Negative Psychology of No

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. 

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Jack Allin
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