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Use Key on Door

Depressingly Common Adventure Game Design Flaws. The remnants of a dying interstellar civilisation, they come to our planet to seed our adventure games with their parasitic young, to burst their way out in a spray of bone and gore. As a seasoned and battle-hardened veteran, they chose me to go in and end the infestation, armed only with a two by four and a mechanical pencil with half an inch of lead left.

This month's Depressingly Common Adventure Game Design Flaw:

USE KEY TO OPEN DOOR

 

If there's one thing that seems a bit out of place in a lot of games, it's the courier quest. This, of course, applies not only to adventure games but also any games with a degree of adventure element, like RPGs, action/adventures, or pretty much anything with Zelda in the title. Here we have a game where the player is (usually) up against impossible odds, the sole obstacle between the villain and total victory, a beacon of sword-slashing, gun-toting strength to shepherd the world into a new time of peace and understanding. It should really be communicated to most of the NPCs in the game that there are other, less busy people who could pick up their laundry.

Courier quests (or 'fetch quests') are just part of a larger problem, though, which is the problem of Use Key To Open Door. Overuse of puzzles which involve picking up an object in room A and dragging it onto an obstacle in room B in order to provide access to room C. Of course, this pretty much describes a standard adventure game puzzle, but my problem is how little the formula varies. The truly poor games have you collect armfuls of unlabelled keys of varying shape and size in order to open doors, behind which can be found more keys to add to your collection. I'm looking at you, Survival Horror. In general, though, while most games don't go that far, they do something very similar.

When you boil down Use Key To Open Door to the basics -- removing an obstacle just by throwing an inventory item at it -- then you begin to realise how depressingly common it is. You can replace 'key' with crowbar, wad of money, pickaxe, rope, or bunch of flowers, and substitute 'door' with trapdoor, bouncer, cave-in, cliff, or high-maintenance girlfriend. When you get right down to it, virtually any puzzle could fit into the category, and the puzzles in most adventure games, even commercial ones, can be 60-100% Use Key To Open Door.

Why People Do It

 

No 1920s moustache-twirling Hollywood villain ever sat down and wrung his hands in glee with the intention of turning adventure games into endless chains of boring courier quests. The glut of Use Key To Open Door came about unconsciously, quite naturally, through the gradual simplification of the adventure game interface.

Think back to the very early days of gaming, and the very first adventure format of all -- the text adventure, which assumed a certain amount of literary-mindedness on the part of the player. Rather than expressing one's desire to execute a certain action through symbolic clicks and drags, this desire had to be expressed much more deliberately with written instructions. In well-designed interactive fiction, the text parser is a direct bridge between your mind and your avatar's actions. In poorly-designed IF, it all descends into endless games of 'Guess What Word I'm Thinking Of', but that's not the point.

The real issue is that few IF text parsers let the player get away with a command like 'Use X on Y'. It would require you to be a lot more specific than that, and would frequently say so. It wasn't enough to just say 'use rope on tree', because that could mean anything. Put the rope at the base of the tree, rub the rope against the tree, give the rope to the tree as a peace offering… no, it was 'tie rope to tree' we were looking for. You'd never find yourself trying to use your every inventory item on every hotspot in a text adventure -- if the solution wasn't obvious as soon as the objects came to hand, you just weren't smart enough. Bad luck. Game wins.

Technology moved on a wee bit and graphical adventures became the hot topic. Sierra got into the act with their Something Quests. The text parser remained, simplified a touch, but in most cases it still wouldn't let you get away with 'use flask on monster'. And then, of course, came the mouse-driven adventures. Suddenly keyboards were for the old fogeys, and we were surfing a wave of bright new technology. Unfortunately, developers were then handed the problem of translating the concept of the command line into a mouse interface, and the most obvious solution was the verb button system.

At first, to do justice to the wealth of commands available to the IF player, interfaces generally just featured an absolute horde of buttons. I think it was Return to Zork that produced a button for every conceivable use of a particular object. Of course, there had to be restrictions, and the number of possible verbs that could be associated with the inventory were whittled down fast. Maniac Mansion brought the options down to four: 'use', 'unlock', 'fix' and 'give'. By Monkey Island 2, only the 'use' and 'give' inventory commands survived among a total of nine verbs overall. Each generation struck off more and more verbs that were deemed unnecessary, and soon there was no room for more than one inventory command. Finally, games like Beneath A Steel Sky showed us how low we could go -- three solitary actions were available. 'Look', generic 'Interact', and generic 'Use Inventory Item'.

And that, of course, became the root of Use Key To Open Door. With only one command for using the inventory, puzzles could be solved by trial and error, and the dreaded 'use everything on everything' syndrome followed. The adventure game just didn't reward logic like it used to -- many times I've used an object on a hotspot randomly and been completely surprised by what the player character does with it. That's not the idea. I'm supposed to be coming up with the solution myself, damn it. We might as well just be putting keys in doors for all the thinking we have to do.

How To Avoid It

 

I'm sick of calling it 'use everything on everything', so I'm going to give it an official name. From now on, it's called Keyring Syndrome. Make a note of it. The name implies that playing is like standing at a door with a bunch of keys patiently trying them all to see which one fits. This is what we're trying to get away from. Our assignment now is to use more puzzles that rely less on the 'get A from B use it on C to get D use it on E to get F' ad nauseum procession, so that a degree of logic on the player's part once again becomes necessary.

So, what are the alternatives?

There are more phases you could add to the inventory item use process. Perhaps the 'key' needs to be combined with another object first, or treated in some way in another location, before it can be used (e.g. tying a comb to a bit of string to act as a little grappling hook in The Pandora Directive). Taking it from the other angle, maybe something has to be done to the 'door' first (e.g. coercing the founding fathers to light a fire in Day of the Tentacle before you can stick a rug over the chimney). But neither removes Keyring Syndrome entirely.

What we are overlooking here are puzzles that do not require any inventory items at all, completely curtailing the ritual of fiddling with the contents of your bottomless pockets. At the most basic level, merely having someone Interact with a hotspot to solve a problem isn't going to stump anyone, especially not with today's minimalist approach to verb lists, but there are so many other possibilities. Here are a few that spring to mind:

- Dialogue puzzles, where you have to select the right conversation options to bring an NPC around to your way of thinking, such as talking to the electronics shopkeeper in Under A Killing Moon.

- 'Obscure Knowledge' puzzles. Telling the player through hints of varying subtlety a secret code required to open a door, or a secret action far too obscure for them to think of by themselves, such as in Full Throttle when you are advised to kick a particular section of wall.

- Exploration puzzles. Making new possibilities arise after the player examines certain things, or visits certain rooms. There are numerous examples in the Broken Sword games where the player looks at a hotspot, and from then on can discuss it with a relevant NPC, sometimes even coercing them into action.

- Timed puzzles. Pressing a button in room A causes something in room B to activate for a limited time, giving the player a short period to figure out what they're supposed to be doing. For example, distracting the old woman near the beginning of Hook in order to pinch her dirty laundry (this being perfectly acceptable behaviour among pirates).

Of course, these are just off the top of my head, and there could be many other additions to this list that escape me at the moment. One puzzle that I can't seem to fit into any of the above categories is the puzzle involving the cliff and the rock catapult arrangement in Secret of Monkey Island. That's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about -- just a simple sequence of pushes and pulls combined with a degree of logical thought, and we've got a clever, thought-provoking puzzle that doesn't even have to rely on fetch questing to challenge the player.

A Game That Does This Well

 

The amateur game to use as an example in this case is No-Action Jackson, the recent AG award winner by Cerebrit. NAJ marries excellent Day of the Tentacle-esque graphics with a firm grasp of puzzle structure that is almost LucasArtsian. The game gets away from the above-described complaint by (a) having a number of different objectives that can be solved in whatever order and (b) incorporating many puzzles which require complex interactions rather than simply throwing an inventory item at the problem. Take for example the use of the family cat, whose path must be cleared before your torment has desirable results, or the manner in which the VCR cables must be arranged to work the TV.

So, in conclusion to this half-bright rant, it's about time we got back to what adventures have always been about: using our brains. It's supposed to be one of the more intellectual of the genres, and it's difficult to be snobby when your first person shooter friends next door are having such a good time while you stand out in the rain messing about with your keyring.

 

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