the player to move a lot, further exposing him to sinister encounters.

Resident Evil 2

Investigation puzzles must rely on discovering, examining and manipulating objects. Puzzles should encourage the player to explore, discover his universe - instead of freezing solid in front of a brain twister. A lot of puzzles in Myst - Riven are designed in this way. Most of the riddles can be solved by examining the décor and associating it with the clues.

Use an Appropriate Game Architecture
The game architecture, the synopsis, is the backbone of your product. It determines the order in which players encounter puzzles, the way they are integrated into the script, and how often they turn up. The following rules serve as a guide to using the appropriate game architecture:

  • Always design easy, gratifying puzzles at the beginning of your script. To encourage the player to "step into" the adventure, he needs a sense of initial success. Let's not forget that game débuts are often turned into demos. Scaring the audience off with an impossible puzzle is certainly not the best way to encourage potential buyers!
  • Make sure the player can easily find the puzzles. Since puzzles are potential dead-ends, they should be easily identifiable. Absolutely avoid having the player stray around the game not knowing what to do next. Many approaches are available, such as a cut scene highlighting the puzzle when the player enters a particular location, or a visual gimmick (reflection, blinking light, etc.) to draw his attention.
  • Limit the investigation area around the puzzle. All the elements needed to solve the puzzle (clues, objects, plans, etc.) should be found near the puzzle itself. This way, the player won't be tempted to return to locations explored long ago in the hope of finding a missing object or clue.
  • Design workaround puzzles: Solving one provides clues for another
  • Since it's impossible to know which one will bring the player to a halt, consider offering a choice of puzzles. If the player defaults at one puzzle, he can always try another. Imagine our player attempting to solve puzzle A, and failing. He then tries his luck with puzzle B and succeeds. A clue is then offered concerning puzzle A.
  • Avoid drowning the player in clues. To the designer, each piece of information given out has an obvious meaning since he knows the script inside and out. Not so with the player, who often cannot tell the essential clues needed to solve puzzles, from background information. Information of a general character should therefore be dispensed at appropriate times. I already discussed this aspect of design in an article published on "Turning a Linear Story into a Game: The Missing Link between Fiction and Interactive Entertainment". Remember, there are software tools available to help designers and script writers in this area.
  • Stick with a more linear adventure. The better the designer controls the order of discoveries, encounters, etc., the more likely the player is to solve each puzzle. It's always a good idea to guide the player throughout the entire adventure and keep the playing area limited. The player won't have to wander aimlessly in search of clues.

Respect the Universe of the Game
Game designers often go to great lengths to create a rich, credible other-worldly universe. Their reward is the famous suspension of disbelieve which enables the player to become immersed into the history. It would be a pity, then, to break up the illusion with a puzzle that takes the player out of context. Too often, puzzles are seen for what they really are: nothing more than obstacles in the player's way. Some simple strategies can negate this effect.

Only use elements which are likely to be found at the location. The designers of Resident Evil 3 took heed of this rule well. For instance, to get past a public fountain, the player must manipulate the valves in the right order to turn the water off and make way.

Use elements that are in line with the theme and time of the game. An adventure game unfolding in the Victorian era should make use of objects evoking the muffled atmosphere of secret cabinets: paper with writing in invisible ink, concealed drawers, etc. In Journeyman Project - Legacy of Time, part of the adventure unfolds in an amazing reconstruction of Atlantis as it was depicted by the ancient Greeks. There is no advanced technology and the player moves along in a setting reminiscent of ancient Greece. Puzzles only involve objects and crafts from that era: control a windmill, make a clay medallion, beg for a coin. The puzzles themselves are simple but contribute significantly to the sense of immersion. They are not merely an intellectual challenge, but also serve to enrich the game environment and maintain the all-vital suspension of disbelieve.

Design puzzles that observe common sense. If the puzzle is to find a key that's been concealed by the landlord, it would be absurd to hide it on the other side of a brick wall! They key should be easily accessible to the landlord himself. Likewise, if a secret is protected by some sort of a mechanism, it would be obvious that its creator would not leave clues to the puzzle just lying around. Don't expect the player to solve puzzles that defy the rules of common sense.

Assist the Player in Solving Puzzles
A lot of players will lose interest and quit a game when a puzzle is impossible to break. We are in the business of entertaining people, not frustrating them. This should be on the mind of every puzzle designer. Make sure the player has all the elements he needs to solve the puzzle. The key elements needed to crack a puzzle - objects or clues - should be found in the immediate vicinity. If a player fails at a puzzle, he knows there's a chance of finding a solution by rummaging about. He can concentrate his search on a small area and make sure to comb every inch, thus increasing his chances of finding the missing element. Encourage the player to use common sense when solving puzzles. The best way to help the player solve a puzzle is to let him use his knowledge of the real world. Finally, include help mechanisms.

Other helpful mechanisms might include extra clues. When the player spends more than several minutes in front of a puzzle and then walks away without solving it, we can reasonably infer he has been unable to break it and has decided to look for clues elsewhere in the game. When the software detects such behavior, it can help the player by adding a clue to the scene. It could be a plan or a sheet of paper containing a phrase.

A hero's personal log can be provided to store everything the player has learned during his encounters and discoveries. A convenient way to draw attention to an important clue the player might have overlooked. In Silent Hill, for instance, annotations and graffiti are added to the player's diary.

Outside help can be offered. If the software determines the player is unable to overcome a particular puzzle, a teammate may contact him by radio and provide a clue. When the script allows it, a secondary character may enter the scene. In Alone In The Dark - The New Nightmare, we designed a "radio call" button. The player can page his teammate and extract some sort of help. Alternatively, the player may request clues from the game itself. In Byzantine - The Betrayal, published by Discovery Channel, the player has access to a progressive help system for each puzzle. The first level of help is a single clue. The second level is direct assistance. Finally, the third level reveals the solution flat out. As an interesting note, this system enables to player to break through any type of puzzle, whether he has run out of ideas with a brain twister, or doesn't know what to do and where to go.

Urban Runner

As a last resort, the player can have a limited number of wildcards (jokers) that let him skip puzzles altogether. This solution was pioneered by Urban Runner, an action-adventure game developed and published by Coktel.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next

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