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GDC Online: Making Puzzles And Writing Work Together

GDC Online: Making Puzzles And Writing Work Together Exclusive

October 5, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

Say the phrase "puzzle games" and many people think of games like Zuma or Tetris -- but add in everything puzzles have to offer wider gaming experiences, and the broad and storied genre encompasses everything from the classic Secret of Monkey Island to Ico and Portal.

How can games approach puzzles as successfully-integrated components of their experience? At the Game Narrative Summit during Game Developers Conference Online, Singapore MIT GAMBIT Game Lab's Clara Fernandez-Vara says puzzles have something crucial to add: "that moment when we realize -- 'I got it' -- we feel clever, and feeling clever is fun."

In the aim to challenge players, she says, many designers can get bogged down trying to prove what good designers they are, but it's giving the player that sense of satisfaction and clever-feeling -- what Fernandez-Vara calls "insight" -- that should be the goal.

Puzzles and narrative make natural bedfellows, she adds: "Puzzles and writing fit so well together because, since they only have one solution, they bring the player to a specific state of affairs -- when the player solves a puzzle, we know where they're going to be," she says. Game characters also make natural components of puzzles, since they can provide information on how to interact with elements of the game world.

"That moment when you have all the information is when you solve the puzzle," she says.

Integrating And Insight

Puzzles work best when they are integrated with the game's story, she says. Ideally, the insight gleaned from the puzzle's solution provides a wider entry to the game's storyline and world. Otherwise, the result is something like the Professor Layton titles -- by broad account, they're an enjoyable and charming series of games, but many players, like Gamasutra's own Kyle Orland, have found that when the puzzles don't relate to the story and characters, they become interruptions rather than facilitators.

"Games where the puzzle, story and gameplay are integrated have an implicit contract," says Fernandez-Vara. The player will lose interest in a game if the puzzles are either too difficult or too easy, and if the player gives up, they'll miss out on the story. "So the puzzle has to be fair to the player," she says.

Finding that balance -- where the player is "teased" or enticed to discover a solution, but doesn't feel mistreated or actually taunted -- is more challenging than it seems. "In the end, we do want the player to be able to figure it out," Fernandez-Vara says. "So that even when we give the solution to the player, they can still achieve insight."

In the classic adventure game genre, for example, "there are some where, when you're given the solution, you realize there's no way on Earth that you'd have figured out what you had to do, and that's frustrating," she says. "When you give the player the solution, the player has to feel, 'oh, yes, I should have realized that."

Puzzle Patterns

To maintain that contract with the player, Fernandez-Vara advises a few "puzzle patterns" to use as guidelines. One pattern is "selective encoding," where key information is readily available, but simply disguised, so that when the player understands that what they're seeing is a clue, they can put their own problem-solving and interpretation skills to work.

For example, in the classic Myst, a library area in the game provides historical information and images on the game's various areas; a library with informational books is a lifelike situation, but if players study the books in the game world they'll feel more clued in on how to operate and understand the machines necessary to solve the world's puzzles.

In this way, making apparently-irrelevant information relevant is "what riddles are all about," Fernandez-Vara says. "This is precisely where writing can do its best... we are asking the players to pay attention and realize what's going on. This is one of those instances where we can advance the story, provide character creation, specific events or information about the world that also advances the game."

Another pattern is called "selective comparison", which Fernandez-Vara defines as using analogies or metaphors to draw non-obvious relationships between two pieces of information. For example, players of Monkey Island knew how and where to use a key shaped like a giant cotton swab... when they realized the Monkey Temple's entrance was in the shape of an ape's head with two giant ears.

In the "selective combination" pattern, players are encouraged to combine objects or various types of information in order to form a new one -- popular examples include gathering recipe ingredients, fixing a machine or assembling a map in order to arrive at a new stage of the game.

Too Hard Or Too Easy?

Crucial to good puzzle design is the ability to evaluate their difficulty and fairness, Fernandez-Vara says. No designer can predict perfectly whether a puzzle or series of puzzles will be as accessible or comprehensible to a player as it is to them, but there are some key cues to watch for.

First, what information do players need to know to be able to solve a puzzle? Ideally, the relevant information will be available right in the game world; she advises in particular designers avoid puzzles that require external skills like high-level mathematics or physics, and says it's also important to pay attention to cultural and sociological cues.

A puzzle that relies on wordplay, idioms or puns that are specific to one language or culture might be inaccessible to those from elsewhere: Fernandez-Vara recalls being younger and playing Monkey Island in Spanish, and never understanding why an appropriate toll for a bridge troll was a fish -- because the "red herring" pun on which the puzzle depended is native to English.

Another important cue to ensure puzzles are engaging and relevant is to ask, "does the solution constitute an event?" For example, BioShock's pipe-twisting hacking puzzles were accessible and solvable, but that they unlocked security bots wasn't much of an event -- and the repetition with which most players had to perform those puzzles made it even less so over time. Perhaps that's why players were not so fond of them, and why a different hacking mechanic was implemented in BioShock 2.

As a positive example, in Ico when the player character finally brings princess Yorda to the gates of the castle from which they're both trying to escape, watching Yorda interact with the castle gate's torches will provide a crucial clue about how to open the door. Once the player follows her lead and does so, the final escape is an event that integrates well with the story.

It's essential to evaluate difficulty, too, in determining whether puzzles are fair or will be frustrating in a bad way. Designers should ask themselves how specific the necessary information is, how far apart is it provided (can players be expected to remember the clues?) and can it be re-accessed later? She advises against puzzles where a passcode is delivered in a cutscene and never to be seen again, or where a character provides a key clue through dialog he or she will not repeat.

"The moment that we hide the information too well, the player can get stuck," she says. Pixel-hunting isn't fun or satisfying -- the relief players get from finally clicking the right spot in the shadows is that they're just glad it's over, not that they feel accomplished.

"Puzzles are one of the devices that bring together writing and game design," Fernandez-Vara concludes. "Designers and writers should respect the contract with the player to provide a fair puzzle."

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