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Adventure Architect: Part Eight

The art of puzzle design

Okay, yes, I’ll admit it. This column is ridiculously late. So late, in fact, that some of you may have wondered if I’d dropped off the face of the planet altogether. And the truth is, I almost did—I set off on a summer-long backpacking adventure across Europe, which was followed by some major changes at home once I got back, and capped off by the Red Sox’s devastating loss to the Yankees a few months later. (I’m a Boston guy. The rest of you wouldn’t understand, but trust me, the only thing worse than the Red Sox losing in October is the Red Sox losing to the Yankees in October!)

Anyway, the end result was that Adventure Architect fell to the bottom of my priority list for a while. The good news in all this? Although this design journal was silent, work on the game itself continued at a satisfying clip. We’re putting the finishing touches on several absolutely gorgeous new game screens from Act IV, finished plotting a gigantic portion of Acts II and III, and oh yes, completely redesigned our website to highlight some of the most exciting elements of ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson’s first adventure. So, we’ve been pretty busy.

And now, on to this month’s topic—puzzle design. Although I firmly believe that the story is the most important element of any adventure game, puzzles are a close second. If you make them too hard or too obscure, it can ruin the entire game. Make them too easy and the game is over in a few hours. But when done right, the best puzzles become a seamless part of the story, and as a player you don’t so much notice them as puzzles as you do experience them as part of the natural flow of the narrative.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, I wanted to start my game off with a series of easy puzzles that helped the player get comfortable with the game and the story while also building a little sense of accomplishment. I think that starting that way also helps players become absorbed in the story in a way that throwing a brain-twister at them too early wouldn’t allow. Once they get comfortable, that’s when you start to turn up the heat a little and make them work to get past each new obstacle.

When I sat down to start literally devising ways to keep Jake from accomplishing his quest (I had a bad month of September, and I got through it by thinking of ways to make Jake's life miserable), I used three basic steps for each puzzle or series of puzzles, based on my own observations of what works—and what doesn’t work—in the games I’ve played over the years.

Step 1: Start with a story element

In the final act of Rise of the Hidden Sun, Jake finds himself in the middle of the Arizona desert, standing before a strange rock formation that looks suspiciously like a sand-swept desert version of Stonehenge. The idea came to me about a year ago when, as I researched the game environment, I noticed that the American Southwest tends to produce lots of very strange rock formations. It made me wonder what I might be able to do with that in my game.

As I developed the story, I came to the conclusion that the Stonehenge formation would make a great entry point to Jake’s final destination: the underground city of Cíbola. If the formation had fallen into disrepair due to the disappearance of Cibola’s ancestral guardians, I could build a puzzle around having to restore the formation to its original state, which might in turn create an opening into the caverns below.

Step 2: Set a goal and create some obstacles

Because I tend to think visually when I’m designing a new game environment, I began to sketch out possible layouts for the scene. In one sketch, part of the Stonehenge formation had collapsed in on itself and needed to be repaired. I asked myself questions after each version of the scene: Why would Jake need to fix the formation? How would he—and the player—know what he needed to do, and how to do it?

I did a few more sketches and inserted a stone pinnacle in the middle of the formation, along with a hint of an opening that revealed the caverns below. I was beginning to visualize a connection between the stone circle above and the caverns below. After some more experimentation, I ended up designing a two-tiered puzzle in which Jake’s actions above ground would affect the environment underground.

I decided to allow Jake to have immediate access to the caverns below, which would enable him to see his goal (the entrance to the underground city) and the obstacle (something about the strange formation needed to be changed in order to open the entrance below).

Step 3: Work backwards to build the puzzle

Now that I knew what stood in Jake’s way, I had to figure out how he’d solve the problem. After pulling out most of my hair trying to figure out what would be a fair way of blocking Jake’s path (I’m still young enough that most of the hair grows back, thankfully), I came up with what I thought was a fairly complex and rewarding puzzle that built off of a number of things that the player would have learned in earlier parts of the game. (By remembering things that Jake had discovered about the ancient society that built the underground city, for example.)

The puzzle would also involve some trial and error, some back-and-forth between different screens above- and belowground, and the use of an ordinary inventory item in an unusual way. I decided, for example, that Jake would need some sort of silver reflective material to mimic an element that was already part of the Stonehenge environment, so I went back into the design document and added a silver serving platter as an object that Jake would need to acquire at an earlier point in the game—in this case, as part of Act III, which involves a train robbery. (This is yet another reason to plot out the entire game before you start coding or illustrating.)

Finally, the puzzle would require the player to do things in a certain order, so in designing it I knew that I needed to leave enough hints as to what Jake would need to accomplish, and also allow for trial and error to let the player do things in the wrong order while allowing him to correct the mistake at any time.

Types of puzzles

This is just one example of puzzle building within the context of the story. Most puzzles don’t involve so many working parts, and there are many different types of puzzles that can be used to keep the story moving while still presenting obstacles along the way. The key is variety. Too many inventory or dialogue puzzles are just downright boring, so in my case I’ve tried to think of different ways to keep things interesting.

In the next column—and by that I mean, hopefully, next month—I’ll talk about beginning the actual production of the game: Taking all of the various design elements and plugging them into the game engine to build a functioning game environment.

Next: Building a working adventure game!


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