Sunday 17 March 2013

Puzzles and Causal Histories

In the last post I brought up a few reasons why puzzles should not be dismissed. In this I will bring up another one: making the player feel as an active force. I refer to this concept as having a causal history. My hope is that it provides a new way to view and evaluate puzzles.

First I must go over the term "causal history". Basically, it means the sum of actions that players feel they have caused; any previous actions remembered as "I did...". Having finished watching a scripted sequence, the causal history will just be "I triggered a scripted cutscene". But if participating in a gun fight, the memories may be something like, "I first shot that guy,  dodged a flying knife, threw a grenade ..". Causal history is a tightly related to agency. A rich causal history increase the feeling of agency. It creates a personal experience for players; an experience where they feel much more present.

Consider these three different gameplay segments, as retold by a player.

1) As I walked up to the door a cutscene started. I watched the protagonist search for a key. Rummaging a few nearby drawers and boxes, she managed to locate it. She unlocked the door and entered the next room.

2) As I walked up to the door, I found a guiding cursor pointing at a box. Searching the box I located a key. The cursor now indicated the door as my next objective. I interacted with it, unlocked it with the newly found key and entered the next room.

3) I walked up to the door and found it locked. I had recently overheard that the orderlies hid spare keys and proceeded to search nearby boxes and drawers. Turning an dusty crate upside down a key was revealed. I picked it up and unlocked the door. I was now able to enter the next room.

All of the three have the same thing happening, but involve the player in the different ways. The dividing factor is the amount of agency provided. The player has, to various degrees, been shown or participated in a happening,

In the first example, the game takes care of the whole situation, and the player does nothing. In the second and third examples, the player does the exact same things; the third, however, provide a much stronger sense of causality. In one retelling the player is explicitly told what to do, in the other the player is implicitly hinted what do. The third one manages the latter by being designed as a puzzle, resulting in a rich causal history.

I think most will agree example three is the kind of experience one wants to strive for. This sort of gameplay set players smack in the middle of the happenings. They are present and responsible; causal agents in the narrative.

By paying attention to this concept an aesthetic for designing puzzles emerge. One wants to have puzzles that  provides the strongest and most detailed causal histories. It fits neatly with the idea brought up in the previous post; that puzzles should give the player a feeling of coming up with solutions on their own.  By focusing on causal histories puzzles become a means to implicitly guide the player through a set of actions. It entails setting the player in a certain frame of mind, to give hints and provide relevant exposition.

While trying to think up complex chains of actions for the player, one cannot get too carried away though. The rules set out in the previous post must still be adhered to. If not, there is a big risk players get stuck, counteracting the intended experience. It is a balance act, and one of  taking risks,when it comes to determining the complexity of puzzle. It should provide strong causal histories, but at the same time it can not break the flow of the narrative.

Another aspect is that simply adding more actions is not good in itself. The actions that make up the causal history must fit the narrative being told. For instance, if a puzzle-lock is added to the box containing the key, it adds nothing to the experience. It just halts the flow and gets in the way. Padding will not improve the experience, but only detract the player from what is intended. Actions should be meaningful or not be included at all.

Having puzzles is not the only way of creating causal histories. Earlier I gave a gun fight as an example of a detailed sequence of actions. This is a form of gameplay that arise directly from the underlying mechanics. If possible, it is an excellent way to create agency.Many situations are however impossible to create in this manner or just too expensive.  Classical gameplay also come with a lot of problem that often break the sense of immersion (outlined here), making it at times undesirable. It all depends on the situation. For any given segment, it is crucial to make sure that a puzzle is the best approach.

Let's summarize. Following this aesthetic one designs a puzzle in a way that gives players rich causal histories. The retelling of a puzzle should be dense with the player performing actions, not passive spectating. One must also make sure that the puzzle does not block the flow, and the actions involved must support the intended experience, not hinder it.

Even though I have not used this approach much for actual work, it has already made me see a few puzzles in a new light. I think there is a lot of potential in this concept and look forward using it more. It might of course turn out to be the wrong way of thinking, but so far so good.