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A more “open” puzzle design?

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Inspired both by two articles by Jack Allin If Not Puzzles… What? and The Negative Psychology of No, but also from games i have played, and different posts in this forum (if you believe i have reused one of your ideas, you are probably right), i have for a while been thinking about what is wrong with Adventure games, and more importantly what can be done to fix it.

I believe that at least part of the solution, is to use a more open puzzle design. Let me explain what i mean by this, by giving you some examples.

Lets imagine that we have a classical Agatha Christie murder mystery, during the game we have to investigate different places, talk to suspects and/or witnesses, find a lot of different clues, and solve a multitude of more or less well designed puzzles. When we have done all this, the brilliant detective will then gather all the suspects, reconstruct the crime based on a shard of glass, a document found in a safe, and a dead rat in the kitchen, and conclude that it was done by Colonel Mustard in the Library with a Candlestick.

So what is wrong with that?

What is wrong is that it is not me the player, but the brilliant detective the protagonist, that solved the case, it was him that concluded from a shard of glass, a document found in a safe, and a dead rat in the kitchen, that it was done by Colonel Mustard in the Library with a Candlestick. Whereas we the players are tasked with solving the more mundane cases of spotting the glass shard on the beach, finding a way to open a safe, and getting past the angry chef in the kitchen.

But what if we turn that upside down?
What if the players are given the option that anytime we want, and not when the game or the designers decide that we have found all the evidence, we can call all the suspects into the library and try to reconstruct the crime based on the evidence we have found. If our reconstruction is accurate and we have enough evidence to prove our case, then the case is solved and the game is finished Smile
If however our reconstruction is not accurate or we haven’t found enough evidence to support our claim, then we have failed Frown
Obviously there need to be some form of punishment for failing, otherwise people will just try to guess the solution, but i don’t think the game should end with failure, or we should be forced to reload a saved game.

The point is, that not only is it now us that have solved case, but we can also solve it many different ways, react to our suspicions and ignore some lines of investigation in favor of those we believe is the most likely perpetrators, instead of just following the narrow path that the designers planned, we could even solve the case in a way the designers didn’t even imagine.

There could also be different difficult settings in the game, and depending of the chosen difficulty, the requirements for precision (but not accuracy) in your reconstruction, and the amount of evidence you need to support it, can vary.

Lets try with another and less extreme example.

In the most recent Sherlock Holmes games, there is a deduction board where you have to deduce different things based on the evidence you have collected. A brilliant idea, but there is one major problem with the way it is implemented, and that is that if you get it right Holmes will say something like “That is right”, and if you get it wrong he will say something like “That can’t be right”, but this reduces the brilliant idea to just yet another puzzle, with a right and wrong solution. And once again, it is not us that is actually solving the case, Holmes already know the correct answer and is just testing us too see if we can also come to the right conclusion.

But what if we “open up” the deduction board, what if we remove this right or wrong answer, and have many plausible conclusion, many solutions that aren’t complete gibberish but still only one that is actually correct, and then let us discover for our self whether or not the conclusion we have reached is also correct.
Why not send us on a “wild goose chase” if we get it wrong. If we conclude that something has happened in a abandoned warehouse by the wharf, then why not let us examine it, and only after meticulously examining the warehouse with a magnifying glass, and discovering that there is absolutely nothing to discover, let us conclude that we must have made a mistake on the deduction board. (Or let Holmes make this conclusion, if you want to make it a bit easier for the player.)

Even though the deduction board is unique for the Sherlock Holmes games, or other kinds of detective games, then i think the same principle can be applied to most games.

Continued on next post

     

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Continued

Lets try with an example of a more stand alone puzzle.

There are many games where you have to hack into a computer, or something similar, usually it works something like this: 1) Taped to the bottom of a drawer you find a note saying something like “My password is the name of my great grandfather + the number of statues in the garden”. 2) You have to find a book containing a family tree, and you have to click on all the statues in the garden. 3) You click on the computer and the protagonist automatically type in the password.

But what if we simply let the player type in any password he or she wishes, what if we remove the note taped to the bottom of the drawer, and instead let the password be something that is easier to guess, like “Sarah” the name of her daughter. If i know that she has a daughter name Sarah and i believe she is the kind of user who would chose her daughters name as a password, then i can just type it in without any further fuss.
If i however doesn’t know her daughters name is Sarah, or i haven’t guessed she would use that as a password, then i would still need to search for clues, but the clues should then be more subtle like a picture of a women on her desk, but without the normal caption “My daughter Sarah”, or there could be many subtle clues scattered around. If i recognize the women as her daughter and know she is named Sarah, then i would probably try that as the password, but if i don’t know that, then i will need to do some further investigation. It might not even be possible for me to guess the password at this time, because i haven’t met the daughter yet.

At first glance it looks like i have just made the puzzle easier, because the password is easier to guess. But that is not the case, guessing someones password from subtle clues is actually more difficult then finding a note taped to the bottom of a drawer, finding a book with a family tree, and counting the number of statues in the garden.

More importantly this type of puzzles allows for multiple solutions, without the designers having to predict everything the player might try, and without actually building in multiple solutions in the puzzle.
As long as i type in the correct password, then the game doesn’t care how i guessed it. I might just have type in a list of random women names, until i by pure chance hit the right one.

The point of this whole post, is that i want to get away from this narrow path that the designers have designed, and allow us the players, to actually play the game in whatever way we wish, and solve the puzzle the best way we can. But also to give us back the feeling that it is us that are playing the game, and that we are not just helping the protagonist.

I don’t claim that my suggestions will solve everything, but i do believe that it will help.

But enough about what i believe, what do you think?

     

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I called it more “creative” puzzle, but yeah, I agree with you. Wink

     

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diego - 04 March 2013 06:39 PM

I called it more “creative” puzzle, but yeah, I agree with you. Wink

yea right  how cute

     

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diego - 04 March 2013 06:39 PM

I called it more “creative” puzzle, but yeah, I agree with you. Wink

I remember that thread, and especially my 3rd example with the computer, was very heavily inspired by your post.

In fact it was mainly that thread i was referring to when i wrote “if you believe i have reused one of your ideas, you are probably right”

Thx for inspiring me Innocent
(even if i didn’t quite saw the light back then)

     

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I definitely prefer, in cases like the computer password puzzle you mentioned, that the correct answer can be entered by the player, and the game will recognize it as correct regardless of what steps you took to get there. It makes the game a bit more immersive, IMHO.

The other possibility that you posit would not be the WORST thing, of course. If it is made clear that you need to enter a password, and you aren’t given a chance to manually type it, but clues to what the password IS are given, at least then you know what you are supposed to do, and there is unlikely to be a situation where you feel you know the answer but just can’t get it to work.

The worst possibility, IMHO, is a horrible melding of the two, where you ARE given the opportunity to type it in manually, but it will only acknowledge the correct answer as correct if you have completed certain tasks before hand. I don’t care how obscure the password may seem, if I am given the opportunity to type it in manually, the game BETTER accept the correct answer whether I have followed the same chain of reasoning they expect me to or not. If I’ve learned the name of some of the person’s family members, and decide to just type them each in to see if they work, the right one better work even if I haven’t yet found the clue that is supposed to tell me which one is the right one.

     
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That’s alright, and you brought to light some points I forgot to mention in that thread - it’s crucial that we, as players, feel like we’re the one solving the puzzle. Of course, that doesn’t apply completely to “interactive-movie” type of games, like Dreamfall or Fahrenheit, because accent in those games is not on puzzle-solving.

I like your “Poirot” example, and “detective games” are indeed the first thing I think when speaking of “open” or, creative kind of puzzles. However, the main problem with that concept is that it’s very hard to design right. The Last Express, although rather in design than puzzles department, could fall into that concept, and still there will be players who’re not satisfied with some issues, like that you can die or fail constantly throughout the game.


As for the deduction board in Frogwares’ titles, I think they came closest to the “open” and “creative” concept in Silver Earring. Because, in every next installment you CAN brute-force the deduction board, and not only that - you can solve it with trial&error; and few mouse clicks, without the need to actually read any of its stuff. Only in Silver Earring the game forces you to think creatively while solving it. Of course, both concepts have it’s pros/cons (like, the difficulty of the Silver Earring example might put many people off) but again, it needs to be designed right and even more importantly - fun, meaning the whole story behind the puzzle should motivate me to tackle the puzzle properly.

     

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Mister Ed - 04 March 2013 07:36 PM

... if I am given the opportunity to type it in manually, the game BETTER accept the correct answer whether I have followed the same chain of reasoning they expect me to or not.

That is the whole point of my post, that you the player don’t have to follow the chain of reasoning they expect you to, but can have your own chain of reasoning!

     

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Iznogood - 04 March 2013 07:45 PM
Mister Ed - 04 March 2013 07:36 PM

... if I am given the opportunity to type it in manually, the game BETTER accept the correct answer whether I have followed the same chain of reasoning they expect me to or not.

That is the whole point of my post, that you the player don’t have to follow the chain of reasoning they expect you to, but can have your own chain of reasoning!

Right. I’m agreeing with that. What I was trying to point out is just that the less open design is preferable to a badly implemented “open” design, IMHO. Guess that’s kind of obvious, sorry for the sidetrack.

     
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diego - 04 March 2013 07:44 PM

I like your “Poirot” example, and “detective games” are indeed the first thing I think when speaking of “open” or, creative kind of puzzles. However, the main problem with that concept is that it’s very hard to design right…

That is true, but i believe that it is possible to get it right.

My Poirot example might be a bit extreme, and any developers that might want to make the transition into this kind of game, would probably be well advised to do this in baby-steps. But i see it as the ultimate goal.

     

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Mister Ed - 04 March 2013 07:52 PM

Right. I’m agreeing with that. What I was trying to point out is just that the less open design is preferable to a badly implemented “open” design, IMHO. Guess that’s kind of obvious, sorry for the sidetrack.

That is no a sidetrack, it is actually a very valid point.

     

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Isn’t there a lot of danger that “open” puzzles wind up being overly difficult?
It’s fun to be able to solve things for ourselves, but we’re not Sherlock Holmes. Not every one of us is going to be able to deduce how the (often creative) crimes happened, based on some very unrelated looking evidence.
Guidance is going to be needed, and even that is difficult to implement, because there’s a fine line between slightly nudging you in the right direction, and simply spoiling too much (negating the entire purpose of solving things by yourself).

I’m just saying that the entire concept of “open” puzzles is going to be extremely hard - if not impossible - to implement correctly. No matter what the approach, it’s always going to be too easy for some, and too hard for others.
Open puzzles will tend to be on the harder end of the spectrum, potentially being too hard to attract a lot of new gamers to our genre…
And I’m not really sure that that’s going to be the right approach for longevity in our genre’s popularity (which should be one of the primary concerns)...

If this happens, it’s really going to have to be in baby steps, and preferably even with a (not overly steep) learning curve within a single game…

     

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Resonance has a number of quite elaborate (and fair) hacking puzzles, and one of them (in the police station) is quite similar to the example you give. The password is the name of the officer’s secret cop girlfriend, and in order to guess that you have to discover that they’re dating, which you can do in a couple of ways. If I remember correctly, there’s also another solution in case you miss the clues.

I’m not sure there’s anything revolutionary about it. If you have to guess a password, you need to have clues, otherwise it’s not really a puzzle. And then it’s just a matter of how obvious you make the clues. Making the clues more obscure makes the puzzle more difficult, giving several different clues to the same solution makes it easier. It might help you balance it for more players, but it doesn’t really change the experience.

As for making the puzzle space more “open” and letting players make more mistakes, walk down blind alleys etc., I think it’s mostly going to make it way easier to get lost. It’ll be like all those text adventures where you accidentally drop or destroy some random object that you needed at some much later point in the game: you have no idea what’s gone wrong because the space of possibilities is so large, so you end up completely stuck.

The idea of meticulously searching a possible crime scene, coming up empty-handed, and not knowing whether it’s because you’re on the wrong track or you just missed something, does that really sound like fun to you?

The problem with detective mystery games, fundamentally, is that as stories, they’re driven by the mystery, which means you can’t reveal the solution until close to the end, or you deflate all the tension (or change into a different type of story). This makes it difficult to have the player actually solving the case. (This is basically why the Watson-type character exists in the first place, as a way to tell the story of a baffling mystery and the brilliant detective work that solved it while withholding the solution until the very end.) I do think it’s possible to do, but it requires a very specific structure of twist upon twist upon twist that is gradually unraveled.

     
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TimovieMan - 04 March 2013 08:42 PM

Isn’t there a lot of danger that “open” puzzles wind up being overly difficult?

Not necessarily, it all depends on how difficult you make the game, and you can also make easy games this way.

What it however will require is a new kind of thinking from our point of view, we are so used to the traditional way of solving puzzles and the conventions of AG, that we almost automatically solve even relative difficult puzzles, simply because we recognize the puzzle design, and know we have to use something in our inventory on some object or ...

But for someone who has never played an AG, it might actually be easier, because it focuses on the things that are intuitively important, like solving the murder, instead of solving some more or less obscure mini-game. 

     

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I agree with you to a certain extent. Certainly more open puzzles would be fun, but I can certainly see why they are not used.

Maybe baby steps would be better and start off with simple multiple solution puzzles. For example need to get into a club. You could bride the guard, but he gets upset and won’t talk to you any more. You could blackmail the guard because you found out somthing about him from the butcher down the street. You could knock out the guard with that mustard gas you made or you could break a window round the back and by pass the guard all together.

The problem with these types of things is that the more option you put into it the more variables there are in the game and the more dialogue, story parts, animations etc etc you need to build into the game that most people will never see.

     

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After a brisk nap - 04 March 2013 08:54 PM

I’m not sure there’s anything revolutionary about it. If you have to guess a password, you need to have clues, otherwise it’s not really a puzzle. And then it’s just a matter of how obvious you make the clues. Making the clues more obscure makes the puzzle more difficult, giving several different clues to the same solution makes it easier. It might help you balance it for more players, but it doesn’t really change the experience.

I am not claiming that everything i wrote is revolutionary, and not seen or discussed before. Also my main point is not so much in the password puzzle, that is just the smallest baby-step you can take, in order to reach my Poirot example. Also i do believe it changes the experience, perhaps only in a small and subtle way but still ...

After a brisk nap - 04 March 2013 08:54 PM

As for making the puzzle space more “open” and letting players make more mistakes, walk down blind alleys etc., I think it’s mostly going to make it way easier to get lost…

There are challenges that has to be overcome in the design, one of the more obvious is that you have to make sure that the players don’t get lost or completely stuck, but that is also one of the big challenges in the current AG design. It might emphasize the problem because we will get stuck in a new way, but it won’t necessarily increase the problem. 

After a brisk nap - 04 March 2013 08:54 PM

The idea of meticulously searching a possible crime scene, coming up empty-handed, and not knowing whether it’s because you’re on the wrong track or you just missed something, does that really sound like fun to you?

No but that is also the point, it is not meant to be funny, you are meant to be punished for your stupidity not being a great detective, by having to do some leg-work instead simply because you are an idiot failed to do the brain-work. Of course after a while it has to become obvious that you are on the wrong track, otherwise it would be terrible.

This is also not my own idea, i have just adopted it. In The Secret World there are investigation quests that work similar to puzzles in AG. In one of the early ones, it works almost exactly like i described, if you get your thinking wrong, you are sent on a wild goose chase, and only after you have first decoded the place you need to investigate, and actually investigated the place, only then are you even allowed to redo you thinking. (I would omit the last part, and allow you to rethink things anytime you want).

After a brisk nap - 04 March 2013 08:54 PM

The problem with detective mystery games, fundamentally, is that as stories, they’re driven by the mystery, which means you can’t reveal the solution until close to the end…

The point is that i don’t want to be told the story, or at least not who the murderer is, i want to discover that for myself. But this is also a general challenge that exists in all interactive story telling.

Also not all games might be suited for a more open story, there are some stories that require a more sequential approach.


Edit: doesn’t the strike feature work?, i tried to use it, and it add line shifts every time.
Edit Edit: solved, thx TimovieMan

     

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