The Negative Psychology of No

Adventure gamers are gluttons for punishment.  Or at least, developers must think we are.  Playing an adventure game means having our wrists slapped time and time again, simply for being curious.  I haven’t heard the word “no” this often since I was a two-year-old who didn’t know any better than to try dumb things.  But at least it was warranted back then, done (mainly) for my own good.  Learning not to stick my finger in electrical outlets or put a plastic bag over my head allowed me to grow up and become a responsible, rational adult… who somehow ended up choosing a pastime that manages to treat me like a child all over again.  Only this time it’s supposed to be fun

But you know what?  It’s NOT fun.  “That won’t work.” “I can't do that.” “No need to go down there.” We’ve all heard these kinds of rejection lines so often that we take them for granted, blissfully unaware of the life-sucking erosion they inflict on our enthusiasm over time.  Or perhaps not so blissfully.  Not anymore.  The adventure genre is a niche for a reason, and I believe this constant negativity is a big reason why.  Little by little, it wearies us subconsciously, discourages us, maybe even drives some away completely, perhaps without ever really knowing what it was that turned them off.  "Just say no" might be a great anti-drug slogan; it sucks as an adventure game philosophy, and it's got to stop.

All genres have rules, of course, but others are able to conceal their restrictions in a natural way.  You can't store more weapons than you can carry.  You can't cast spells you haven't learned yet.  You can't build military units unless you collect enough resources.  Attempting such things just won't work, but you know that from the outset and it's foolish to even try.  Other rules are less defined, but even these are resolved organically.  You can confront a final boss monster with only a pistol, but it's no surprise when the creature whups your butt.  You can level up a mighty magician and wander into battle with no mana potions, but you know that can never end well.  You can storm a fortress with only a small infantry platoon, but you have only yourself to blame for the carnage that ensues.  Success depends on understanding the unspoken rules, but the common sense parameters are clearly established and the games let you try, even if the end result is failure.  (Note to self: take rocket launcher to boss fight next time.) 

Only in adventures are the rules so blatantly artificial and appallingly transparent, and the endless "can't do" attitude is depressing.  Obviously some actions deserve little sympathy.  It makes no sense to use mustard on a hammer or a balloon on a crocodile (although come to think of it, if I looked long enough I could probably find a game where both are viable puzzle solutions).  I have no complaints when such options are summarily dismissed.  But much of the appeal of adventuring is supposed to be exploring and experimenting, and more often than not, today's games not only fail to reward us, they actually penalize us for trying.  Far, far, FAR too often have I attempted an interaction that I felt was perfectly reasonable, either with a specific plan in mind or simply because it made sense to see what happened, and ended up with a terse refusal and no explanation – or worse, as some games seem to delight in making you feel stupid (the less said about those games the better). 

It's bad enough when games limit what items you can use on other items, even if the decision is entirely arbitrary.  No matter how logical other alternatives might be, usually only one object will work as the developers intended, and only then on one other object.  Why?  Because the game won't let you do otherwise, that's why.  No rhyme, reason, or sometimes any response given.  Just no.  But some games refuse to even let you try an action if the character isn't properly motivated.  I'm fully in favour of rewarding actual strategy over random trial-and-error, which this is obviously meant to stimulate.  But simply rejecting a viable option until you've "looked at" an item in plain view or talked to an NPC to learn they approve of your idea is simply making the matter worse.  Now we're not only stuck with guessing the developer's mind, but having to nursemaid an idiot avatar in the process.  Frankly, if I have an idea, he or she should have it too, dammit!  Some adventures won't even let you GO where you want until the appropriate time (if at all). Can't act, can't think, can't move for ourselves?  Nice.

Add it all up, and that is one great big pile of no.  If you thought I was going to say a pile of something else, I don't blame you.  The "no" pile is just as ugly, and it stinks too.  In fact, I'm not totally sure which is worse.  At least the other one turns into fertilizer eventually.  I don’t see any upside at all to never-ending rejection, especially for recreation.  Yes, I know the challenge of adventure games is in arriving at puzzle solutions that aren't immediately obvious, but this inherent genre trait is both a blessing and a curse.  On the one hand it encourages both logical and lateral thinking, but its implementation often denies us the ability to learn from our mistakes.  It's all-or-nothing in anticipation of that one "aha!" moment of final payoff, with just a lot of nopes, doesn't works, and can't happens in between. There's something to be said for rewarding perseverance, but demanding it without any emotional or even much intellectual incentive feels more like an endurance test than a leisure pursuit.

So what do we do about this negative psychology of no?  Ideally, adventures would become far more generous in their puzzle-solving approach, offering multiple solutions and a myriad of possibilities, even if they're ultimately wrong.  Let us discover for ourselves what works and what doesn't, limiting only those things that are physically impossible (or at least reasonably implausible).  But that invites the familiar elephant into the room, which is money.  It costs far too much for developers already scrimping on budgets to add extra interactions, animations, and branching paths to account for player experimentation.  Though they had their own limitations, the best text adventures of old were more flexible in this way, freely (or at least cheaply) allowing many more avenues to explore.  Modern graphic adventure designers no longer have that luxury.  I get that, and I sympathize, but it's no excuse to simply shrug our shoulders and accept the status quo of "no can do".  If there's a skill today's developers need to master, it's the ability to work smarter within their own limitations instead of exposing them at the player's expense. 

Continued on the next page...




Opinion & Special Features

Musings on the adventure genre, developer columns and other special features


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Jack Allin
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Comments

stuboy
Jul 20, 2012

I hear you, Jack. Great article.

I find it very frustrating when you come across a flaw in a game and you think; that must have come up in testing. For example, you need to knock an apple off a tree and you have an umbrella and a stick in your inventory. But it will only let you use the stick - the character treats you like a moron for daring to try using the umbrella, and you think - one of the developers must have noticed that. How long would it have taken to add a line about the umbrella being too short? Or even better, just let us use both and change the animation a tiny amount - it would probably only require swapping a brown pole-thing for a black one.

This is often brought up as a purely budget issue, but I wonder if it’s more of a time (and, by extension, budget) issue, because they didn’t do enough testing before release.

Jackal Jackal
Jul 20, 2012

It’s even worse when attempting to use the umbrella just results in some kind of generic “that’s a bad idea”  response.  It’s not just useless and frustrating, it’s misleading, because now you’re thinking “okay, long slender object doesn’t work.”

I suspect it goes beyond testing to an institutional acceptance of such restrictions.  We’ve all just become so accustomed to single-solution puzzles and meaningless, negative feedback for any solution except the “correct” one that not enough people challenge it anymore.

atyinbox
Jul 20, 2012

Ok, nice article. I see the point and mostly agree. But then we have a great game like Edna & Harvey that lets you try every combination possible, and has a clever response for each thing yoy try, and it get’s such a low score in the review…

Jackal Jackal
Jul 20, 2012

E&H was praised for its high degree of interactivity and criticized for other things, so the two aren’t mutually exclusive.  But even so, just having a variety of responses is only the first step.  A funny response is certainly better than a generic “no”, but it’s not necessarily any more helpful if you’re still stuck guessing that one and only solution that will arbitrarily work. (I don’t recall if that’s true of E&H; I’m just speaking generally.)

Kolorabi Kolorabi
Jul 20, 2012

I especially love it when games tell me “that doesn’t make sense”, and then it turns out that the solution makes even less sense.

tsa tsa
Jul 20, 2012

That’s what I don’t like about the Carol Reed games: you spend a LOT of time searching for objects in the most archaic places that you can just get at home or in a shop. In Blue Madonna you have to search for a stone. In a quarry! Grrrrr…

driver8 driver8
Jul 20, 2012

So, you want games to guide you more and give you better hints, but you also want them to let you take actions that seem to accomplish something (like cutting a rope in half), but actually don’t make any progress in solving a puzzle? How about if you use the knife on the rope again? We wouldn’t want to damage the player’s delicate self-esteem by saying “no,” so let’s cut it into fourths, then eighths, and keep going. How are you going to tie it back together after you’ve diced it up into a pile of strings?

In most adventure games, you control a character. For most purposes, you are that character’s brain (or at lest part of it). They are your eyes and ears. You want the character to tell you something more useful than “I can’t do that”—to instead give some sort of hint at the solution, but your character DOESN’T KNOW the solution. That’s why you have to control them and tell them what to do. You have to help them figure it out. Not the other way around.

To me, adventure games are about solving puzzles. Puzzles can take many different forms, obviously, but to me what defines an adventure game is that your main satisfaction and enjoyment comes from solving puzzles and advancing the narrative, usually through more intellectual means than other genres and not through dexterity. Personally, the easier and shorter the puzzle, the less satisfaction I get from solving it.

Eventually this comes around to the argument over whether being “stuck” in adventure games is an essential part of the experience or something developers should attempt to avoid at all costs. To me, it is essential. It’s hard to describe that feeling when you finally makes some progress after being stuck for an hour or more. It’s a great one. So many new possibilities. New things to try, examine, or people to talk to. You think “Hey, maybe now I have the piece solve that other puzzle I’ve been banging my head against.” It’s exciting. I think that if you use a walkthrough or an extensive hint system for a game, you’re missing out on this feeling and ultimately cheating yourself out of a more fulfilling experience.

Now, obviously there are bad adventure games, as there are bad games in any genre. They don’t implement the conventions of the genre in a competent or satisfying way. The most frustrating thing about reading this article was the complete lack of examples. You say, “But some games refuse to even let you try an action if the character isn’t properly motivated.” Which games? Surely you don’t mean ALL adventure games? “Some adventures won’t even let you GO where you want until the appropriate time (if at all).” Really? When? That sounds very frustrating indeed, but I’m having trouble picturing it.

Ultimately, I really don’t think there’s a “can’t do attitude,” as you put it, in most adventure games. Being told that something doesn’t work isn’t “depressing.” It’s telling you to try something else. It’s actually more of a hint than letting you carry out that action even though it’s not helpful at all. If your psyche is that fragile, video games might not be the right medium for you. The hallmark of video games is failing repeatedly until you finally achieve glorious success. Without that, we might as well be watching a movie, or reading a book. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Majsan Majsan
Jul 20, 2012

I hate it when I’m not allowed to do what I want to do because the game character hasn’t thought of it yet. Being punished for being one step ahead, waiting for the game to go ‘aha’!

Jackal Jackal
Jul 20, 2012

No, driver8, what I want (and what I said) is that games should let us LEARN from our mistakes.  Letting us try something and seeing if it works or fails is the best learning exercise.  If not that, then telling us why something doesn’t work is the next best.  Simply saying it doesn’t over and over again is not only completely useless, it completely undermines your premise that you’re controlling the character.  If they know something doesn’t work, they obviously know why, and just aren’t saying.  I don’t know about you, but my eyes and ears actually give me valuable information.

This has absolutely nothing to do with being stuck.  It has to do with whether a game is being fair with the insight provided.  The best puzzles give you clues AND make you think.  Making puzzles harder by withholding actual information is just lazy design.

There are far too many examples of the problems I’ve listed to name.  You must not have even played Syberia if you don’t vividly recall the “no need to go down there” nonsense.

Kasper F. Nielsen Kasper F. Nielsen
Jul 20, 2012

Another great article! I love it that you’re writing these articles lately, Jackal - the most interesting new content on the site :-)

Jackal Jackal
Jul 20, 2012

I’m aiming for one new editorial a month.  Always wanted to get back to these, just never had the time.  Still don’t have the time, but forced myself to anyway. Grin

Oh, also, going back a post or two, this is in no way an “esteem” issue, so let’s nip that scarecrow argument in the bud.  Poor adventure design doesn’t make me feel badly about myself, they make me mad that they aren’t designed better.  Making a player think of six possible ideas and lamely rejecting five with no explanation because only one is accepted isn’t a test of intelligence, just endurance.

Ascovel Ascovel
Jul 20, 2012

Very important topic. Says a lot about what adventure games are and aren’t in general. I find this sentence particularly revealing: ‘Adventure games are too rooted in single-solution puzzles to ever really change from a “no” genre to a “yes” genre.’

I’m not entirely convinced the way to go is a smart cursor immediately showing what the options are limited to. Pointing out that limitation is not as unpleasant as negative text messages, but still makes you feel artificially restricted, directed a certain path.

One great interface solution I’d like to point out is to be found in the freeware indie game Mental Repairs Inc. That title has an excellent context-sensitive verbcoin. In certain contexts you lose a number of regular options, but in their place you gain all new ones, often unique for the particular situation.

TechSmurfy TechSmurfy
Jul 20, 2012

I agree with most of the analysis. From a developer’s (and, in general, genre’s) perspective, by -to use your example- cutting the rope in half does create a few other issues, and I’m not talking about the practical ones -these can be solved by good programming and creative skills. I’m talking about psychology; how an experienced AG is already USED to a specific style of gameplay and suddenly his gaming world is shattered. To use your own words:
“We’ve all just become so accustomed to single-solution puzzles and meaningless, negative feedback for any solution except the “correct” one that not enough people challenge it anymore.”

In other words, cutting a rope in half (being able to do so) is like saying to the No-generation-gamer “hey, you will probably need more than one rope piece for one/multiple puzzle(s)” and “this is the right way for you to advance in the game since -er- the game itself LET you cut the rope in half”. By giving more options to the player, he/she will think that what can be done means that there’s a reason it can be done, and he/she will probably look for that reason in vain for the rest of the game.

I’m NOT saying this to counter your way of thinking, on the contrary. I’m simply stating the established way of thinking and I’m saying that by changing adventure games into more interactive ones, we should also change our own way of thinking, as AGs. And it will be difficult at first. But I’m more than up for it.

Martin Gantefoehr Martin Gantefoehr
Jul 20, 2012

Interesting article. I think a much overlooked factor adding to the problem is many developers’ aim to make a spatially large game. 

In my understanding, what the article calls for is more interaction density, more player agency, and more flexible game logic. But indeed it *is* a costly and/or time-consuming task to provide that consistently, when the game has 100 locations, and 50 characters, and 200 items, and when every situation needs variations, and when every variation and every combination at every point in the game world needs to be scripted manually.

Going both (spatially) broad and (interactively) deep—I think that’s where many projects run into problems. And that’s one source where many of the puzzle limitations and generic lines come from.

pfleury pfleury
Jul 20, 2012

Altough I agree that games can’t simply say “no”, going to the other extreme and allowing full interaction - like the rope example - would be solving a problem by creating new ones. I think the post above me cleared this issue pretty well, so I’ll move on and present my ideal solution.

From my experience It’s not whether I receive negative or positive feedback but how that is presented to me! You pinned it down correctly when you mentioned the need for the character to explain why the solution you came up with wouldn’t work. No need for a hint system if the game tells you why your solution won’t work in that moment.

Also, I hate this trend where the cursor already narrows down the interactions you are allowed with a particular item. I play adventure games for the story!! The writing is what makes me play it! In fact, it strikes me that you think this is a good move forward because that’s just a way for the game to say “no” without actually saying it. You see a painting on the wall, but you are not allowed to try to pick it up, only look at it…it’s the “I can’t pick that up” line one move behind.

Good writing, challenging puzzles and good voice acting. That’s what does it for me.

Peter254 Peter254
Jul 20, 2012

I agree with the article. While I enjoyed Resonance, I felt that the ‘seams’ kept showing. The designer did not implement the inventory management + character switching mechanic cleverly enough to disguise it. Flesh and blood human beings, or what we are to sympathize with as such, were constantly reduced to arbitrary puzzle pieces.

In this case, Vince was perhaps being very ambitious as opposed to limiting in his scope, and I felt he should have implemented these road bloacks with more elegance.

Advie Advie
Jul 20, 2012

I feel you Jack, it is like the biggest Question of Humanity since eternity “do we have the choice,or all is just written and fated” , ....i got hooked to adventures with sierra when every possible action is permissible, however the Narrator’s answer is ,but i can still try to eat the sand (try) talk to the door or even screw a statue.. and plus that every little thing in the scene/screen is interactive (whether its useful   to progress in the game or not) EVERYTHING IS A HOTSPOT but evolution is a dangerous feature, when Lucas submitted a number of verbs ,Sierra tried to maintain their output   but then they had to gave up and gave you the five Senses of Human to deal with the surrounding through the game instead of verbs ,but then Myst and Riven (Cyan) changed even all that to something more like No Nos.
and that the only experience, Jack is Close to the total vise vera of what you are talking about (imo), but again evolution is a very dangerous action, which meant that Adventures are not be conidered Games anymore or at least not everyone kind of a Game (maybe would need to write on the Box for People with High IQ ONLY!).... so to cut it short (everyone knows all that).... some things happened after the three Biggest Developers (Sierra,Lucas,Cyan) of Adventures shut Down.
.......;new ones tried to go/speak down low to the Gamer’s weakest mentality/mind (when all things has to be modest they went for the easiest attraction) and started Compete with each others on how to attract new Generation/spectators (and the hell with the people who grew up on the Real times of adventures) ,No verbs ,one left click,obvious interacting thing (like they shine even before the hotspot revelear ),and 2-3 Scenes/rooms (Screen/Scene escaping gameplaying style) ,hint system…...and so on.. BUT did they really think that Adventure gamers/fans would be that Dumb!!,they actually didnt understand the Adventure Players whom are the only (Fools) in the world who like to be really challenged and like the Hard and difficult stuff not the otherwise as the usual, plus they (now) they are only Players/Fans (of any genre) who pay for their games Twice ,once to fund it and another to purchase it! , They (developers) really lost it (the magic of Adventuring), lost the connection between the Fans!!!........anyways it isGreat Article Jack, you always bring up the unspoken .

Jackal Jackal
Jul 21, 2012

Martin, while the “ideal” solution would indeed be expensive, I don’t think the more practical suggestions are cost-prohibitive.  The interaction doesn’t need to be denser, just more meaningful where it already exists, and it wouldn’t require individual responses for every possible action.  Off the top of my head, I’d estimate maybe a 25-33% increase in interactive commentary.  You’d still dismiss the vast majority of obviously unreasonable interactions with a generic response (albeit preferably more motivational than “sorry, you lose”), just focus on the far more likely player responses and tailor those accordingly.  And far fewer than that would require new animations.  Heck, lots of games cheat on animations for successful interactions anyway.  Cheating twice doesn’t cost any more.

Ironically, though I wrote this article before it was released, Daedalic’s The Dark Eye has exactly the kind of rope-cutting option I suggested, including a very simple means of undoing the action.  (Granted, one that’s very particular to that game alone, but still.)  It involved one more inventory icon and maybe one extra line of dialogue, but it was such a welcome change from the game dictating what you could and couldn’t do, no matter how logical the action. 

So yeah, it’s a little bit more time/effort/money, but in a great number of games I play, I find many interactions that could be chopped altogether since they add absolutely nothing to the experience.  As you say, many games are already aiming too broadly.  I’d gladly sacrifice wasted breadth for relevant depth. 

Pfleury, yes, I see a cursor that saves you from hearing the samed canned answer dozens of times to be an improvement.  Getting some random default “no” isn’t story development and won’t ever be missed.  But as I said, that’s just an easy first step.  The better step is for more responses that are organic to the situation.  Those actually can and should feel like an extension of the playable character and therefore part of the story.

orient orient
Jul 21, 2012

Completely agree. There’s only one thing worse than pointless descriptions e.g. “it’s a potted plant” and that’s “I can’t do that”. Simply changing these (often generic) brick wall comments into something a bit more helpful would make a world of difference in most adventures. In fact, it should be considered as an important part of the game, not some peripheral “feature” that only gets done if there’s time.

I’d love to see a follow up article about games that are advancing the genre in one way or another - a dangerous topic here on Adventure Gamers :p

Cone of Tragedy Cone of Tragedy
Jul 21, 2012

Great article. Just got done playing Deponia and that was one of the things I disliked about it the most. Not only where you told no all the time, but it punished you by making you sit through a repetitive animation each time you tried something that didn’t work. Was real annoying after a while. I totally agree that games should be diverse enough to allow for multiple ways to achieve a goal, not just one obscure way that you can only get through trial and error. Hopefully we will see adventure games evolve in this manner in the future.

Wael Wael
Jul 21, 2012

Cool article. I’m more encline to think you want a better gaming experience overall. Maybe the changes to adventure games mechanics need to be really deeper than just “positive feedback” . Walking dead makes it very well, proposing a classic P&C gameplay but reworked so well that frustration is not part of the game anymore and therefore make it available and playable to a far broader audience. That seems more 2012 than 1996 in term of Fun and what you expect from a game.

Oscar Oscar
Jul 21, 2012

I don’t agree with the article in two points:
1. The “can’t do” aspect of traditional adventure games is part of what makes them so rewarding and success in solving a puzzle so gratifying, to me at least.
2. Do all gamers play games for fun, or at least your idea of fun? I know many reasons to play, just as there are for reading, going to an art gallery or doing crossword puzzles - exercising the brain, learning, experiencing another’s creation, and so on.

But this is really about what you like as a gamer and what you don’t. It’s no more “negative psychology” that a game has a single solution and no branching paths than it’s negative psychology that a bishop in a game of chess can only move diagonally. There’s no reason for that rule, it’s the simply a rule of the game. Would chess be better with a more “can do” attitude and if the pieces had more options? Of course not.

If you don’t like the rules of chess, play checkers. Don’t try to change the game because you don’t like the rules or because it’s inaccessible - some people happen to like it that way.

TechSmurfy TechSmurfy
Jul 21, 2012

I think that is a narrow-minded thought -or at least the chess example was weak. It’s not chess. Chess is one game. We’re talking about a genre here. Rules evolve, genres evolve. Role-playing games are not what they used to be twenty years ago (for better or for worse), adventure games can do things better or different as well. As a matter of fact, they’ve stuck with a set of ‘rules’ for too damn long, if you ask me. And casual adventure games have only made matters worse.

Immersion and good writing -as pfleury also stated above- is what I, and most of us I believe, wanna get from an adventure game and these are the things that set it apart from friggin HOGs. And tackling with “the negative psychology of NO” surely helps on both aspects.

Jackal Jackal
Jul 21, 2012

Wael, I would certainly welcome better, more varied experiences overall.  But since most adventure games still rely on the standard genre formula, I’m mainly focused on how to refine that formula itself so that it’s more rewarding.  Even The Walking Dead falls back on it occasionally (and perhaps not coincidentally, that’s generally when it’s at its worst). 

Oscar, “fun” is just a catch-all word for the entire art/entertainment spectrum.  The word itself has no relevance to the topic. 

The chess analogy is a poor one.  There are indeed legitimate “rules” that govern chess’s gameplay, and are clearly established going in.  No two chess games have different sets of rules.  But when it comes to adventures, we’re not talking about actual rules, just arbitrary restrictions with no rhyme or narrative reason.  More importantly, even with its rigid rules, chess actually lets you make extraordinarily stupid moves if you want.  It sets the parameters, then gives you freedom to operate as you please.  You live and learn by doing.  The adventure game equivalent would just tell you you can’t do that if it didn’t like your choice, and wouldn’t even tell you why.  THAT is the negative psychology of “no” I’m talking about. 

Your “if you don’t like it exactly the way it is, do something else” philosophy is not only ridiculously insular, it’s flat out misguided.  As I said, the original text games (then later Sierra and LucasArts and Legend and the like) were far more generous in their degree of interactive feedback than modern games.  You’re now upholding a stripped-down version as the ideal, when it was actually better before.

Oscar Oscar
Jul 21, 2012

TechSmurfy -
“I think that is a narrow-minded thought -or at least the chess example was weak. It’s not chess. Chess is one game. We’re talking about a genre here. Rules evolve, genres evolve. Role-playing games are not what they used to be twenty years ago (for better or for worse), adventure games can do things better or different as well. As a matter of fact, they’ve stuck with a set of ‘rules’ for too damn long, if you ask me. And casual adventure games have only made matters worse.”

It’s a genre, but a very diverse one. I don’t like talking about it as if they all have the same elements. Read the forum for a while and you’ll find some people love one end of the genre and hate the other. I wouldn’t like to upset the extreme I dislike by demanding it conform to my expectations. I’d rather the adventure genre be heterogenous and appeal to all gamer types.

“Immersion and good writing -as pfleury also stated above- is what I, and most of us I believe, wanna get from an adventure game and these are the things that set it apart from friggin HOGs. And tackling with “the negative psychology of NO” surely helps on both aspects.”

I don’t believe that at all. Many HOGs have immersion and good writing - Drawn is one of the most immersive games I’ve played of any genre. It’s the gameplay that sets apart adventures and HOGs. And it irks me that some people want to dumb down the adventures I like in the name of “positive psychology” when there are tons out there that already do that.

“Your “if you don’t like it exactly the way it is, do something else” philosophy is not only ridiculously insular, it’s flat out misguided.  As I said, the original text games (then later Sierra and LucasArts and Legend and the like) were far more generous in their degree of interactive feedback than modern games.  You’re now upholding a stripped-down version as the ideal, when it was actually better before.”

I’m not really upholding anything except diversity in games, but in any case I don’t think feedback was better before. I played Planetfall recently and the feedback was terrible. And I can’t think of many games this year that uphold the “I can’t do that” tradition, but many that reject it - there’s Yesterday, Walking Dead, Deponia, Superbrothers, Resonance. Why not play those games? 

“The chess analogy is a poor one.  There are indeed legitimate “rules” that govern chess’s gameplay, and are clearly established going in.  No two chess games have different sets of rules.  But when it comes to adventures, we’re not talking about actual rules, just arbitrary restrictions with no rhyme or narrative reason.  More importantly, even with its rigid rules, chess actually lets you make extraordinarily stupid moves if you want.  It sets the parameters, then gives you freedom to operate as you please. You live and learn by doing.  The adventure game equivalent would just tell you you can’t do that if it didn’t like your choice, and wouldn’t even tell you why.  THAT is the negative psychology of “no” I’m talking about.  “

The rule I was talking about is that there’s one solution to the puzzle programmed in and you have to find it. And the solution or clues may be arbitrary. And all I’m getting is that you don’t like that rule (or it’s not “fun”). It sounds like the article is trying to bring in real life to the games - I can put the rubber chicken in the rasperry jam in life so why can’t I do it in the game? Because it’s a game and doesn’t need to follow real physics, logic or laws. If you think that’s worse it’s because you don’t like it and not because it’s a universal law that it should do those things. The evidence is me and anyone else who likes these games.

Jackal Jackal
Jul 21, 2012

There’s the ol’ “dumbing down” chestnut, at long last.  This has nothing to do with making games easier.  It has everything to do with making them better.  If a puzzle is only difficult because it doesn’t disclose enough information to solve it or learn from your mistakes, it’s a lousy puzzle.  This isn’t directly connected to the “no” theme, but merely as an example of why difficulty isn’t the issue, there’s a reason people complain about GK3’s cat hair puzzle and not Le Serpent Rouge. 
 
I have played all of the games you mentioned, by the way.  Well, I’m not finished Resonance yet.  I don’t recall any standing out as exceptional in this area.  But even if I’m simply forgetting, I didn’t say no games ever do any of the things I suggest.  But none (or very, very few) do it consistently. 

“The rule I was talking about is that there’s one solution to the puzzle programmed in and you have to find it. And the solution or clues may be arbitrary. And all I’m getting is that you don’t like that rule (or it’s not “fun”). It sounds like the article is trying to bring in real life to the games - I can put the rubber chicken in the rasperry jam in life so why can’t I do it in the game? Because it’s a game and doesn’t need to follow real physics, logic or laws.”

I’m fine with one-solution puzzles IF incorrect attempts are accurately and informatively conveyed, not summarily dismissed with a deliberately useless “no” all the time.  I doubt you’d find a single developer to ever agree that their puzzles solutions are intentionally “arbitrary”.  They only appear that way because they’re so poorly conveyed.

A game doesn’t need to follow real physics, logic or laws, no, but it DOES need to establish its own internal logic and then stick with it, or it’s being unfair to the player.  To use someone’s earlier example, if a long stick does something an umbrella can’t, there’d better be good reason given for it for the player to understand why.  And if there isn’t, you’re not solving puzzles, you’re merely guessing. 

I already said that the most ridiculous interactions are not worth pursuing.  It’s the myriad reasonable ones that meet with pathetic or non-feedback that need to be fixed. 

TechSmurfy TechSmurfy
Jul 21, 2012

Oscar-
“It’s a genre, but a very diverse one. I don’t like talking about it as if they all have the same elements.”
Exactly what you said. It’s a diverse genre, and here we’re talking about evolution, not restriction. There’s nothing wrong with trying to set the level of immersion higher by simply establishing a better and more consistent internal logic (as Jackal also said). These are not MY expectations and I don’t believe there are a lot of AGs that actually enjoy the NO psychology. Not to be misunderstood, I’m not saying that all adventures should become sandbox games. That would be the opposite end of the spectrum that you mentioned. Keeping a logic and understanding with the player (and not inconsistenly reminding him now and then that he is playing a game after all) is not nearly the same as following real physics.

“I don’t believe that at all. Many HOGs have immersion and good writing”
I never said that there weren’t any good HOGs, or casual games in general, out there. There are always exceptions to the rules (pun not intended). But we’re on this site because of adventure games, which in their majority, are richer in writing and immersion than most short-lifespanned casual games, and I merely mentioned those traits cause they have absolutely direct relation with the matter at hand.

diego diego
Jul 21, 2012

Nice and thought provoking article. It’s obviously not all black&white;, or in this case - no/yes, but as conveniently mentioned in the article - the truth could be somewhere in the “middle”. I’m opening the thread for further discussions.

rtrooney rtrooney
Jul 21, 2012

I just recommended this article as “must read” on the July Casual Games thread. I just finished a game that reminded me of early adventure games. where everything must be tried with everything. But, every wrong combination was met with a “you stupid s**t” statement.

I used to think this was fun. I’m not sure anymore.

zane
Jul 22, 2012

The difference between adventure and genres such as shooters is simple: adventures ask you questions. These are often broad questions designed to make the player consider a large number of scenarios… so naturally there are wrong answers to the question.. and the deeper an adventure game is, the more possible wrong answers there are.
A shooter tells you “you have a pistol, shotgun and rocket launcher to use, this is what they do and how its applied for the whole game.” In a good adventure game you will be faced with solving a completely different problem at every turn: “how do i open this box? why does the water flow this way? how do i convince someone to help me?” These arent questions that easily fit in one mechanic, so you inevitably have many actions you can try with very few of them being successful. There are plenty of games that give you relevant clues when you try a wrong combination, but ultimately its just another “no” dressed up like somthing else.  If every potential viable solution you could think up needed to have results because “in your mind it should work”, then every puzzle would have to have at least 5 acceptable solutions… and that likely results in a horribly easy game. Adventure games are like solving riddles: you arent looking for any potential answer, youre looking for ~the~ answer that fits the context of the question and the person who asked it.

Shoal Shoal
Jul 22, 2012

(Note that I have not read any of the previous comments.)

With all due respect (and I mean that), all I could think while reading this article was, “In all my 25 years of adventure gaming, I have never even once thought of this as a problem or even a minor annoyance.” I kept thinking, “This dude needs a good time-out, a chill pill, or therapy or something. Wow!”

Again, I mean no offense whatsoever. I’m just being a jerk. I realize I am not the author and that we are two different people, I do recognize that. Therefore it’s true that we’re going to have different tastes and expectations. But I have to admit I was, indeed, seriously surprised by the aim of this article! Smile

As for why AGs are a niche genre, call me cynical, but here’s my take:

1) They’re BORING. I say that with as much love as possible since I’m a big fan of the genre. But man, they are just plain old SUPER BORING compared to every other genre! Smile They’re boring first because they’re puzzle games (see #2 below) and second, on account of their puzzles, their pace relative to other genres is about as fast as an elderly woman with bad knees using a walker. What picks up the pace in an AG? What makes an AG more exciting? Greater speed at which players experience rewards of real substance that move the game forward. (Or the inclusion of regular, well-implemented and adrenaline-pumping action elements.)

2) Maybe it’s dangerous to brush too broadly, but I believe that most folks absolutely do not want to use their brain in anything approaching a critical, abstract manner. That’s not stress-relieving in any fashion for most people. (This is also causing huge problems for governments, especially democratic ones.) The solution? Make the puzzles easier.

3) AGs vary vastly in content since they rely so much more heavily on plot, characters and setting than any other genre, even roleplaying games. As a result no one adventure game is going to be able to please every AG fan, let alone fans of other genres!

Iznogood Iznogood
Jul 22, 2012

3 things i really really hate in adventure games:

1. The classical “Water water all around, and not a drop to drink.”
I resently played a game, where there were no less than 4 viable sources of water near by, and i had at least 2 suitable containers, but NO i had to find some stinking river water and use a wooden box to collect it - Grhhh.

2. When you can’t do someting or go somewhere, because the protagonist hasn’t realised it has to be done yet, and you have to click on some obscure item or talk to someone first. So called investigating games like Gray Matter or GK2 seems to be exceptional “good” at this.

3. Hint systems that only tell you what you already know. Like “Try looking for some water” -  You don’t say so! I have already found several viable sources of water, but you wont accept any of them! Couldn’t you at least point me in the right direction? A poor hint system is worse than none at all.

Jackal Jackal
Jul 22, 2012

Shoal, the entire purpose of writing an editorial like this is to raise issues that people might not have thought about otherwise.  Jerk or no, that seems like a pretty obvious point you somehow failed to grasp. 

I more or less agree with you that adventures are “boring”.  The question is WHY they’re boring.  The innate slower pace is only part of the answer . Another part is the tendency of adventures to arbitrarily prevent players from doing much of anything, or from ever feeling like they’re really in control.  Hence, the article.

Interplay Interplay
Jul 22, 2012

I’m of two minds on this issue.  On the one hand, I also despise the “water water all around” factor that iznogood raised.  It’s frustrating to come up with a solution that you think should work, but doesn’t work because the developers didn’t think of it.  On the other hand, I think this “psychology of no” is one of the things that makes adventure games more challenging.  I want to figure these puzzles out on my own.  I never use any hints or a walkthrough.  I would rather be stuck in a game for two hours and think about the solution while I’m trying to go to sleep at night than look up the answer online.  So, if I try the wrong thing in a game, the last thing I want is some subtly-worded hint that makes the solution obvious when it wasn’t before.  To me, that’s like an unsolicited hint, and one that decreases the challenge of the game.  And any response other than “that doesn’t work” will likely offer a hint of some kind. 

Again, I think the solution to this (maybe) problem is more creative programming.  Traditional point-and-click games by their nature tend to have to be either somewhat obtuse or they become very easy (collecting an item on one screen and using it in its obvious place on another screen).  What makes a game like Resonance genius, is that it doesn’t just have a finite number of questions you can ask to which it answers “no”.  By the nature of the game mechanics, you have to come up with the right question to ask in the first place.  It is out-of-the-box thinking like that that will move the genre forward, imo.

Ascovel Ascovel
Jul 22, 2012

“I more or less agree with you that adventures are “boring”.  The question is WHY they’re boring. The innate slower pace is only part of the answer.”

Boredom has little to do with slow pace. Boredom is all about lack of interesting content. And in fact, I find adventure games the least boring genre. What bores me the most personally is repetitive content - either slow-paced, or fast-paced. Action and RPG genres in particular have got that in spades.

“Another part is the tendency of adventures to arbitrarily prevent players from doing much of anything, or from ever feeling like they’re really in control. Hence, the article”

Oh, but I don’t feel like I’m any more in control in other genres. Invisible walls, scripted events, locked doors, only one or two types of interaction available (e.g. shoot and change weapon). Games are games, not virtual worlds.

Jackal Jackal
Jul 22, 2012

Interplay, I disagree that more feedback inevitably makes things easier.  If you try to use an umbrella to fetch something from a tree and get “I could try, but it isn’t nearly long enough” isn’t necessarily a clue.  It may be a clue that you need to make it longer, or it may simply be descriptive information that makes you feel like the attempt was valued, even if it doesn’t work.  (It’s still a “no”, but not dismissive like the canned answers.)  Are you any closer to the puzzle solution?  Not really.  But at least now you know why. 

I WOULD like to see a tier system in place, though, that alerts you if you’re clearly (no pun intended) barking up the wrong tree.  When your third attempt to retrieve an item that simply can’t be retrieved yet inevitably fails, THEN I’d like to see a “hint” of some kind to alert you that your attention is needed elsewhere first.  I don’t want to be told how to solve a puzzle, but I do appreciate being warned that I’m wasting my time for reasons I can’t possibly know. 

Having said all that, since the current feedback system is so basic, it could easily be maintained as a difficulty setting to choose from.  Just like hotspot highlighters and more blatant hint systems can be manually enabled/disabled, so too could more context-sensitive feedback.  If all you want is the “no”, that’s the simplest thing to arrange. 

Ascovel, sure, no devout adventure gamer finds a slow pace inherently boring.  But it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that many, many people do. 

As for other genres, of course they have their own rules, as the article states.  But invisible walls and permanently locked doors aren’t rules so much as similar design weaknesses that are also heavily criticized.  That’s their version of “I can’t do that” and is no more acceptable in those games.  But it’s not like a shooter suddenly won’t let you use a rifle on Enemy A, even if it’s going to be totally ineffective.  It lets you find out for yourself, and that’s what I’m talking about.  Your options for interaction may be limited, but it’s crystal clear what they are, and you’re generally given free rein to use them as you wish.  Adventures… not so much.

Of course, whether one enjoys the type of interaction other genres provide is a whole different matter.

after a brisk nap
Jul 22, 2012

It’s an… interesting article. Some things to agree with, some things to disagree with, but my main takeaway is that maybe Jack needs to take a break from playing adventure games. At least the bad ones. I really only play games I like these days, and when you stick to a few good ones each year, it really doesn’t seem like the genre has a “No” mentality.

I think everyone will agree with specific complaints like the (hypothetical) umbrella that can’t be used as a stick and the “water water everywhere but not a drop to drink” example. Those are just arbitrary restrictions and bad design.

As for “I can’t do that”, it’s fair enough that reasonable attempted actions should ideally get some more meaningful feedback, at least an explanation of why it’s not going to work or isn’t the right approach, and possibly a hint as to the actual solution (if appropriate). But it’s obviously impossible (or at least uneconomical) to do this for every possible action in any reasonably large game, unless you somehow radically constrain the space of possible actions.

So Jack admits that even if you add better feedback to the plausible but incorrect solutions many players will attempt, that still leaves a whole bunch of other ridiculous combinations and pointless actions that only deserve generic feedback. So are we really talking about changing the mentality of adventure games, or just investing a little more into the design and playtesting of games to find the “blind spots” that the designers didn’t originally think of?

Because the better adventure games already do this, and if they don’t manage it perfectly 100% of the time, that’s because designing adventure game puzzles is hard, and checking every possible unintended action to see if it might make sense somewhere in the game is expensive. (And yes, if you’re going to offer more built-in hints, that’s going to make the puzzles easier, so there’s a balancing issue too.)

As for the cutting up rope thing… I agree with the other objections that it introduces more problems (e.g. red herrings) than it solves, assuming there’s no point in the game where you might legitimately need the rope to be cut up. It’s also going to make it that much harder to check the puzzle logic for consistency and holes, because now you have to consider whether maybe multiple rope pieces could be used somewhere else in the game, or in combination with something else. And once you introduce the precedent that you can cut up random things for no particular purpose, you’ll either need to add the interaction for everything in the game that is cuttable, or make an even more conspicuously artificial limitation.

All games have limitations, and that’s not generally a problem in games that are very stylized. But adventure games tend to camouflage the game mechanic and its limitations behind realistic-looking environments and meaningful story events (and often relies on these to provide the logic of the puzzles), so the player is tempted to use real-world logic to challenge the game boundaries. The answer isn’t to expand the boundaries (make all kinds of non-puzzle-solving actions possible) or even ideally to make them padded (come up with something less discouraging than “I can’t do that”), but to make the players want to and be able to stay within the boundaries, and to guide them back when they start to stray.

Jackal Jackal
Jul 22, 2012

Nah, I don’t play most of the bad ones (at least, not to completion).  But they all cross my desk at some point or another, so I know they’re there.  I’m hightlighting problems to raise the bar for all adventures, not just accept that some are good enough already.

I don’t think your mentality vs. blind spots comparison is an either/or.  If your mentality is to become a better driver, you commit to checking your blind spots, no?  I don’t think adventures need to change their entire fundamental problem-solving approach, if that’s what you’re implying.  But they could sure stand to start treating players more like participants whose contributions are valued, and less like trained monkeys simply jumping through hoops.

I could argue some of your specific objections, but really they were just ultra-simplistic examples, not something ever intended to stand up to much scrutiny on their own.  Of course these things raise new challenges.  But I’d rather developers start thinking creatively about how to solve new problems than merely shrug and accept the status quo because that’s the way it’s always done.

“to make the players want to and be able to stay within the boundaries, and to guide them back when they start to stray.”

Well, yes, that’s the goal.  If you’re saying a much more organic, informative means of conveying those boundaries that simultaniously respecting the player’s efforts doesn’t do that, okay then.  I think you’re wrong.

pfleury pfleury
Jul 22, 2012

” I don’t want to be told how to solve a puzzle, but I do appreciate being warned that I’m wasting my time for reasons I can’t possibly know. “

I think you crossed two different subjects there, Jackal. All good puzzles - note that someone above used the word “riddle”, I think it suits much better than puzzle - give you information along the game to every challenge, unless it’s a completly logical one - ex: found light bulb, put light bulb on empty socket. If you can’t possibly know why something isn’t working, more often than not, it’s because you either forgot about some info given previously or because you simply didn’t connect the dots. Note that I’m not talking about the “water water everywhere and not a drop to drink” kind of riddle, I’m talking about the ones that when you do solve , you think “oh, how didn’t i think of that before”.
If you get a “that won’t work” , and when you do solve the “puzzle/riddle” you feel like the answer makes just as much sense as what you’ve tried before then that’s a flaw in the writing of the story/puzzle. So it was never a matter of “yes/no” but poor writing.
I don’t disagree that simply saying “no” everytime isn’t ok, for a game based on text - art today is important aswell but clues are given mostly by speech/text - is very cheap but explaining why it’s wrong and POINT you towards a solution, that would take away a lot of the genre, the sense of accomplishment.
I have to say, I’ve never read a walkthrough because I kept hearing “no”. Everytime I read one, I found out it was a matter of either pixelhunting or bad programming for hotspots - ex. having to put the cursor at an exact tiny pixel for the crosshair to allow interaction.

I do understand your point and think it’s a valid one, but I honestly don’t feel you pitched a solution that wouldn’t either make the game easier (hints) or stray it far from the genre (multiple possibilities for every action - rope example for instance)

Jackal Jackal
Jul 22, 2012

Yes, my comment on hints isn’t directly related to the article topic. But nor is it altogether unrelated, since it’s still based on useful contextual feedback (instead of a big fat “hint” button that may or may not tell you something you want to know). 

“If you can’t possibly know why something isn’t working, more often than not, it’s because you either forgot about some info given previously or because you simply didn’t connect the dots.”

“More often” is highly debatable.  Many puzzles are presented long before you have the actual means to solve them.  But since you never KNOW when you have all the information and items you need, it’s all too easy to fail simply because you haven’t spoken to everyone or looked at everything or picked up every object yet.  And without decent feedback telling you what you’re doing wrong, you’re just guessing.  All I’m saying is that in those cases, a little prescient feedback could save players from flailing about in futility until a puzzle is actually possible to solve.

“I have to say, I’ve never read a walkthrough because I kept hearing “no”.”

Of course no one ever gets stuck because they keep hearing “no”.  A no is just non-information, not an absence of clues elsewhere.  People seem to think I’m suggesting handing solutions to players.  I’m not.  I’m only talking about helping people know what they don’t know.  Big, big difference.

pfleury pfleury
Jul 23, 2012

I think I understood more of what you meant in the article by reading your posted replies. To be honest, at first it did seem a bit like “dumbing down” but now I think I get where you’re coming from.

Although I still can’t say I agree with it, I respect your opinion as it seems like a valid point that probably is shared by the extremely heterogenic AG community.

Jackal Jackal
Jul 23, 2012

Well, how “helpful” the information is would entirely be up to the developers and the context of each puzzle, so I’m not dictating difficulty one way or the other.  Or it could simply be optional, like I mentioned above.  And hey, there’s a chance to make the puzzles more complex if you’re not wasting choice dialogue opportunities on throwaway comments that say absolutely nothing. 

I never get caught up in the whole “dumbing down” issue, though, because I honestly don’t find all that many puzzles to be particularly “smart” to begin with.  And the ones that are smart would still be smart no matter what.

develin
Jul 24, 2012

While somewhat related, I miss the ability to solve problems in multiple ways among your improvement suggestions. Why can I pop the balloon with a needle, but not with a fork, knife or handgun ?

If developers consequently went for each puzzle through the inventory, try to figure out as many successful steps as possible and pick at least the most likely and simple to implement that would be a HUGE step forward.

The consequences would be less linear games, which has its benefits (e.g. an increased replay value) but also story telling problems, although actually I personally believe that it would just kick a lot of the bad crutches from under them.

Bluddy
Jul 27, 2012

Loved the article.

I’ve mostly moved away from the adventure genre because I found it to be too limited. For those familiar with OO programming, puzzles almost fall into design pattern categories: how many times have you had a puzzle where someone is guarding something and you have to distract the guard to get the thing or get through? Or where you give something to someone and they give you something back? I feel that leaving text behind has severely hurt graphical adventures, because all the interactions we get now are ‘use visible thing on visible thing/person’ or ‘click on text to get some info from person’. The verbs are too limited. Myst innovated in this regard by creating (or refining) the verb of ‘push button here, push button there, and try to figure out how this works’, but this is hard to pull off in an organic manner in most adventure games.

In any case, I feel adventure games need to move in the direction of other genres: There needs to be an understanding of the feedback that a player needs to keep being involved. Ideally, what you want is a layered game. You can solve the puzzles the easy way to get some content and get through the game, or you can put in extra effort and get the bonus content. Most puzzles should be layered this way, because some people really enjoy the difficult puzzles, and others enjoy the story. So why not satisfy both camps?

Blah
Jul 28, 2012

While trying to avoid getting involved in other issues…
I feel a lot of this would be helped by proper playtesting. This could reduce a lot of the problematic aspects. If the playtesters find a puzzle (or the “answer”) bad or incomprehensible, it can be changed before the final game is released. If they ask why the umbrella or a source of water can’t be used, lines explaining why can be added. It could be done at a fairly early “design” stage with only rough graphics, no voices, etc. If it was also done when the game is basically finished, it’d also help the problems of bad translation, spelling/grammar errors, voice acting mishaps, etc…
Yes, it may add to the cost and delay releases, but it’d result in a much better game overall.

Beacon
Jul 29, 2012

Making AGs with realtime 3d engines would help in this area.  As all objects are rendered in game, It is only a matter of internal programming to add whatever interactions are needed.  You don’t need to make dozens of animations or backgrounds to cover all of the permutations.  It’s all handled by the engine for you.

aries323
Aug 3, 2012

Resources - and many or much of them - come to mind. AGs with realtime 3D engines are very expensive to make, and as such needs to make sure to sell a lot of games, so that the publishers and game developers get their invested money back. Frogware’s newer Sherlock Holmes games do partly or all of what Jack Allin suggests, as I see it.

jthwilliams
Aug 5, 2012

Very good article and very good points.  It would be fairly easy for the system to organically track how many failed attempts a user had made to solve a puzzle or to combine images and provide more hints on how to solve that particular puzzle.  This wouldn’t work in every game, but you could certainly make a very approachable adventure game.  It could even adjust difficulty based on the behaviors of the player.

MoonBird MoonBird
Sep 5, 2012

In some games this problem has been eliminated cleaverly: For example last two black mirrors, book of unwritten tales etc. had a feature when sensible solutions were hilighted in the cursor. Saves nerves from “this doesn’t work” - kind of crap.

somanycrimes
Mar 5, 2013

Great article. As a mystery writer, I’m very keen on the psychology of clues. I think people are definitely wrong to think it will make things easier. It will make things FAIRER, for sure, but a well-worded clue doesn’t have to scream out the answer. And if it does… well then the puzzle needs redesigning. Adventure game designers need to get into the mystery writing habit: CLUES ARE PART OF THE PUZZLE. They’re not an optional extra.

I wonder if the problem is that by the time the game goes for testing, the writers have already been packed off? (Or maybe testing is just of the exhaustive “try everything on everything” approach to search for bugs)

I think it’s a mistake to assume that the writers can anticipate what wrong solutions people will come up with. What there should be is an opportunity for people to play the game and give comments along the lines of “I tried X, and I thought it would work because Y”

Then the designers could go back and add the necessary clues.



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