Sticking It Out

direct vs. indirect controls

What’s interesting about adventure games is where the fun is. If you take a game like Super Mario, the fun is happening on the screen. Jumping precision, timing, speed, planning – there’s an interplay between the player and the game, and what the player is mastering is the game’s controls. I suppose you could say the fun is happening on the controller. Ideal gameplay for a platformer is one where you barely think about the controller though; it should feel like an extension of your body, and it works best when you don’t feel any distance between the actions you want to take and executing them on the screen.

What’s curious about adventure games in the interface is actually very clumsy. There’s nothing pleasurable about the interface itself, it usually feels like a big wall between yourself and the game. You don’t move the character, you usually move a mouse and tell the character where to go. That step that, in a good platformer, should feel nonexistent (the controls, the step between you and the gameplay), here that’s most of the game. You linger over a scene dragging the cursor around, wondering what to click.

That wondering is actually where the game is happening. You’re thinking about a puzzle. You’ve been presented with a problem and you’re trying to think of solutions. The wrong way to play an adventure game (and the wrong way to design an adventure game) is mechanically; just trying every action possible on every game object until the solution appears. That’s playing it like it’s a platformer, where you combat an unknown problem with all your moves to see what works. The right way to design and play an adventure game is to sit and think about a puzzle, to not even try something until you have an idea. You shouldn’t brute-force a puzzle in an adventure game.

What’s odd about adventure games is that the fun is mostly happening in your mind.

So I’ve been thinking about how to design for that kind of gameplay, once I put my finger on what was different about it. Mario can land on a Koopa at a dozen different angles and still pop it out of its shell… or eat the Koopa with Yoshi, or avoid the Koopa entirely, or hit the Koopa with another Koopa’s shell. In an adventure game, there is usually only one solution. Or if there’s a second, it’s as specific as the first. There’s not a lot of room for personal style in adventure games.

The naming is key: narratively, a character comes up against an obstacle and solves it with ingenuity. In the story, the character came up with a solution to a problem, on that worked, out of an infinite number of things he or she could have tried. This one worked, and was idiosyncratic to that character. Maybe another character in this situation would have thought of something else. But from a player’s standpoint, there is no realm of possibilities. There is one solution. That’s why we call it a puzzle.


Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is not a perfect book. I like a lot of what he has to say, but his understanding of scientific reasoning is, well, dodgy. He uses too few case studies to make points about huge populations and conflates correlation with causation. But there’s still a lot of interesting stuff to think about in it.

In one chapter, he talks about how long people work on a problem before giving up. And studies imply that the longer you work on a problem, the more likely you are to find the solution. The question is at what point you give up.

The central case study here is a woman named Renee. A Berkeley professor, Alan Schoenfield, was doing a study on how long adults will work on a problem before finding the solution. Renee is trying to draw a vertical line on a rise-over-run graph, which is impossible. They have a video tape of her trying larger and larger values for Y and getting closer and closer to vertical, but every time she doubles a number she only gets closer to vertical by half. Then she realizes that for a line to be vertical, the run would have to be zero, and that would mean dividing by zero. And she has the “eureka!” moment that adventure game designers crave, she exclaims “The slope of a vertical line is undefined. Ahhhh. That means something now. I won’t forget that!”

Gladwell writes

Twenty-two minutes pass from the moment Renee begins playing with the computer program to the moment she says, “Ahhhh. That means something now.” That’s a long time. “This is eighth-grade mathematics,” Schoenfield said. “If I put the average eighth grader in the same position as Renee, I’m guessing that after the first few attempts, they would have said, ‘I don’t get it. I need you to explain it.'” Schoenfield once asked a group of high school students how long they would work on a homework questions before they concluded it was too hard for them ever to solve. Their answers ranged from thirty seconds to five minutes, with the average answer two minutes.

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, p. 245

That’s the difference between wanting the answer and wanting to find the answer.

puzzle design

The pleasures to be found in an adventure game are almost entirely in that “eureka!” moment. It’s not the same pleasure you get from mastering the controls in Mario; it’s not about controls at all. It’s about problem solving, and that pleasure comes from there being only one solution and having to deduce it from whatever clues are handy. You make a puzzle where you have to bribe a character not to pause and go to GameFAQs. You have to stress that it’s only fun if they figure it out themselves.

Which, of course, means, you have to design puzzles that are difficult without being obscure. I remember feeling guilt when I was younger and I’d look up the solutions to puzzles in an adventure game, thinking “God, I would have solved that if I’d just used everything on everything.” It didn’t occur to me til later that if the only way to solve a puzzle is to brute-force it, then it’s a bad puzzle. Now if I go to GameFAQs more than a couple times, I usually give up on the game.

The push and pull in an adventure game is that the player is hopefully engrossed in the story, and is tempted to go to GameFAQs just because they want to see what happens next. They don’t want to be stalled. A puzzle needs to be part of the story, not a pause in it. And the puzzle can’t simply be an obstacle, it has to be fun to solve. An adventure game has the advantage of using almost any mechanics it wants for a puzzle; you can use as many different kinds of logic as you can fit into your engine for each and every obstacle. The mechanics themselves have to be enjoyable. The puzzle has to be stitched into the story in a satisfying way – ideally, in a way where the act of solving it progresses the plot or reveals character, so that seeking out the solution online would actually rob you of some character development or wrinkle in the story.

But a puzzle also has to stand on its own. It has to be enjoyable enough to fiddle with for a while. The most important way to keep people from looking up the solution is to just make messing with the puzzle fun. Wrong solutions should clue you into the right one, but should also simply be entertaining. It has to be a puzzle that someone might enjoy divorced from the plot, but is enriched by the plot.

This is not an easy thing to do, but the quest for the perfect puzzle is more important than the puzzle itself being perfect. It’s why I struggle on.


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