Thursday 3 September 2009

Puzzles in horror games. Part 4.

Quick note: Due to me being caught up in a lot of technical work this blog entry is a lil bit late and I also missed a horror tip last week. Gonna try and be better in the future! :)

The fourth part in the puzzle series will be about a specific "feature" that I am sure you are all aware of. Backtracking. This is often to considered to be a big problem in adventure games and seem to especially plague survival horror like Resident Evil. It is often blamed for being a product of bad design, and it can often be very annoying. Backtracking does not always need to be bad though and might actually be a part in increasing the immersion.

To start up, I would like to define the different kinds of backtracking:

Compulsory backtracking
In some games, the design forces the player to do backtracking and games like Resident Evil and the newer Castlevania are full of this. After collecting a certain item, the player needs to backtrack to a location far back where the item is to be used. Sometimes the location is known (for example highlighted on a map) and other times it is up to player to figure out where to use the item. To make the journey back more fun, some games add new enemies, obstacles and/or change the environment. Other times the player simple needs to grind their way back. Especially when the target location is unknown it can be a very frustrating experience and I know of times in Castlevania where I pretty much searched through the entire game before finding out where the newly found item was to be used.

Forgotten item backtracking
Adventure games are often based around the player exploring environments and when much searching is needed, chances are something will be missed. This can lead to the player not having picked up an important item, done a certain task, etc and when arriving at an obstacle one needs to backtrack to find out what was missed. This type is different from the compulsory backtracking in that it is not explicitly designed, but stems from the fact a player has not been successful when searching. This situation can be very annoying to end up in as it might not be obvious where to look for the missing item/event. In many adventure games the player is some kind of scrap-collector and the usability of an item is not obvious until collected (if even then...). Thus it is hard to get any hints from the examining obstacle one is stuck at.

In my opinion the forgotten item type of backtracking is the most annoying and not always predictable from a design standpoint. Because of that I am going to discuss how to go around solving this first, and will be using Braid as an example. In Braid it is always possible to solve a puzzle when encountered as no items or upgrades are needed in order to find the correct solution. Instead the player needs to come up ingenious ways of using the game mechanics and sometimes simpler puzzles need to be solved in order figure a harder one out. When encountering a puzzle the player is always certain that a puzzle can be solved and can never be missing any special item or triggered event. This approach is a an "extreme" way of solving the missing item problem in that it never relies on previous areas (note: Braid does rely on it in on a single occasion).

But what if one wants to pick up items and such as part of the gameplay? A way to solving this is either to let force-feed the player with items, placing them in such obvious location that they are impossible to use and/or have sub obstacles that require the a certain event to be triggered for the player to continue. Many action adventure games uses this approach. Another way to deal with it is to always place the items close to the obstacle and removing the need to do any backtracking. This approach is what we used a lot in the Penumbra games and it requires that the player knows that items are always close (something we did not totally succeed with) . If the player still thinks that the needed item might be anywhere, then it does not matter that it in reality is very close. Also, this approach requires 100% consistency and if some puzzle suddenly requires an item way back, the player will still assume it is nearby and never go searching far enough. Finally making the puzzle solutions more "realistic" and intuitive will also improve the situation as the player can then easier figure out what might be needed for overcoming the obstacle.

Although there exist solutions for the forgotten item backtracking problem, they are not without flaws. On the other hand, with the compulsory backtracking it is easy to fix. Just remove the need of backtracking, right? On closer inspection, it turns out that it is not that easy. First of all, in open ended games there is a need to spread out puzzles and will therefore always be some kind of backtracking. The problem of not knowing where to go can still be addressed though and many open ended games has a map with blinking hot spots, arrows, etc indicating where the player should go. However, sometimes this is not wanted either and the enjoyment of the game might come from exploring the game without being spoon-fed the next action all the time.

Going back to Braid, which even though it does not have the forgotten item problem, still has some compulsory backtracking. Unless the player solves all of the puzzles in linear fashion, there is a need to go back through levels and find the last puzzle pieces needed. Now Braid could have let the player instantly teleport through some menu to each location, but in my opinion that would ruin the game. By being forced to traverse the world one is more immersed in the game world and even though the activity is not fun in itself, it still enhances the experience. To be fair, Braid has very minor backtracking compared to other games, but I still think it is an important observation.

Back to the forgotten item backtracking. Is this really always a bad thing? As mentioned in the solutions for overcoming it, a remedy mostly means limiting the player somehow and forcing one through the game. Limits can be a good thing, but if a game should give the player a feeling of exploration then it is almost impossible to remove it. Having some type of frustration is most likely essential in order to provide the right experience. The problem does not lie in removing the frustration, but rather limiting and managing it.

To sum things up: the problem of backtracking that at first glance just seems like an annoyance, might actually be a very important part of making a game. A designer should not try and remove the frustration caused by backtracking, but instead limit it and use it to improve the player experience. Frustration is a large part of life and just trying to remove it from a game will only result a brainless and less satisfying experience.

As always we are very curious to know what you think about all this!


  1. I agree with your conclusion. Many games nowadays seems to be so afraid of frustrating the player in any way that they are dumbed down into stupidity. Sometimes you need to feel frustration or difficulty in order to feel good when you overcome it.

    Personally, I don't mind backtracking especially in immersive games like yours. It helps a lot to create immersion and linearity in games always tend to annoy me one way or another. Just make sure the player has some idea of what to do. Endlessly walking around trying to find what to do next is no fun.

  2. I totally agree, some games just doesn't give hints on what to do next. If the player's just wandering around, they will eventually search for a walkthrough. And we all know that spoils the game.

  3. I don't think backtracking is a problem in itself. It only becomes a problem if there's absolutely nothing to do on the trips back and forth, or if it's very repetitive.

  4. I think it's important to distinguish between mandatory or accidental backtracking and nonlinear or semi-linear (the metroid/castlevania/shadow complex approach) design, which this entry seems to be conflating a little bit. In a game like metroid you frequently have more than one objective in a given area, and you will return throughout the game as you acquire the tools and knowledge to complete some that you couldn't manage on your previous visit; and, critically, this process will be overlapping in several different areas. In a game like resident evil this is not at all how it works; you typically have a single straight line through the game with an occasional bunch of very short dead ends you venture down to collect items. When the line you are supposed to take through the game loops back through areas you've already visited it tends to feel like a problem because there's absolutely no sense of exploration; there was no long branch you hadn't gotten around to exploring yet or new tool/skill that suddenly allows you to see alternate paths, there was instead a very obvious locked door you knew you'd be returning to as soon as you found the key.

    Similarly, in my experience, forgotten item backtracking almost never actually has anything to do with forgetting something or overlooking something. It is most often caused by a designer in a linear game trying to give the illusion of a more exploratory game by making one of his dead ends a bit longer than usual so that the player (who is trying to visit dead ends before he resumes the correct path, as he has by now been trained on the logic of bad game design) accidentally selects the path that would logically further his goals before the one that is a dead end. The most reliable way to combat this in a linear game is, as you did in Penumbra, to keep keys generally close to their doors.

    It may not be immediately obvious how to distinguish between linear games with backtracking and more exploratory games on a design level; I think the best way to pin it down succinctly is that in an exploratory game you have more than one way to get where you want to go, and that you will frequently have more and more paths available as the game progresses. Having multiple non-sequential objectives does a lot for the atmosphere, but might not be strictly necessary design-wise.

    One other thing you mentioned that I've been thinking about a lot lately is how to convey to your player that you are observing some practice of good design they are probably not accustomed to, and they can just look around near the puzzle for a solution instead of having to go back to the beginning of the game and sort through every pixel; unfortunately, I don't think there is a good high level solution to this. Too many bad games have spoiled it for anyone who wants to make a good one; probably the most practical approach is to cultivate a relationship and reputation with your players, so that after they've played two of your games that did something well they start to feel like they can trust your third one, and stick with it instead of going out to look at a FAQ. This has all sorts of unfortunate consequences for design, but we're stuck with the world we've got.

    Finally, on the subject of frustrating the player; this is unfortunately another one with no real answer. In Metroid Fusion, for example, I thought the way they interrupted you to show you approximately where to go next ruined the game and made it all a waste of my time. Some people thought it was the best in the series, others still thought it was too hard. The best thing you can do is decide who your audience for the game will be, and accept that your approach is not going to be a perfect fit for many of them.

  5. At last, someone who agrees with me on Metroid Fusion! Spoon-feeding is not something I like too much (except MAYBE in the beginning to get the game concepts down), and since Metroid has previously been a "git-up-an'-explore" type deal, to suddenly change the formula in Fusion made me wanna smash my DS on the table.

    ANYWAYS, more on topic. To be honest, I don't have too much of a problem with backtracking, whether it is compulsory or to find an item I missed previously.

    Compulsive backtracking, I think, is only really effective with open-ended games like SCUMM games or Penumbra. Having to backtrack a little bit to solve a puzzle helps, in my mind, to solidify the notion that I'm not going to be traveling a straight line, that the layout is somewhat believable. Level design kinda bugs me with linear games, since it seems like the only method you have to navigate this one office building is the path that isn't blocked by obligatory locked doors, people standing in the way, etc. So that despite the number of possible ways to get to the boss's office would be numerous in real life, you have to search your immediate surroundings for the only VIABLE path in the game. Backtracking in a linear game is nothing more than the ILLUSION of open-endedness.

    I have no problem with linear games as a whole, but if I'm going to get my chain jerked in one direction, it damn well better BE that one direction!

    With the missing item back track, that's not necessarily a frustrating concept with me. It IS frustating, however, in the case of pixel-hunting, or looking for the tiniest detail in a 3d world for the ONE thing that is frikkin' holding me back from completing the game. I don't want to have to scrape ever molecule of the desk/floor/wall/whatever to find what I need. HOWEVER, I also don't want to be Spoon-fed the solution. For me, hidden items are perfectly fine, so far as it doesn't take a complete full-cavity search of every thing/person in the room to discover what I missed. A fine balance between the hidden, and the obvious is needed...what that balance is, I can't say for certain, but I'm sure you guys will find a way with your own puzzles.

    Okay, I'm done boring you all to death. That's my take.

  6. I'm going to keep this brief. Backtracking works well with a more open-ended game (not necessarily sandbox, but more than, say Half Life 1 or 2). When it works, it is because it gets rid of the feeling that you're constantly being pushed forward by the game. When it doesn't, it's because it reminds you how artificially linear the level is. So if you have a slightly more open-ended game, mandatory back-tracking might be a good idea, but if you're going to stick with a linear game, try to stay away from it.

    As for item searching, having multiple ways to pass an obstacle
    would probably do a lot to limit this. Even if they miss/ can't find one tool, the player should be able to find another way. This wouldn't solve the problem, but it would certainly limit it.

    Okay, that wasn't very brief, was it? I need to work on being more concise...

  7. Not trying to sound mean or anything, just giving some advice, before you hit 'submit' on you blog post paste it into MS Word or similar and run a spell check, a few examples in your post: "examing", "imporant", "compuslory", "immsersed" and "opion".

  8. Alfie275:
    Ah sorry bout that, I have a spellchecker integrating in firefox, but sometimes it misses stuff.

  9. Oki fixed errors now. Seems like I just missed when the spell checker pointed out errors.

  10. There is on thing I really hate about "forgotten Item backtracking": Sometimes, I am not sure if I am just too stupid to solve/overcome some obstacles or if I missed some important piece somewhere before. Backtracking then to just find out later that no item was missing but that there is some obvious solution to the puzzle is very annoying to me.

    I totally agree with Dylan on that having multiple ways to pass and obstacle is a very good approach. While it minimizes the chance of missing all solutions, it also increases the replayability. I remember quite some games where I loaded an older save game just to see how a different solution would look like. Also, I think this might reduce the feeling of linearity.

  11. Nothing like a good well-driven compulsory backtracking for breaking up the sensation of linearity or, if you like, the sensation of visiting a haunted house on a circus park; and if need to, you can always put a new wave of extra monsters, hidden until the location may be re-revisited (this is one of the features of Doom that catched me).

    And about the Forgotten item backtracking... well, I think it's part of the game, I mean, it's a puzzle by itself. Probably the worst resides on that cases you lost the chance to solve the puzzle because you don't take an object you'll need afterwards but, for some reason, you cannot visit the location anymore (not to mention the "losing-or-destroying-the-object" case commented on Puzzles In Horror Games Part 3) but, taking these ones apart from the forgotten item backtracking... just to say you're trapped on a haunted house, or in an abandoned spaceship, or in a labyrinth of catacombs, or whenever, so backtracking is necessary because you can ruin a lot the sense of the game (here we have Clive Barker's Undying, it's so annoying to pass certain doors, going into a new part of the mansion and, if you try to pass the same door you've just entered... "Nope, it's closed!" -WHAT?!!!. I'VE JUST PASSED THROUGH!!!).

    The question is: what do you do with backtracking for the player not starting to get bored?. : )

  12. System Shock 2 had extensive backtracking that was done very, very well. The reason it works, I think, is because how massive and realistic the environment is. You're on board a huge space ship, with six decks (seven if you include the Rickenbacker), and until a certain point near the end of the game, the player is fully capable of backtracking to the starting point. The openness and persistence of state between areas makes this work very well.

    For puzzles, Shock 2 makes it pretty obvious if you need to do significant backtracking. You have someone talking to you via radio that tells you what your objectives are. In one instance, you need to return to the engineering deck and monkey around with the engines. The ship is adrift and virtually everyone is dead or infected by The Many, so it's not unexpected to have to do everything yourself. At first, the elevators throughout the ship are broken, and you have to traverse the first two decks through access tunnels. Not long into the game you restore power, allowing you to move freely about the ship. Also makes back tracking much easier.

    Then, in order to make it less boring, small numbers of new enemies spawn in previous areas. It's done cleverly enough that you can't tell where they spawned from -- it only happens after being away from an area for a long period of time, and the world is massive enough that it's feasible they could have spawned from an inaccessible area.

  13. Exactly - use backtracking to improve the player's experience.

    Penumbra is hands down the best horror game I have ever played. Every person that I show the series falls in love with it. I have seen people go through Overture and Black Plague about ten times now. Having seen so many reactions to Penumbra's puzzles and the amount of backtracking, I think I came up with some have-way decent ideas.

    During my experience in Overture and Black Plague, I didn't find myself backtracking very much at all. In any game, especially survival horror ones, I am extremely thorough in all my room searches. However, the one instance where I did backtrack was when I got to the rock crushing "monster" machine in Overture. I had the fuel and the ignition key, but I couldn't figure out how to get the fuel inside it. Me, and everyone else I watched play this game, thought the fuel cap on the machine itself was rusted shut rather than the cap on the gas can. I spent about 45 minutes running around trying to find something to pry open the lid with; at the same time wondering why my hammer or pickaxe wasn't working. Though this was the only instance where I ran into this problem, simple textual clarification would have saved me from my extensive serach.

    I feel that item backtracking is necessary. I personally don't mind when puzzle elements are scatted thoughout the map - only, of course there is good reason for the items to be separated. In many cases, doing this is realistic. Not only does this kind of backtracking give players more familiarity with the area they're in, but it also will make them more careful when exploring shelves and desks in the future.

    Also, there's nothing more upsetting than returning to a place I didn't feel safe - example: dog filled corridors. A face-your-fears feeling is something that should be exploited rather than ignored (especially when unarmed).

    I think that most cases call for items to be separated in some way. It would be rare in real-life for the solution for every obstacle be in the same room. Though the island approach is convenient, it can take the difficulty out of a puzzle. I would like to see puzzles where it demands logical thinking - location wise. Making the player think, "Hmm. Where could I get something narrow and sharp and some sort of adhesive...Oh! The weapon rack and that unusual pile of goo I saw earlier in the library!" I feel this kind of backtracking or exploring would be effective.

    Something I saw in Black Plague that I would really like to see again would be when I returned from the infirmary and there was a dead scientist propped up against the wall. Having familiar places change or have objects move upon return is hugely effective when trying to scare an audience. The idea of "someone or something was here," is incredibily frightening. This could be a great tool to use for turning old rooms and environments into new and exciting places. Nothing would be scarier to return to a room and have a candle lit that wasn't lit before or have a bookshelf be knocked over. This also provides opportunities for new puzzles and times in a now changed and tense setting.

    Keep up the good work guys!


  14. "Me, and everyone else I watched play this game, thought the fuel cap on the machine itself was rusted shut rather than the cap on the gas can. I spent about 45 minutes running around trying to find something to pry open the lid with; at the same time wondering why my hammer or pickaxe wasn't working."

    Thank God I'm not the only person who had this problem; I think it is extremely demeaning when games make you feel that it's your own damn fault that you can't solve a puzzle because you are too "stupid".


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