I’m working on a traditional parser game that takes place outdoors, specifically on a farm. The map includes boundaries: a highway, a barbed wire fence, an irrigation canal, and “infinite” fields of crops. These are the natural limits of the map; they exist to the keep the player centered on the story, which takes place in the dozen locations that represent the farm.
But I’m afraid that some players may interpret these boundaries as “locked door” puzzles and waste time trying to figure out how to overcome them. They may think that there’s a way to snip the barbed wire or bridge the canal or dash across the highway without getting hit by a truck.
What techniques do people use to signal the player that they are at the edge of the world rather than facing an obstacle to be overcome?
Every location on the map has interest and a purpose in the story. The character’s goal and motivation are spelled out explicitly in the prologue and the first few responses. But I’m afraid that if they get stuck at any point, they’re going to assume that they’re missing some key from beyond and waste time trying to find locations that just don’t exist.
There are two attractive nuisances that confound the issue.
The first is that the story begins at a corner of the map. There are obvious and tantalizing directions to go explore, but having two boundaries at the beginning feels like I’m teasing the user with puzzles they’ll want to return to.
The second nuisance is that the farm includes a locked house. The story requires visiting the locations that surround the house but not actually entering it. (The house is locked and the family is away until morning. You’re a farmhand who’s been asked to keep an eye on the farm for the night.) I’m afraid a locked house in the middle of the map screams, “Break into me, you kleptomaniacal vandal!” I wouldn’t mind if the player spends two or three turns trying to enter the house if they then realize it’s not going to happen and that’s not the point of the game.
Simply refuse. “Crossing the highway at night would be too dangerous.”
After suitable warning, kill the player who persists. “The irrigation canal isn’t deep, but you never did learn how to swim. You have drowned.”
Remind the player of urgent goals. “Shouldn’t you be figuring out how to keep that fox out of the hen house?”
Appeal to the character’s values. “Mr. MacDonald has been your employer and friend for years. Why would you try to break into his house now? Especially since he’s paying you time and a half for you to make sure nothing bad happens here tonight.”
Interrupt the attempt. “That big crow that’s been taunting you suddenly swoops down out of the dark sky and starts pecking at your skull, driving you north to the barn before vanishing again into the night.”
is fine for certain tones of story, but terrible for others. (I only use it for short, creepy ectocomp games where character death might add to the atmosphere.)
has the potential to be annoying, and it also suggests a puzzle more than a place the player shouldn’t bother with.
I usually just let the player know there’s nothing there. “It’s pitch dark on the other side of the road. Nothing but an empty field there, anyway.” “You’re not in the mood for a spontaneous swim, and besides, there’s nothing to see on the other side of the canal.” “The door is locked. That’s okay. Not much of interest inside MacDonald’s house apart from his collection of antique farm implements.”
As a player rather than an author (at least of games with maps), here’s how I’d probably react, in ascending order of preference:
This really seems like driving the crow away is a puzzle, unless there’s a really clear cue that it’s an immovable fixed guardian. (“The pasture is full of fifty psychotic bulls. There’s no way you’re going in there.”)
Again, seems like a puzzle, unless it’s a game of comically unfair deaths or a game where it was already really obvious you shouldn’t be crossing the canal. For most purposes, it’s probably more effective to redirect this to a refusal.
Can work and I’ve seen it a lot, particularly if the reminder is itself location-based. “There’s no reason to go into town when you’ve got a hen house to guard.”
Where appropriate can be good. Particularly with an explicit message. “If you can’t handle your chores without breaking into Mr. MacDonald’s farmhouse, your name’s not Ollie Bawncs.”
Usually seems good. Can be combined with 3. As Caleb says, it’s good to make sure that the message tells the player there’s nothing to see on the other side.
In general I would not worry about unsubtly smacking the player over the head with it. If it’s a puzzly game, I like being told firmly what I don’t have to worry about.
For open fields, just mention, you do not need to go that way (and do not take up a turn), unless death seems likely in that scenario in which case, you are now dead if you tried that. For locked doors, just mention that the door is locked; the player can figure out themself later on that they do not need to open it.
Some games state the nature of the barrier clearly: “This is the edge of the game world”.
You can use some other language more elegant than that, but I think it is better to use this kind of message. For example, Zelda Breath of the Wild use something like that, or you could add a “You can’t travel further.”
Also, you can state that those barriers are impossible to traverse: “It is too dangerous to cross the highway.” “No, the stream is too deep, you can drown”, etc. That would work, and it is not ambiguous.