Monday, 10 August 2009

Puzzles in horror games. Part 1.

This post will be the first in a series concentrating on puzzles in games, with special focus on horror games. To start this up I would like to discuss why puzzles are needed at all. Is it really necessary to have puzzles in game when it might detract from story, immersion, etc?

In order to be a game, there needs to be some kind of interaction. I think this is pretty much the most basic feature of a game - no interaction, no game. In order to be engaging there also needs to be some kind of challenge, if the player simple makes arbitrary choices then the game is awfully close to interactive storytelling (not be mixed up with IF) instead. Even in the most linear story games, there is always something blocking progression, something that needs to be taken care of before the game advances. In Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy) the player presses random buttons and in the IF game Photopia the player needs to do the correct action. Both of these games are (in my option at least) are very close to being works of interactive storytelling, but still feel like games.

So can't the interaction be just some form on exploration? If the player is free to look at anything in the world, is that not enough to make it a game? I think no. The reason for this is that this kind of interaction is very close to a footnotes in a book or hyperlinks in some online text. The reader can choose to read the extra pieces of information or simply keep on reading, thus allowing for very basic interaction. If this would make the work a "game", then just a about any book or webpage could be considered just that. This does not seem right to me and is my main reason for thinking that some kind of challenge is needed.

So what kind of challenges can be used? Some games like Dragon's Lair requires the player to press a random button at the right time . This mechanic is awfully simplistic but used at the right time it can be quite effective and at least one upcoming game even bases its entire basic gameplay around it. It can even be more simplistic than this and just require the roll of a die, like some gamebooks. Also notice how the gamebook goes from a branching plot novel (a non-game) to an actual game as soon as these "challanges" are added. This sort of gameplay might be highly trivial, with a clear sepperation of story and game mechanics, but I still think it is what makes a difference and creates what I would like to call a game.

Modern games have plenty of fun ways to present challanges - hordes of enemies, deadly chasms, puzzles, etc. It stills plays the same role as that timed button press though, the player needs to face some kind of obstacle and try to overcome it. This comes as a problem for horror games though, since it is a genre that has a lot of focus on creating atmosphere. Everytime an obstacle is reached, the pace is broken and it can lead to frustration in the player - breaking immersion.

With this in mind, it seems like some kind of hands-on-action is the best for horror games. However, looking at horror in other mediums, classics such as The Shining, Alien and The Exorcist contain very little action. As explained in an earlier post, having too much (player induced) violence will most likely significantly lessen the horror aspects of the game. That said, action do not have to be bad, but basing the gameplay on it will probably not create a scary game.

In search of other kinds of challanges, the three major found in horror are: sneaking, running and puzzles. Sneaking has been briefly metnioned earlier and running has had whole post dedicated to it. I think the problem is the same for both of these mechanics though: they are likely to add an element of trial-and-error. This means replaying which in turn means frustation and loss of atmosphere. This is something one wants to avoid in horror games and thus these two mechanics should be used sparesly.

Left is now puzzles and it is my belief that this is the best suiting horror gameplay mechanic. Infact, horror in other media use similar ways to add drama to the story. Often a horror story has some kind of mystery, a puzzle, at it's core, making it similar to detective fiction. Events that onfold also often come in the form of puzzles, in Ringu the main characters try to learn the mystery of a cursed video tape and many characters in horror story has to find a way out of locked room, etc. Puzzles also offer a nice change of pace from an intense section, making the player calm down and get ready (more vunerable) for the next scary part. This is probably why action based horror games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, come with many puzzle sections.

Puzzles come with a lot of problem though and can too lead to frustration and loss of immersion in a game. What kind of problems that might arise and ideas for solving these will featured in the upcoming posts.

Until then: What do you think is the most basic essence of a game? Are challanges really needed to create a game? Are puzzles the best basic mechanic for a scary game?


  1. As I read somewhere in relation to The Path: "Did you play it? Congratulations, it's a game". In my opinion, arguing about whether something is a game or not is an exercise in futility. I'd rather ask more important questions, such as "is it enjoyable?".

    I don't think challenges are needed to make a game, but they are needed to make a *good* game.

    As for puzzles, I don't think they're the best game mechanic in horror games, they're just the most suitable as-is. Other mechanics can be modified to work in horror, but puzzles are the hardest to screw up.

  2. Razalhague:
    Challenge can be hard to specify as well. For example, should moving the character to a certain position like in "The Graveyard" (earlier game from makers of "The Path") be considered a challenge? How much is required in terms of involvement to constitute a challenge. If a book is really hard to read, is it a game? Some books like Gödel, Escher and Bach feature puzzles that can be found out by the read, but are not essential. Do these books border on being games?

    With that said, I am just agreeing on the futility of trying to classify things. Still, I think it can be interesting to discuss the essence of games, since it might bring insight (or just a fruitless debate).

    As for puzzles, I think does are the hardest NOT to screw up :) For example: once a combat system is in place you can pretty much just repeat it. Puzzles needs a lot of considerations. More on that later though.

  3. Isn't this entire blog about having fruitless debates on horror game mechanics?

    Anyways, puzzles seem to be common in horror games not nessisarily because they fit in well, but rather because there arn't many other options to fill game-play time with. Some puzzles do have a connection with the story line and are important, but most of them are just there to slow you down so you can't finish the game in 15 minutes.

    Which leads to the question: what else could you fill the game with? I don't actually know, to tell the truth. "All Alone" managed to be entertaining without puzzles, but it was very short, and I imagine would lose it's atmosphere quickly if it was dragged on much longer.

    The only thing I can think of to deal with this is to make puzzles seem less like artificial game lengtheners by either providing explination for them or giving the player multiple ways of solving the puzzle, thus reducing the ammount of "what does the game want me to do?" and keeping up the immersion

  4. "Isn't this entire blog about having fruitless debates on horror game mechanics?"
    I guess that is true :) Some discussions might be more fruitless than others though ;)

  5. About puzzles, I think the Penumbra games did them well. They always felt like real problems that had to be solved in real ways, not like in the Silent Hill games where many of the puzzles are completely arbitrary.

  6. Puzzles in horror games sometimes slow down the fear. In Overture, there were several moments where there was no pressure on the player. Don't get me wrong, pressure isn't necessary at all times.

    But I do believe there needs to be an 'if' factor for the player. The player needs to be paranoid, always wondering 'if' something bad could happen. As mentioned in an earlier post, boredom can be useful. But the player should not often feel safe. Once in a while it is acceptable, but only to cool the player down so he/she doesn't have a heart attack playing the game.

    Anyways, I believe too many horror games use puzzles that don't HAVE the if. There was one moment in Black Plague that kept the 'if' well enough it kept me tense and paranoid. I was quite proud of all of you at Frictional for how paranoid I was. As a recovering schizophrenic, that's quite a compliment.

    I've kind of gotten of course through this. My answer to the other two questions is a game to me, is something that the player interacts with, and makes them think. This doesn't mean it has to be challenging. By thinking I mean maybe it's making the player paranoid like I mentioned before. Maybe it's philosphical, or well written.

    Sorry for taking up so much space, or if I sound like an idiot. Only recently started learning about game design and all that tomfoolery.

  7. The most useful way I've found to think about and define games is to go back to board games and card games and just running around with other people in the park. Games have rules and they have other players; competitors. There's room to argue about this definition and I'll certainly concede that it gets sort of abstracted in the realm of computer games, but I think the fundamental principles hold. When you have a single-player computer game, the computer handles both the rules and the competition in whatever form it takes. If you don't have one of these elements, it's really more of a toy or a story than a game. These are not bad things, but they are different things.

    As for puzzles being the most natural fit for a horror game, I think that's really too general a statement. Puzzles are certainly the most common sort of obstacle in horror games, but that's because they're ever so slightly less obvious when you are extremely lazy about them. Most puzzles in games are completely terrible; use key on door, rearrange pieces of X, poke things until one of them turns out to be a switch, etc. The trick, I think, is that they don't tend to involve any decisions. The worst is the use key on door sort of junk, but even when you get more complex you're generally not adding any sort of decision making to the process of solving your puzzle; players can just keep poking at it until something works. A good puzzle needs to have a way for things to actually go wrong, so that there's real incentive for players to think about what they're doing before they do it. This is a technique which seems to have fallen out of favor in recent years because, frankly, most companies that are making videogames don't actually want to make games because most consumers don't want to buy games because in a game, you can lose.

    There's an excellent (sadistic, but excellent) Japanese indie game called La Mulana that I need to plug here, which was designed in large part as a reaction to this trend. It's not really a horror game, but it has the best use of puzzles I've seen in a game in years.

    Unless it can beat you, it's never going to be a good obstacle; these all evolved out of things we used to do with other human beings who were just as capable of being the winner. It's important, I think, to remember some of that spirit.