Monday, 5 October 2009

Puzzles in horror games. Part 6.

Yeah, late again... development is becoming more intense, but I will try and keep the blog entries coming in some kind of regular fashion!

A major feature of many games is to let the player become a another person, to play around as some fantasy alter ego. In God of War you take the role as a powerful spartan, Tony Hawk lets you become a professional skater and so on. All of these games lets you have skills and attributes that you normally do not. In God of War it is super human strength and combat abilities. In Tony Hawk it is abilities that normally takes lots of talent and years of talent to acquire. In most adventure games, the player takes the form of some type of Sherlock Holmes character and here one runs in to a problem: How does the player become Mr Holmes? How can she be given Sherlock's wit and problem solving abilities, just like she is given Kratos' strength? That's what the rest of this blog entry will be about.

Physical attributes, like dexterity and strength, are simple to put into the actual gameplay and is nothing that feels intrusive. These physical attributes can be pretty much everything that exists outside of the brain and problem only starts when the thing to boost exist wholly or partly inside of the gray lump. An example of this is aiming, which requires some physical dexterity but is also about reflexes, something that resides, to a degree, in a person's brain. This is a pretty easy thing to solve and have been done so in the form of auto aiming and slow motion systems (ala Max Payne). It would be possible to do something similar with problem solving and add help systems that guide the player. This could come in the form of A Beautiful Mind-like "number visions", where the protagonist ability to find patterns is visualized as certain numbers becoming illuminated and floating out in the air. An example of this in use, are pool simulators where player can see where a strike will go. Another example of the same type is simply to add some kind of calculator, to help offload the player's brain from some heavy cognitive challenge.

The biggest problem with having these kinds of helper systems is that they will only work on very specific tasks (like playing pool) and are not something that helps in the wide varieties of puzzles encountered in an adventure game. Another problem is that it might actually weaken the experience of solving puzzles. Giving the player extra strength to take on hordes of enemies does not feel like cheat, but being given visual tools to solve to problem feels like hand holding. It is almost the equivalent of the game taking over the controls in an action game. These two issues are probably the cause why I have never seen such a system in an adventure game (but would very much like to know if one exists!).

Another way of letting the player become Sherlock Holmes, is by putting all of the problem solving in "game space". This means that all actual thinking is implemented as game mechanisms and is determined by dice rolls or something else. In the Call of Cthulhu RPG the player has to make dice rolls against certain skills to do things like decipher runes, read books and understand the meaning events. This is a quite good way of doing more complex tasks that would require years of education (like understanding ancient languages), but is not as a fun with simpler "connect the clues" kind of challenges (where it turns into hand-holding). However, when implemented in games, where generating important outcome from random generator is not as accepted, it is quite hard to get right. What happens if the player fails the "dice roll"? Should she be able to try again? If so, how many times should it be possible to retry? Instead of using the random generator, there could be some mini-games involved, which is the way it is implemented in Farenheit (indigo prophecy) at certain places. Mini games is not much better than a random generator though, and no solution feels really good.

A hybrid solution to putting everything in "game space" is to limit the player's options according to the protagonist's skills and letting the game provide parts of the solution. The most common usage of this is in dialogs where the player is given a certain number choices of what questions to ask or what to answer. This kind of system lets the game do half the work and lets the player finish it, giving a lot more satisfaction than simply rolling die or completing an unrelated mini game. Problems can still arise though, for example in a dialog the player can come up with something more clever than the options given or perhaps the protagonist have not yet figured something out that the player has, leaving an option unavailable. This leads to "guess the action" and "missing item" problems (see this post) respectively and is something that one wants to avoid. While working pretty good in a dialog, this system can become quite annoying when applied to other areas, as it is very much like the game taking control from the player.

A game can also implement some kind of hint system which gives the player help when in needed or just continually feed the player advice. Hint systems not only let the player gain some brain power but is also a way of lessen the chance of getting stuck. However, like with the other systems described, hints can easily turn into hand holding and make the experience worse. Hint systems can either be implemented as an ingame thing or a completely separate system.

When in game, hints are dropped through character comments, notes, etc and is the main way in which we implemented hints in Penumbra. The problem with this is that it is hard for the player to ignore the hints, and while their help might be appreciated by some, others might find that they make game too easy. As they are part of the in game resources, they are very hard to remove and must thus be carefully tuned. They can also never spell out the solution to a puzzle and might not be of much help for a player that has become stuck.

By using a special hint system, the player can chose for herself how much to use it. This sort of freedom is not always good though and players might unwillingly abuse the hint system. For example, I know many cases where I pretty much stopped solving puzzles after checking a walkthrough and when playing the remake of Monkey Island, I used hints much more than what I really wanted to. A way to solve this is to use some kind of limt for hints, as in Professor Layton where hint coins are used. However, the problem then becomes that some players might have tons of hints left to use and others few. This makes it very hard to tweak correctly and those in most use of hints might end up not being able to use them.

Finally, is some kind of brain booster really needed for the player? In terms of hint systems, it is pretty obvious that they are good at making sure the player does not get stuck. But perhaps the player should just settle with who they are, use the brains given and not try and be someone who they are not? But does this not defeat the purpose of games? If we can have games that improve every other attribute in a player character, why not intelligence? I also think many would agree that being really smart would be preferable from being really strong, and providing people with such an experience would be very worthwhile! As discussed in this entry though, boosting brainpower in a game is highly problematic and has even proved to be so in real life. However, by using some of the systems above at least the problem of puzzle difficulty is partly solved and more people can enjoy playing the game.

What do you all think of this and how would you like to see a "brainbooster" implemented? If you know any game with an especially good or bad hint system, then we are very interested in hearing about it!


  1. I really like games where you actually have to think about it (I say that's what separate great games from games). I hate having a die decide how smart I am.

  2. Hmm...

    I played a game long ago called "Entombed", a point-and-click puzzle game. The premise, is that you fell into a hole in an archeological site, and found a journal of some guy who fell in as well. The journal contains entries which pertain somewhat to how you were supposed to solve the puzzle. I don't remember how...blunt or vague the hints were, as I was young and probably needed every little hint I could possibly get.

    I will say, however, that the puzzles themselves were unintuitive, and that the journal was absolutely necessary in determining the solution. Like I said though, I don't know how blunt/vague the hints were...

    Another hint system I remember is from the Metroid Prime series, that you could toggle on/off. The way it worked, if you never played it, is that your sensors would detect odd "readings" in a particular area, and that you should check it out. You wouldn't be told HOW to get to that area, but it would mark the location on the map. You'd have to figure out your way from there, and any puzzles in that room would have to be solved by yourself...which isn't a tough thing, as Metroid Prime puzzles are fairly intuitive.

    I actually kinda like this method, because it can give you a reminder, if you haven't played in a while, where you're supposed to go. Or if you're lost, it can give you a nudge in the right direction. And the fact that you can toggle it allows for both experienced or inexperienced players (or those with not-so-good memories) to get the most enjoyment and fluidity out of the game.

    That said, a blunt hint system like Metroid Prime's wouldn't be good for a Penumbra-ish game, as Philip didn't seem to come equipped with a GPS. And a hint system like Entomb's isn't the most appealing either, as I'd definitely prefer more intuitive puzzles, and the idea of not HAVING to rely on second-hand information.

    So what point am I trying to make? I don't know anymore. A hint system that you don't NEED to have, that will give you a nudge in the right direction is preferable. A small mix of both Entombed and Prime.

    (Oh yeah, and don't mind the blog if takes away from development time! I like reading your thoughts, but I'd much prefer to play the game ASAP!)

  3. Batman: Arkham Asylum had a great "brainbooster" system called detective mode. This system highlighted enemies and points of interests in the environment without breaking the immersion. Although it was just a gadget you never felt like you were cheating or the solutions were rubbed in your face. Sometimes you found a map that revealed certain secrets on the map but the task of solving them was still up to the player.

    The hint system could be tied in to the game by providing clues trough exploring the environment. The level would hold several pieces of information told in a way that remains coherent with the games world. This way player who is stuck can keep on wandering around collecting as many hints as they need for completing the puzzle without feeling that the solution is handed out too easily.

  4. Personally, I'm in favor of next to no hints. Giving the player some direction is great; make sure they know where they need to be and why in a broad sense, but leave the details for them to figure out. Of course, if you take this approach, you have to ensure that the details make sense; but you're doing that anyway because you want to make a good game.

    If a player hits a spot where they simply can't figure out how to progress, they'll exit the game and go look at a FAQ. I know this feels like a serious problem from a design perspective, but I'm not convinced it is. This situation means that either the player failed or the game's design failed, which is something they can decide when they see what the solution is and why they weren't getting it. The really important thing about this is that if you build this process into the game in the form of a hint system, it doesn't change the nature of the interaction. Either the player failed or the game failed, and you're not making up for it or fixing it by giving them the answer. Consequently, I don't think it's a system that's worth investing development time in; spend that time and effort polishing your puzzles so that there's less chance a hint will be needed because your design failed, and if a player fails let them deal with it according to their own resources and desires.

    I play games to be challenged; if the puzzles can be solved by anyone who plays, then they were a waste of my time. If the combat can be won by anyone who tries mashing on the attack button, it was a waste of my time. If a game makes a habit of wasting my time, I'm not going to bother with it.

  5. In Thief and DeusEX game (two super masterpieces, pity you not metioned in this hits), the highlight are only for interaction. I think it's a great method to make a non invasive system and make a great interaction in puzzles games.

  6. I'm honestly not sure it's entirely necessary to give your character super intelligence, even in a mostly puzzle based game. In batman arkham asylum, it worked well because you were... well, batman. You expect batman to have all sorts of cool nifty gadgets and detective equipment. But in most horror/adventure games, you are not some sort of ridiculously good detective; the main character is supposed to be a weak, insecure person.

    And even if the character is supposed to be especially intelligent, how much is reading The Brothers Karamozov and/or studying theoretical physics going to help you find the key to a door? Most times, the "intelligence" involved in puzzles like that is much different than the intelligence most people use on a day to day basis.

    So, after writing all that, I'll say that the "Let me jot a note down" system in the Penumbra games is probably as much help as the player should get. If your feeling really snazzy, you can have it so that harder difficulties get less and less notes throughout the game (or visa-versa) to make everyone happy.

  7. Regarding Batman:
    Not played the game yet but the mode seem similar to a feature in the upcoming heavy rain. Come to think about it, one could call all kinds of item highlighting a sort of brain booster as it emulates a strong ability to find important objects. This is used in many games (Penumbra has it too) and I think it is pretty successful.

    I was not very clear on this in the post, but what I had in mind was more of a Sherlock Holmes kinda puzzle solving ability. Holmes manages to see the tiniest clues (and perhaps the highlighting gives the player this ability) and can also connect seemingly random events. If one releases a player into an environment where she has to solve a really tricky crime, one will probably need to have some kind of brain booster for that.

    That said, I agree that this might not have that much to do with horror games, where one wants a vulnerable protagonist and using too many brain boosters will probably only spoil the mood.

  8. Ah, I misunderstood you, then. In the case that the character is in fact some sort of detective (or something like that), things become a bit more complicated. If that's the case, you still need to make sure that the player still has to think things through enough that they feel they've accomplished something.

    I still think jotting down notes like "Hmm... this dead person managed to get in here without any sort of key. I wonder if there's another way out?" would be ideal, since it doesn't loose as much immersion as an object inexplicably saying "CLICK ME!". That's an exaggeration, of course, but I think the point is still valid. Plus, with notes you can display the character's thought process, making the player think "Oh, that makes sense", rather than "how was I supposed to know that?".

  9. Heh, my third post here, and my third referencing System Shock 2. In Shock 2, many puzzles are related to the function of the world around you. There are five decks, such as engineering, command, recreation, hydroponics, medical/science and operations. If a puzzle calls for the player to restore power to the main elevators, his first thought is probably engineering. There are puzzles and goals that need biological stuff from hydroponics. The player's guided by audio journals he picks up and is given instructions by a surviving member of the crew. The player gets active instructions from the crewman, and passive hints from the audio logs. Audio logs might tell the player where to look for weapons or what new door codes are, for example. They also explain a significant portion of back story.

  10. I think that highlighting is often more important as a simple consequence of the fact that in a video game, you simply cannot interact with the majority of all things, and with graphics the way they are even inconsequential items can look important, and important items can be easily lost in the background.