The Negative Psychology of No
Opinion & Special Features
Musings on the adventure genre, developer columns and other special features
Adventure gamers are gluttons for punishment. Or at least, developers must think we are. Playing an adventure game means having our wrists slapped time and time again, simply for being curious. I haven’t heard the word “no” this often since I was a two-year-old who didn’t know any better than to try dumb things. But at least it was warranted back then, done (mainly) for my own good. Learning not to stick my finger in electrical outlets or put a plastic bag over my head allowed me to grow up and become a responsible, rational adult… who somehow ended up choosing a pastime that manages to treat me like a child all over again. Only this time it’s supposed to be fun.
But you know what? It’s NOT fun. “That won’t work.” “I can't do that.” “No need to go down there.” We’ve all heard these kinds of rejection lines so often that we take them for granted, blissfully unaware of the life-sucking erosion they inflict on our enthusiasm over time. Or perhaps not so blissfully. Not anymore. The adventure genre is a niche for a reason, and I believe this constant negativity is a big reason why. Little by little, it wearies us subconsciously, discourages us, maybe even drives some away completely, perhaps without ever really knowing what it was that turned them off. "Just say no" might be a great anti-drug slogan; it sucks as an adventure game philosophy, and it's got to stop.
All genres have rules, of course, but others are able to conceal their restrictions in a natural way. You can't store more weapons than you can carry. You can't cast spells you haven't learned yet. You can't build military units unless you collect enough resources. Attempting such things just won't work, but you know that from the outset and it's foolish to even try. Other rules are less defined, but even these are resolved organically. You can confront a final boss monster with only a pistol, but it's no surprise when the creature whups your butt. You can level up a mighty magician and wander into battle with no mana potions, but you know that can never end well. You can storm a fortress with only a small infantry platoon, but you have only yourself to blame for the carnage that ensues. Success depends on understanding the unspoken rules, but the common sense parameters are clearly established and the games let you try, even if the end result is failure. (Note to self: take rocket launcher to boss fight next time.)
Only in adventures are the rules so blatantly artificial and appallingly transparent, and the endless "can't do" attitude is depressing. Obviously some actions deserve little sympathy. It makes no sense to use mustard on a hammer or a balloon on a crocodile (although come to think of it, if I looked long enough I could probably find a game where both are viable puzzle solutions). I have no complaints when such options are summarily dismissed. But much of the appeal of adventuring is supposed to be exploring and experimenting, and more often than not, today's games not only fail to reward us, they actually penalize us for trying. Far, far, FAR too often have I attempted an interaction that I felt was perfectly reasonable, either with a specific plan in mind or simply because it made sense to see what happened, and ended up with a terse refusal and no explanation – or worse, as some games seem to delight in making you feel stupid (the less said about those games the better).
It's bad enough when games limit what items you can use on other items, even if the decision is entirely arbitrary. No matter how logical other alternatives might be, usually only one object will work as the developers intended, and only then on one other object. Why? Because the game won't let you do otherwise, that's why. No rhyme, reason, or sometimes any response given. Just no. But some games refuse to even let you try an action if the character isn't properly motivated. I'm fully in favour of rewarding actual strategy over random trial-and-error, which this is obviously meant to stimulate. But simply rejecting a viable option until you've "looked at" an item in plain view or talked to an NPC to learn they approve of your idea is simply making the matter worse. Now we're not only stuck with guessing the developer's mind, but having to nursemaid an idiot avatar in the process. Frankly, if I have an idea, he or she should have it too, dammit! Some adventures won't even let you GO where you want until the appropriate time (if at all). Can't act, can't think, can't move for ourselves? Nice.
Add it all up, and that is one great big pile of no. If you thought I was going to say a pile of something else, I don't blame you. The "no" pile is just as ugly, and it stinks too. In fact, I'm not totally sure which is worse. At least the other one turns into fertilizer eventually. I don’t see any upside at all to never-ending rejection, especially for recreation. Yes, I know the challenge of adventure games is in arriving at puzzle solutions that aren't immediately obvious, but this inherent genre trait is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it encourages both logical and lateral thinking, but its implementation often denies us the ability to learn from our mistakes. It's all-or-nothing in anticipation of that one "aha!" moment of final payoff, with just a lot of nopes, doesn't works, and can't happens in between. There's something to be said for rewarding perseverance, but demanding it without any emotional or even much intellectual incentive feels more like an endurance test than a leisure pursuit.
So what do we do about this negative psychology of no? Ideally, adventures would become far more generous in their puzzle-solving approach, offering multiple solutions and a myriad of possibilities, even if they're ultimately wrong. Let us discover for ourselves what works and what doesn't, limiting only those things that are physically impossible (or at least reasonably implausible). But that invites the familiar elephant into the room, which is money. It costs far too much for developers already scrimping on budgets to add extra interactions, animations, and branching paths to account for player experimentation. Though they had their own limitations, the best text adventures of old were more flexible in this way, freely (or at least cheaply) allowing many more avenues to explore. Modern graphic adventure designers no longer have that luxury. I get that, and I sympathize, but it's no excuse to simply shrug our shoulders and accept the status quo of "no can do". If there's a skill today's developers need to master, it's the ability to work smarter within their own limitations instead of exposing them at the player's expense.
Doing so can take a number of forms. One method slowly gaining traction is the cursor indicator that shows you at a glance which interactions and combinations are viable and which are not. It's a subtle thing, but as a first step it's crucial in eliminating the initial wave of negative feedback. Which would you prefer: a silent little image that instantly prevents you from wasting your time, or actually making the effort only to be treated to a worthless vocal remark that drags your mood down for your troubles? My blood boils a little hotter every time I hear "there's no reason to use those together", especially when there's a perfectly good reason in my mind. Avoiding these repetitive verbal downers in favour of a quick and easy visual notification is an elegant solution I intend to champion until all developers take heed, if only to shut me up.
But that's just a start. All that accomplishes is replacing negative feedback with no feedback at all. It's a definite improvement, but not nearly enough on its own. Adventure games really need to start turning each slap on the wrist into a pat on the back. At the very least, they need to start phrasing generic rejections with a more positive spin. I'm far more likely to respond kindly to "I'm on the right track, but need to think it all the way through" than "There's no reason for me to do that." The former motivates me to try harder, to press on, to view the problem from another angle. The latter just makes me want to quit, fed up and disgusted. Yes there is a reason, game! I'm THINKING of a ^&%*@ing reason! Why can't you?!
Even that is merely superficial, however. The real focus should be on turning negative (or non-existent) feedback into contextual clues. I don't want a game to tell me how to solve a puzzle, but I do want it to offer some input on what I'm doing wrong. When all you get is a canned answer for the umpteenth time, you learn nothing from the experience and have no idea how close you are to the actual answer. This is a huge wasted opportunity to support players with useful information. More games are adopting hint systems, but doesn't this really just suggest that the clues themselves are still insufficient? Burying hints into context-sensitive feedback would be incredibly beneficial and feel far more natural than seeking an immersion-killing (and further confidence-deflating) tip elsewhere.
The next step, then, is to ditch generic responses for all but the most unfounded options. Yes, that means more work for the writers and additional dialogue for voiceovers, but many games can afford to cut out redundant commentary elsewhere. Hands up all those who have clicked on a hotspot only to have the protagonist tell you what you could plainly see for yourself? All of us. We can (gladly) do without that, so now it's time to trim the fat and season the meat. What to say instead? That will be a balancing act between saying too much and not enough, but the emphasis should be on telling us why our attempt won't work instead of simply stating that it doesn't. If I truly am close to the solution, indicate that, possibly with a nudge in the right direction. If I'm way off base, tell me that too, so I won't keep trying variations of the same thing and proving Einstein's theory of insanity correct.
This approach doesn't require an AI-level query/response system, just a thoughtful anticipation of likely player interactions (and a bit more complex programming if it's going to be done right). Preferably clues would be tiered for repeated mistakes, and can be based either on the item being used (am I using it in the right place, just not under the right circumstances?) or the hotspot you're trying to use something on (is this object part of a current objective at all, and am I ready to utilize it at this point?). Perhaps the best analogy is the child's game of hot-and-cold, where you direct someone to a specific object based on whether they're near or far from the actual goal. Does that make an adventure game too easy? Not necessarily. The challenge lies in the abstraction of the wording. Obviously a game shouldn't immediately spoil a solution, but it can certainly guide in subtle ways. That's the challenge for developers, but hey, that's why they get paid the big (okay small) bucks.
I believe some concessions should be made in providing alternate interactions as well. Not in big, cost-prohibitive ways, but in smaller, more attainable ways. If I try using a knife on a rope in inventory, why not go ahead and let it be cut, even if makes the rope too short? It's a viable player action and a natural outcome, and it feels far more satisfying to see it carried out than hearing "I shouldn't do that" yet again. Of course, when it comes time to use the now-too-short rope, you'll need to address the newfound problem. Ideally there'd be a new puzzle created to reattach the rope pieces or provide a substitute to replace it, but if nothing else, it wouldn't be difficult to add a single additional line about tying it back together and hoping it holds. That's just a very basic illustration, but representative of the way you can both accommodate player choice and still keep production manageable.
Adventure games are too rooted in single-solution puzzles to ever really change from a "no" genre to a "yes" genre. But we can certainly come much, much closer to the middle than we are now. And we must. I play games for something to do, and all too often adventure game puzzles feel more like obstacles intended to prevent me from doing anything else. Can't do this, can't do that... no, no, a thousand times no. Ugh. This negative psychology of no is far too destructive to let continue. It may cost a little bit more to overcome, but I bet sales will start increasing when word gets out that games are actually FUN again instead of demoralizing drains on our once-eager anticipation. Mainly, though, all it really requires is the commitment to make it happen through user-friendly interface improvements, smarter dialogue, and attention to context-relevant feedback all working together in unison. Is it possible? There's only one correct answer to that question. And if you think the answer is "no", you've been playing adventure games too long.