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If Not Puzzles… What?

Puzzles editorial
Puzzles editorial

Are puzzles necessary in an adventure game?

According to AG's own longstanding definition, they are. In fact, given the genre's three fundamental pillars – story, exploration, and puzzles – it could be argued that puzzles are the most integral. Not most important, but integral. Why? Because story and exploration are shared traits among several genres, making puzzle-solving really the lone defining characteristic that separates adventure gameplay from most others.

So historically and traditionally speaking, puzzles are indeed essential in making adventure games what they are. Perhaps the better question is: should they be? There are two huge problems with making puzzle-solving the predominant gameplay focus of an adventure. Not only does it represent a very unforgiving barrier to entry that limits its appeal to mainstream audiences, it's extraordinarily difficult to design a whole game around puzzle-solving within a narrative framework – or to do so successfully, anyway.

The first issue is unavoidable to an extent. Let's face it, puzzles simply aren't as exciting as action. I've come out of many a virtual firefight with heart pounding, endorphins surging; never once have I had to wipe the sweat from my hands after an intense slider. The pace of puzzle-solving is much slower, more sedate, cerebral. That has its own benefits, but a boost of adrenaline is not one of them. Rewards, too, are much more restrictive in adventures. While every game is designed around challenges of various kinds, most games emphasize smaller, more immediate goals and accomplishments on a more frequent basis. Puzzles are intended to frustrate – not to the point of discouragement (hopefully), but enough to actually impede your progress. Whereas other games tend to resemble obstacle courses, adventures play out more like traffic – overcome one hurdle, roll up a few paces, slow and repeat (probably with lots of honking and swearing somewhere in between).

Image #1

Now, like you (presumably), I'm an adventure gamer, so I have a certain affinity for that kind of gameplay. I'm not disrespecting it; merely stating the reality, at least as far as the wider gaming world is concerned. The easiest – and laziest – response is simply to dismiss other gamers as being unwilling to think. They're all just fast-twitch thumb jockeys, right? Wrong. (Oh, some are, sure. Just as some adventure gamers are surely elitist snobs who look down on other types of gameplay they're not good at. Such extreme generalizations are entirely unhelpful.) Most strategy games require just as much thought (of another type) as any adventure, often under duress, while the runaway success of games like Portal, Braid, and Limbo show there's a legitimate yearning for thoughtful gameplay when presented in new and interesting ways.

So if mindless gamers aren't to blame, what is? The answer must lie with the types of puzzles offered in adventure games, and the ways in which they're implemented. When you think about it, puzzles are pretty much the antithesis of story and exploration. The latter go hand-in-hand; the former usually tries to hinder them both. The better games integrate puzzles seamlessly into the story while blending item- and clue-gathering intuitively into exploration, but eventually most adventures boil down to a series of bottlenecks choking off more story and exploration. All too often, adventure game puzzles feel less like something to do and more like something preventing you from doing anything else.

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Gabriel Knight 3

There's intrinsic entertainment value in solving puzzles just for their own sake, of course, but to truly succeed in an adventure game they must also feel like an organic part of the story, logically derived from circumstance and adequately signposted with all the necessary information provided. The best games strike just the right balance, but it's ever-so-tenuous. It's why even a game as highly acclaimed as Gabriel Knight 3 offers both the revered Le Serpent Rouge sequence and the infamous cat hair mustache puzzle. 

The reason so many adventures get it so wrong so often is that puzzles are so contrived. Life just isn't about jumping through as many hoops as possible to accomplish even the most mundane of tasks. Obviously games are escapism, not real life, but that's a cop-out. The goal of any designer is to make people forget they're playing a game and sweep players completely up in a virtual world with its own set of rules. Breaking those rules just to shoehorn in yet another confounding obstacle is an immersion-killer that can't be redeemed by conveniently falling back on the "just a game" excuse. If it's a world where sharp things cut soft things, then ALL sharp things must cut ALL soft things. If it's a world where normal, everyday people operate shops, then having a door lock made of complex brainteasers is ridiculous. THAT is what turns non-adventure gamers off. Heck, it's what turns me off.

The simple solution, of course, is to design better puzzles. There's certainly room for improvement, but ultimately that may prove to be both too idealistic and too short-sighted. Multiply the number of puzzles in any given adventure game by the number of new releases each year and you soon come up with a pretty staggering number. There's a reason we keep seeing the same paper-under-the-blocked-keyhole puzzle: there are only so many contextual puzzles to realistically go around! If the genre continues to rely exclusively on puzzles as its central gameplay mechanic, it's going to run out of ideas. Perhaps it already has.

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The Testament of Sherlock Holmes

In recent years, it seems that more and more developers have begun taking this dilemma to heart. Responses have varied widely: Some merely added hint systems and user-friendly devices to minimize player frustration while keeping the gameplay the same. This addresses the symptoms but not the core problem. Others have chosen to streamline progress somewhat, generally resulting in easier games with fewer puzzles. Frogwares, for example, has been scaling back their puzzle difficulty for a much better-balanced experience, culminating with the excellent Testament of Sherlock Holmes. Secret Files 3, meanwhile, eschewed the more preposterous inventory puzzles of the first two installments, but didn't really compensate properly for their absence. If you're going to take a notable element out, you need to fill the gap with something...

Or do you? Some developers have gone another route, choosing to replace puzzles with absolutely nothing. Inspired indie titles like Home and Dear Esther are essentially just stories with barely anything that resembles gameplay. If stories are the main reason many people play adventures, why not just cut out the middle man and remove the obstacles entirely? This approach works well as a novelty, but if it became more popular the lack of any significant player interaction would surely wear thin before long. Besides which, it works best with surreal narratives that don't rely on linear, straightforward storytelling, which isn't particularly conducive to most adventure game plots. Still, there's a lesson to be learned here; sometimes puzzles do nothing but interfere with the story the game is trying to tell.

Hidden object hybrids have come largely from the other direction, with purely casual games gradually adding more and more adventure elements from their Where's Waldo?-style origins, but the end result is the same and it's become enormously popular. Scattering around random seek-and-find minigames helps to break up the relentless slog through puzzle after puzzle with a bit of breezier gameplay. There's still a fair bit of traffic on these figurative roads, but at least there are stretches where you can hit the gas and make some tracks in between. Who didn't play I-Spy on long car trips growing up?

It's surprising that we haven't seen more RPG elements blended into adventures, though Lori and Corey Cole are revisiting their own Quest for Glory idea once again in the upcoming Hero-U. The odd other game, like the very odd Carte Blanche, has lightly incorporated some stat-building along the way, but roleplaying remains a huge untapped resource. It doesn't need to involve combat, either. It'd be so easy to offer alternate solutions based on... say, your detection, charisma, or mechanical skills established to that point (with or without the player's awareness). Unique abilities for multi-character parties represent another common RPG trait. We've already seen this in adventures, dating at least as far back as Maniac Mansion and as recently as games like Resonance and Botanicula, but in general it's still under-utilized. It doesn't fundamentally change the nature of the gameplay, but it does introduce a whole different layer of strategy to accomplish common goals. That at least feels different, especially when multiple characters use their individual abilities in tandem.

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L.A. Noire

Then there's the oft-dreaded "action" element. I'm not talking about full-fledged action-adventures like Tomb Raider and Uncharted, which are heavy on combat and/or platforming but relatively light on puzzles. I'm referring to more and more adventures incorporating some form of action, whether it's shootouts in Gemini Rue, fisticuffs in Indigo Prophecy or road rage in L.A. Noire. These aren't really "new" developments at all, mind you. There were gunfights, punch-ups, and car chases in Blade Runner, The Last Express and Police Quest long ago, so for all the hue and cry about modern adventures abandoning their traditional roots, in a way this is just the genre coming full circle. Though it's often done poorly, there's an established place for discretionary action in any adventure, particularly when it's optional.

Survival horrors have always been the close cousins of adventure games, but a little too much peril generally separates the likes of Silent Hill and Alone in the Dark (the most recent installments, at least) from their more puzzle-oriented relatives. Then Frictional Games came along and turned that notion on its head. While Resident Evil and Dead Space become more and more shooter-based, indie horror titles such as Penumbra and Amnesia have sparked a whole new interest in psychological terror rather than in-your-face foes overcome with axes, swords, and bullets. They may involve the odd mad dash for safety, and the threat of danger is ever-present, but it's your wits (and courage) that ensure your survival, not your arsenal. This appeals to a whole new legion of fear-mongers who simply aren't frightened by risk-free horrors like Dark Fall and Scratches.

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The Cave

The other popular genre hybrid gaining serious traction these days is the puzzle-platformer. Back when we first started our Puzzling (mis)adventures feature, they were still few and far between, but now the landscape is dotted with them. Even Nintendo's quintessential platform stars, Mario and Donkey Kong, have their own shared puzzle series (and an excellent one, at that). Sometimes the platforming provides a serious challenge, like in Snapshot and Quantum Conundrum, which demand fine timing and death-defying acrobatics to succeed, while in other games it serves mainly as an environmental backdrop for the puzzles. There's not a single tricky jump in Ron Gilbert's The Cave, making it a "platformer" only in the most rudimentary sense, and an adventure game in every other. For many, the more tactile nature of such experiences makes puzzle-solving actually feel FUN.

Another hands-on trend coming into prominence is the reliance on Quick Time Events. Again, these have been around since the days of Dragon's Lair, so the concept itself is well established. But with games like Heavy Rain leading the way, QTEs have become an accepted means of inserting brief moments of tension into an otherwise leisurely experience without demanding too much dexterity or skill from the player. There's so little personal investment required that they get old fast when overused, as they did in Jurassic Park, so this is a complementary option at best, but QTEs can certainly serve a purpose when used in moderation.

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Heavy Rain

Along the same lines – and not coincidentally championed by the same games – are context-sensitive motion controls to simulate real-life experience. It's easier (and more commonplace) to do with cross-platform adventures that use gamepads, but even some point-and-click adventures now involve a degree of button-mashing or directional gesturing. For all its abundant promise, the Nintendo Wii proved disappointing in this regard, but the DS smartly introduced activities like blowing into the microphone for a more tangible experience. There's a fine line between increased player involvement and tedium, but when used judiciously, motion control adds a welcome level of interaction.

Crucial dialogue choices are coming back into vogue as well. Many games over the years have offered interactive exchanges – insult swordfighting arguably remains the crowning achievement of ingenious wordplay – but all too often even branching topic trees have been largely cosmetic. Lately, however, more adventures have looked to dialogue as an essential puzzle component in its own right, like tripping up witnesses on the stand in Phoenix Wright by identifying faulty testimony. Others use it merely as a test of observation, like the quizzes that punctuate key moments of Hotel Dusk. Like any other puzzle type, these are black-and-white challenges (some far more forgiving than others), but it's a positive step towards full integration of puzzle and story that too many games lack. Conversation doesn't have to be something you merely click through or watch.

Nor does it need to be a puzzle to be effective. You could make important dialogue decisions way back in Tex Murphy's heyday, even to the point of influencing the final outcome, but that feature was so far ahead of the curve that the genre as a whole still hasn't caught up. Fortunately, there are promising signs that at last it's nearly arrived. Whether making split-second, life-or-death decisions or simply weighing difficult moral choices, The Walking Dead makes you agonize over each and every choice you make, intensely, personally. Regardless of whether it matters in the grand scheme of things, it matters to you because they're yours. After struggling through your own internal quandary to reach a decision, you then own it, consequences be damned. Even when there is no right and wrong, simply involving the player emotionally makes this well-worn gameplay mechanic feel entirely new and relevant again. We need much, much more of that.

Not all elements are enjoyed by everyone, but all too often these changes cause great distress among those who prefer the tried-and-true adventure game formulas. We all have personal tastes and preferences, so that's understandable, but jealously defending the "genre" as if it were an actual THING that needs protection is completely misguided. It's not an entity in danger of being destroyed; it's a concept – a loose collection of ideas that generally morph into something we recognize. But not always. Sometimes games like Portal 2 come along that challenge those perceptions. It fits our definition of adventure like a glove, and yet people still resist embracing it as such because it's so... so... different.

But difference, my friends, is what really makes adventures so great. What other genre offers the incredible diversity that ours does? True, a huge majority of games resemble Myst or Monkey Island clones. They're the meat-and-potatoes of the genre menu, and that's fine. But it's the more forward-thinking, daring games that add the spice. Just in 2012 alone, you could guide a wordless quintet of creatures through a surreal tree world; explore a minimalistic, geometrical dreamscape with no characters, inventory, or discernable plot; remotely guide a robot across alien planets through text; escape a nightmarish blindness solely through sound; secretly assassinate people with demonic powers; traverse time through black-and-white comic book pages; or stealthily creep through a street full of undead zombies. Whew!

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There are more examples besides those, and far more throughout the years. In fact, virtually every game we hold dear is the result of bold design innovations at some point. They're old hat now, but at the time they faced much the same resistance that new games now face in our own era. Where would we be if Ken and Roberta Williams hadn't added those crazy things called pictures to text, or Ron Gilbert his unique point-and-click command interface? What would the genre look like if the Miller brothers hadn't dropped players unceremoniously into the midst of an otherworldly slideshow with no direction of any kind, or if Trilobyte hadn't made extensive use of full-motion video? We'd still be typing in unrecognized verbs playing Zork.

Instead of rejecting change, we need to start encouraging it, even if it threatens our sacred puzzle-solving cow. Many already have, but as fellow adventurers we're a community seriously divided. Which is a shame, because there's just no reason to fear progress. We mustn't think of evolution like a straight line, where X turns into Y, then Y to Z, with X and Y never to be heard from again. That isn't how it works. I said the genre isn't an "entity", but if it were, it would be like a living cell that grows and adapts as new ideas emerge. It probes along the edges, incorporating compatible foreign elements within, but the core always remains the same. Even if The Walking Dead sparks a horde of gameplay-lite, choice-heavy copycats in future, the genre will always have a host of traditional adventures huddled in the middle. It's pointless to be so territorial.

Not only would I like to see even more diversity between games, but getting back to the original question, I'd like to see much more gameplay variety within a given adventure. Should there be puzzles? Ultimately I'd say yes, but not all of the same type, difficulty, or frequency. There is such a thing as too much Rube Goldberg, inventory gathering, and absurd mental gymnastics. The narrative should always, always dictate the design, continually adapting itself accordingly. In the vast majority of games, natural laws should matter; dialogue choices should affect the response; character abilities and even ongoing development should factor into available options. You may need to sneak or fight or hide and cower on occasion, and other times run and jump and climb and push. Even hidden object searches have their logical uses – how many adventures ask you to root through the trash, but how few actually require you to get your hands dirty doing it?

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This may sound like I'm supporting hybrids, and in a sense I am. A pinch of action, a sprinkling of roleplaying, a dash of strategy, a spot of stealth, and even the odd scavenger hunt sound like tasty seasoning in a healthy dose of adventuring. But none of these are required. A traditional adventure with a better, more diverse mix of gameplay elements would do just as well, so long as they fit the game's own design philosophy. This call for internal variety isn't universal, of course. Machinarium wouldn't improve with random dialogue puzzles thrown in, while To the Moon wouldn't benefit from additional brainteasers crammed into its heartfelt storyline. But that's why those games are among the best at what they do; each is designed specifically around a central focus and rarely (if ever) break character. Most adventures have a much broader scope, but fail to equally broaden their interactive possibilities.

Not every game should strive to be all things for all people, naturally. But they can all strive to be the richest experiences they can be, and too many seem satisfied with the status quo. I have absolutely nothing against puzzles, but puzzles should only go where puzzles belong. If any developer reaches the point of deciding "we need a puzzle here", they've already lost. If an obstacle isn't organic, then shoehorning it in is an immersion-killer from the get-go, and the more convoluted the solution, the less credibility it displays. THESE are the puzzles that other players despise about adventure games, and I don't blame them a bit.

The key point to remember is that immersion is the end game, not gameplay, and puzzles are just an instrument. Who here overcomes every single obstacle with the exact same approach? Nobody, so why do we arbitrarily restrict ourselves in games? Makes no sense. Perhaps there are more puzzles that would fit naturally if developers stopped limiting themselves to a select few problem-solving variations. I'm a proponent of multiple solutions, but that's not what I'm suggesting here. I'm merely recommending that the options best suit each scenario, not a prescribed gameplay formula. Sometimes a situation demands outwitting an opponent, sometimes brute force and ignorance are called for (Zork Inquisitor's Brog says hi). The issue isn't so much a need to think outside the box, but just plain putting more damn puzzle approaches INTO the box to draw from.

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Where are the Legend of Zeldas in the "point-and-click" world? Forget the boss fights and tricky physical maneuvers; I'm talking strictly about the open-world exploration and imaginative puzzle-solving. Its inventory puzzles don't feel like puzzles at all, but rather intuitive uses of the tools at your disposal, in increasingly clever ways. Whether it's using a power glove to move heavy objects, a crossbow to activate distant targets, a hookshot to hoist yourself high over obstacles, or a freeze ray to solidify objects that weigh down pressure plates (random examples that barely scratch the surface), these are puzzles that integrate perfectly into the ever-changing environments. And some of them are hard. They force players to think spacially, to plan ahead, to experiment, to strategize. There's no "use everything on everything" solutions here. If I had my way, every adventure game developer would be forced to play A Link to the Past to expand their puzzling horizons.

Ultimately, puzzles may be integral to the adventure experience, and that is still a good thing overall, but it doesn't mean that the mold is forever set. The who/what/when/where/why and how (and how often) such puzzles are implemented must best suit each story's design instead of following a particular pattern just to call itself an "adventure". It's this slavish devotion to the same old puzzle types where the genre is guiltiest of being stagnant, and as more and more games start to branch out and try new things (or old things in new ways), we should all support such developments wholeheartedly. Without such ambition, we'd have no Stacking or Ghost Trick or even Professor Layton. They may not all work, and we won't all like the results, but we should always embrace the creative attempt. The tried-and-true is here to stay, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying now. For a community so devoted to puzzles, why haven't we figured that out?


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Community Comments

@PadanFain Out of interest, do you have a favourite Daedalic game? I've only played Deponia, but I think 3 and a half stars would be very generous for that. I found it a real chore from start to finish. But that's probably because the designers sense of humour didn't click with me at all, and when you're not enjoying just generally interacting with a setting, it makes the time when you're stuck between puzzles a lot less fun. But I'd like to give them another chance.
Mar 5, 2013
Great article! While the thing that annoys me most about adventure games is the almost universally terrible writing/translation, that's a personal bias from being a writer/editor. I don't want to spend my free time thinking how easily I (or any native English writer) could fix up 90% of the text. I've just given up A New Beginning after ten minutes for that very reason. But that's just me. Objectively, I agree with Kurufinwe, I think the fundamental problem is that designers don't consider the story and puzzles simultaneously. You can't shoehorn puzzles into anything and assume you'll get a fun game. Adventure games are versatile, but they're not THAT versatile.
Mar 5, 2013
I have just started a thread in the forum, with a somewhat similar topic. http://www.adventuregamers.com/forums/viewthread/1627/
Mar 4, 2013
Just because all genres have gameplay doesn't mean you can make the same argument about them (at least, not rationally). Does adrenaline-fueled action a) turn off all but a hardcore niche audience, b) pose a fundamental conflict to its own goals, and c) largely fail to adapt to changing expectations? No. It's fine if you admire Daedalic, but there's nothing at all innovative about their games, and their puzzles can indeed interfere with their storytelling at times. And while they seem to be carving out a nice market for themselves, countless similarly popular studios have closed down over the years, so this "tried and true" approach is anything but a guarantee of success. But as I said numerous times, I'm not saying ALL developers should change, and not all developers will. I'm just saying as an audience we should stop clinging to one particular formula like the genre's life depended on it. There are other things besides puzzles, and there are many, many other TYPES of puzzles to try in new and different ways than the same old inventory and twiddleware puzzles that comprise 90% of adventure games.
Mar 4, 2013
A person can write this kind of article for any kind of game, but it doesn't make sense. It's like saying: FPS games give us way too much adrenaline, would they be better if they slow down and give us some more puzzles? Adventure games are like this for a reason; there's a certain simplicity to the old formula of story, characters, puzzles. It requires innovation and competence to do right, just as is required of any other game. The genre is not what defines the game's quality, but the game's director-creator and his crew. Classic point-and-click adventures are actually the best and easiest medium to tell a compelling story in, and there is no need to deviate from the norm if one does not want to. Just look at Daedalic - a company who's games constantly get 3 and 1/2 stars on this site, but are actually some of the best adventure games in existence. Daedalic uses traditional mechanics, but they focus solely on innovative and involving stories and good integration of puzzles within. And in you article, you forgot to mention one of the best adventure games in existence, Sanitarium. That's a full-bloodied point-and-click adventure game, but it also manages to weave in some light action elements to spice things up.
Mar 4, 2013
I only want to add that I'm glad to discover the article image was taken from the best adventure puzzle the world has ever seen. Kudos! :)
Feb 22, 2013
Great article. I personally do love games that try to do something a bit different, but I have to also add that I absolutely love normal inventory-based puzzling fare. I don't think it's a problem. I fell in love with these games in the first place because I enjoy the idea of going from one location to another, overcoming obstacles using your wits and the items you find around you. This to me is the heart of adventure games. Of course, a great narrative is also vital, as it is in RPGs and many other genres. I wouldn't call myself a traditionalist, and as I said I love it when developers try new twists (such as Resonance's long/short-term memories). However, there is a trend lately to talk of normal inventory-based puzzling as if it's a bad thing. It's not. It's a glorious thing. When it is done right and makes sense in the context of the setting and story.
Feb 22, 2013
Great article Jack, and i agree with many things in both the article and in the comments here. I just want to emphasize one thing, and that is that a game needs challenges. Without the challenges it is not really a game, but an interactive story. The exact nature of these challenges and the game mechanics to overcome them can of course vary, and we should welcome any new thinking in ths area. But imo the challenges should be solveable by the use of logic and intuition, i'm not a big fan of mixing action elements into AG. Also a thing that has annoyed me for some time, is that too many adventure games require you to follow the narrow path the designers have designed, and solve the puzzles the way they have planned, but this breaks the illusion that it is you who are controlling things, that it is you who is on the adventure or is solving a murder case. What we need more than anything else, is a more open puzzle design, not necessarily in the form of multiple solutions to a puzzle, but more in the form of many ways to reach the same conclusion, or the same place in the game.
Feb 22, 2013
When I played DF's Stacking two years ago, I thought about the very exact things Jack discussed in this article. It was a marvelous, fresh and unforgettable experience. And yes, Stacking was full of puzzles. :-P
Feb 17, 2013
Kairo, J.U.L.I.A., Lucius, and Reperfection, respectively.
Feb 17, 2013
I don't recognize the following descriptions in the article: explore a minimalistic, geometrical dreamscape with no characters, inventory, or discernable plot; remotely guide a robot across alien planets through text; secretly assassinate people with demonic powers; traverse time through black-and-white comic book pages. What are the names of those games?
Feb 17, 2013
compelling article. personally, i think there just needs to be an emphasis on interactivity and intrigue in story telling to make you actually interested in playing. diffiicult puzzles arent the core of adventure gaming enjoyment imo, the immersion of progressing through a story is. what id like to see is really difficult puzzles which, maybe if you dont solve them by a time frame start to offer new hints as you play and revisit scenes until it has you figure it out. i think some puzzles come faster for some than others so it would make different parts of the game longer depending on the players mind and that would be cool imo
Feb 17, 2013
I feel like this article contains many points that needed to be said in public for a long, long time. It makes me very happy and proud that AG is the place where to find such an important statement!
Feb 16, 2013
Jackal, I was actually talking about the multiplayer aspect of CoD - it has nothing to do with the story. Millions of people are playing FPS games in multiplayer mode under the SAME game mechanics like 20+ years ago. As for "better puzzles", there probably isn't a unique answer, but it needs to hit that golden balance between being challenging and not being frustrating. The guy who wrote that article on "Death of Adventure Games"/"cat hair moustache puzzle" was completely missing the point because escapism is an allowed concept in adventure puzzles from the earliest games. You need to think, but you also need to think inside the game world. When two get seemingly close to each other, we can talk about a "good puzzle".
Feb 16, 2013
and also I think many games lacks of the development between characters which tend to make them kind of shallow. I guess Walking Dead was kind of good in this aspect but still it was more of a situation-based story than a "interesting one".. However, The longest Journey succeeded pretty well with the "characterization". The chemistry and development in the relations between the characters is a kind of important aspect to make a story interesting and trust-worthy (even if it's a cartoonish game or more authentic). Still, gameplay and some sort of puzzling/overmastering obstacles is important for the game to be considered a game, otherwise it's more of a interactive book (or am i wrong). If you play a game you're probably after to practically take part of the happenings otherwise you rather read a book or you try to find an interactive graphic-book which surely would be a different genre?
Feb 16, 2013
I agree with the article (we should be less conservative and more open-minded and welcoming to innovative ideas) but also somewhat with the comment by kurufinwe; in the sense that many adventuregames does have pretty bad stories. But still, it's the whole package which matters.. A good story and lousy voice-acting is not very pleasant either, i mean even if the production is wonderful in one, two or maybe more aspects the whole experience probably will get destructed by a total fail in one (maybe it often has something to do with lack of money but still). The cat lady is one of few releases (I don't dare to say in history, but maybe) which have an innovative and interesting story, but unfortunately the gameplay was quite bad. Resonance delivered the whole packade but not a very innovative story, but a story that works all way through (a little like reading a crime-novel). I miss an intellectual thrustworthy story which Gabriel Knight 2 somewhat had (well, in combo with mystery but anyways).
Feb 16, 2013
"But difference, my friends, is what really makes adventures so great." Very good article overall, Jack. Asking about puzzles, you ask the questions about innovation and necessity. The era of freedom we entered with digital publishing and self financing, is enlarging our genre, making it the widest of the gaming industry in term of content (or a trash bin where we don't know where to put games without clear genre :) ). After years of copy\pasting some well known formulas, The adventure genre is starting to innovate again as a laboratory and games with more closed genre will continue to "steal" the best elements from newly created "adventure" games. Adventure games will compete with other genres only if they put as much means in the production if other genres do, and take back some of the things that were taken away entirely by RPG for example (http://www.pcgamer.com/2011/09/04/dont-quit-how-to-save-adventures-225/). It's natural that other genres steal from Adventure Games, they are by nature the richest games in term of game mechanics, meaning that they have the biggest amount of different games mechanics in a single installement. In a shooter, however cool it could be, you can shoot and you can run. you can shoot with 35 different weapons, but the mechanic is still the same, subtle variations of the mechanic are creating the fun. You can Run, and walk, and fall, and jump, or climb ladders, still it's the same thing as running, you just move your character. In an adventure game, every different puzzle is a different mechanic. You beat any shooter or strategy everytime in term of mechanic counts. But the richest part is The way you tell the story, if you push it further, the way to tell the story can become the mechanics themselves, it's ambitious and maybe pretentious, but again, we are in an open market as we never were before, so it's the right time to try. The debate whether we should start from Story or Game Mechanics (read Puzzles) when creating a game reminds me of Mind and Language (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hobbes/#2). There is probably no truth into whether it's language OR mind, but a series of iterations that will bring clear definitions of what we aim to do. As a side note, "Fun" probably doesn't have the same meaning for both of you. I remember Sherlock Holmes and the Silver Earring (2004) was disliked for its quizzes in UK, North America, Australia, While it was praised for the exact same quizzes in France, Germany, Italy and Russia. I understood later that the "fun" had rather different meanings depending on the culture, (Fun as a process to English/American culture and Fun as a result for the best part of Europe and Russia) even if the games seemed to be culturally globalized already. These differences tend to disappear anyway, (releasing the quizzes as made in 2004 in 2013 would be suicidal everywhere) as the overall cultural differences. Again, thanks for the article and for the stimulation it settles.
Feb 16, 2013
I'm a great supporter of puzzles in adventure games, and I don't find interactive movies even 1% as fun as a full-blown game. However, I do agree strongly with the article's conclusion. The more we see innovative and experimental puzzles, the better for the genre as a whole. As for Blow, I remember he criticized the presence of red herrings and complex exploration in adventure games. To him, if there's a game about solving puzzles, then the player should see a clear differentiation between what's the puzzle and the rest of the game's content.
Feb 16, 2013
Kurufinwe, the big difference between tough obstacles in other genres and in adventure games is that in RTSs or shooters or platform games, practice makes perfect, so therefore it can be meaningful (and fun!) to just keep trying, over and over. But you can't "practice" solving a puzzle you're stuck on, and the only way you can keep trying is the old "click on everything, use everything on everything" brute force attempt. Which is hardly fun.
Feb 16, 2013
Well, that certainly sounds like a worthy goal, though I suspect it's probably one that most developers would agree with in theory. It's the "how" that makes all the difference. I've yet to hear any specifics for how The Witness will distinguish itself in that area, but Blow clearly takes such issues very seriously, so I certainly trust him to at least make a genuine effort to support his claims.
Feb 16, 2013
I guess it's more like the first ten minutes. Anyway, the gist is that he considers puzzles in adventure games to be generally unsophisticated. But in better games, puzzles are designed and presented to the player in a way that's always surprising. And that's the feeling he trying to tap into, where the solution magically clicks into place. He mentions that he wants the puzzles to be guided by intuition, and that when solutions arrive this way, he calls it "an interesting space" for players to be in.
Feb 15, 2013
I didn't hear anything particularly relevant in the first five minutes. What's the gist of his position on puzzles, short of listening to the other 75 minutes to find out?
Feb 15, 2013
In the first five minutes of this interview Jonathan Blow discuses adventure games, like Myst, in relation to what he's trying to achieve with The Witness. He comments that the genre isn't clearly defined compared to other genres, like shooters or role-playing, and how that may be why it's so psychologically compelling. Of course, he also discusses puzzles. http://www.gamespot.com/the-witness/videos/the-break-room-interviews-jonathan-blow-6403321/
Feb 15, 2013
Actually, Kurufinwe, "exciting" is precisely the word I used. The only reference to fun is that "for many, the more tactile nature of such experiences makes puzzle-solving actually feel FUN." Surely you're not arguing that many feel that way, even if some hardcore adventure gamers don't. ;) That said, in general I use the word "fun" loosely, but I will stand by my overall assertion. Puzzles are designed primarily to frustrate, and the act of solving them isn't particularly fun. Rewarding, stimulating in other ways, yes. Fun, no. You're right, other genres do have similarly frustrating sequences, but they're used with much better discretion. If every gunfight was a boss-level grind, you can bet they'd be far less popular. But many adventures offer one puzzle after another (sometimes immediately), with maybe a few story snippets in between. And exploring. Exploring is fun. :D (Or it can be.) Anyway, great point about the order of the questions. I don't necessarily agree that you can't start from a story, but the premise should immediately inform the gameplay opportunities as a mutually complementary element instead of being tacked on after the fact. But I also think that "adventure puzzles" have become too bog standard a response to that question, regardless of the order, and that's what developers need to look past. Is the rubber ducky a problem because a puzzle didn't belong at that point in the story, or because he'd predetermined that inventory would be his vehicle for solving it? If he'd used a broader pool of puzzle types (or maybe something else interactive that was less "puzzly" in nature), he might have come up with something in the exact same scenario but far better suited.
Feb 15, 2013
Now, for the main matter of the editorial. I believe that the question needs to be turned upside down. [i]The problem is not the puzzles: the problem is the stories.[/i] For pretty much any other game with story-telling ambitions in any other genre (except HOGs), it’s obvious for everyone that the gameplay comes first, and the story is built around it (in the better games, the story helps enrich and refine the gameplay, but it doesn’t change the fact that the basic gameplay idea came first). For instance, you start with the idea of making a shooter, and then you come up with a story, with the constraint that it has to be mostly about a guy shooting things. Nobody writes a romantic comedy and then goes “Oh, dammit, how am I going to turn that into a shooter?” But there’s this weird idea floating around that somehow adventure games are an exception; that somehow adventure games are so versatile that they can work with any story; that you can come up with your story and [i]then[/i] figure out how to shoehorn puzzles into it. And I believe this is completely wrong. What sets video games apart as story-telling vehicles is that they’re interactive. And so if, as a designer, you’re not starting with “What is my interactive element? Why is it good? How does the story work with it?”, then you’re doing something wrong. There are many possible answers to these questions for adventure games: “Players will have fun playing detectives, gathering clues, interrogating suspects and cracking the mystery”; “Players will love exploring beautiful, surreal worlds at their leisure and exercising their brain along the way”; “Players will enjoy slowly learning more about the story and the characters through exploration”; “Players will be put in specific situations that will make them come up with creative, original solutions to problems by finding unexpected uses for seemingly-mundane items”; “People will be forced to make difficult choices under pressure, which will increase the emotional force of the story tenfold”; etc. But when you avoid those questions, when the story comes without consideration for how it fits with the gameplay, that’s when you end up with rubber duckies, moustaches made of cat hair and the whole of Syberia; or with contrived puzzles that have no better reasons for being there than “I’m out of cash” (despite having flown halfway around the world ten times over the course of the game) or “I don’t want to get my hands dirty”; or with the designer hiding behind humour to justify puzzles that make no sense. It doesn’t mean that those games can’t have some merit. But they have a deep flaw that can’t go unnoticed, and their appeal will seem impossible to understand to people who don’t have a deep enough fondness for adventure-style gameplay to disregard the disconnect between gameplay and story. Ultimately, adventure games are like other genres: their stories need to be built around their gameplay (or interactive elements, to be more general), not the other way around. If you have a great story but it’s not naturally suited to an interactive medium, then find another medium to tell it rather than try to force an adventure game into it.
Feb 15, 2013
There are many things I agree with here, especially the idea that diversity should be celebrated, not seen as a threat, and I’ll discuss some in a later post. But first I want to address a thing that [i]really[/i] irked me. Jack, you really need to let go of that argument (which you keep plastering all over your editorials) that adventure-style puzzles are intrinsically less fun than other types of gameplay. Less physically exciting? Sure. But inherently more frustrating and less fun? Hell no! There are lots of elements in other genres that are the equivalent of hard puzzles: Shooters can have long, difficult fights; platformers can have sequences requiring perfect timing; RTSs can have missions in which you seem to fight impossible odds; etc. All these things frustrate and impede progression—and, if done well, also give the player a sense of achievement when overcome. This is about difficulty, not about the nature of the gameplay element considered. And, of course, it’s also about personal taste. Personally, any platforming element harder than what you have in The Cave frustrates me to no end: I hate platforming, I suck at it, I have no patience for it, and I have no desire to get better at it. I’m sure there are lots of people who feel this way about adventure-style puzzles. But that’s just the way it is, not an inherent failing of adventure-style gameplay.
Feb 15, 2013
Strav, you're absolutely right. It seems like some of the more innovative puzzling approaches are coming from [i]outside[/i] the genre. Not all -- we've had some great new approaches from inside as well in recent years -- but there seems to be a greater willingness to embrace different forms of puzzling when NOT starting from a traditional adventure standpoint. Diego, no one complains about the core shooting mechanic in FPS games, no, but it's interesting to note how much more story-driven shooters have become. The genius of CoD (outside of the multiplayer, which is a huge issue in its own right) is in placing the action within cinematic set pieces. It isn't generally acceptable to create just another corridor shooter anymore. So shooters are adapting. Adventures need to do the same. I agree: better puzzles. But "better" can mean better type, better pacing, better variety, better placement, etc. Lots of things go into being better, and that's kind of what I'm trying to get at here. Developers need to start drawing outside the lines more, and we as gamers should be encouraging them.
Feb 15, 2013
If not puzzles... What? Better puzzles. If not action in FPS, what? Better action. No one is complaining why new Call of Duty has "shooting" as the core game element, just like the old Wolfenstein or Doom had. However, the players can now strafe or jump better, and have bigger weapon arsenal at disposal. The article makes a good work of underlying the "diversity". If "Myst games", or "Interactive movies" are the rage of the moment, the audience will eventually be fed and ask for more story/challenge, and we'll go back to where we started. I also agree with the genre blending - multigenre games are the least exploited genre in the last 10 years. It isn't whether action should replace puzzles, but how good the action can complement the puzzles and vice versa. Strategy games are one of my fav genres because there's a "creative" thinking involved unlike in other genres. "Creativeness" of the puzzles could be one way to improve the tried and true puzzle formula.
Feb 15, 2013
With the rise of independent productions, It's very interesting to see the puzzle element being considered outside the "adventure game" genre and I feel that the above article is a nuanced and insightful summary on the implications of this trend - both of the adventure game genre and the gaming industry as a whole. One thing I'd like to add and emphasise on, is the importance of some sort of challenge in games - for it's becoming more and more of an commonplace idea that the dumbing down of a game should make it more enjoyable for the general public. Whether it may be a difficult moral choice or a difficult puzzle, I believe that challenges in games are perhaps the most determining factor of immersion. The reason is simple: the more something is challenging, the more you are psychologically involved in it's resolution. Of course, a challenge should be compelling, in line with the story and there should be at least a learning curve that lends you the means to tackle it's difficulty but at the very least, there should be a difficulty of some kind. I don't know how this generally applies but each and every one of the most boring games in my gaming history could be qualified as "easy-games". I'm very pleased to see the seed of puzzles taking root outside the point-and-click paradigm especially as it opens completely new horizons in the way those puzzles are designed - but please, keep them challenging or at least be clear on the intended audience. Btw: there is a EXCELLENT RPG that integrates puzzle elements. It's called The Legend Of Grimrock and I believe it should appeal to anyone looking for some adrenalin and good old fashion thinking.
Feb 15, 2013
That may be true, but isn't it at least partly because so many stories are burdened by formulaic gameplay conventions that weaken their effectiveness?
Feb 15, 2013
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