Broken Puzzles, and How Bad is it to Frustrate the Player?

So, I’m thinking of adding in a puzzle that doesn’t, technically, “work”, to prompt the player to get an item for later in the game. You need it to continue anyways, presumably, so in game mechanics it isn’t all that “broken”, but in game it’s like “this item doesn’t work as intended – you decide to just wing it and struggle through anyways.”

And, I can’t help wondering – how frustrating is this, actually, to a player? My own answer is “pretty dang frustrating”, but I can’t help thinking… is it really such a bad thing to get them a bit upset, if there’s a point involved in the end? If there’s another point to having the item?

And if it’s still pretty bad, is there a way to mitigate it? Does the character get frustrated, too? Do you use it to point out another important item? Is there something you can do to soften the blow?

Well, if it’s something like this:

That’s not so bad for me as a player–the game has clearly signaled that I didn’t mess up and that I am proceeding the way I’m supposed to, even if the way I’m proceeding isn’t exactly the way I expected the key to help me proceed. Some far more estimable IF people are much more annoyed than I am about game design that gates progress by “You try X and it fails and then Y happens by coincidence,” so you might want to watch out for that.

On the other hand, this:

is something I find frustrating, and the far more likely:

makes me want to break things. So, you know, give immediate feedback that the thing the player tried (which is what they were supposed to try!) didn’t work because it’s not going to work and they’re not supposed to even be able to solve that puzzle, but they did make progress and they should be able to do other things now, and that will reduce the frustration factor a lot. IMO.

Edited to add: The best way to test how frustrating your design is is to have someone else beta-test it. Is their transcript filled with obscenities at this point? Too frustrating.

Hmm, okay then – I’m probably not too bad off, then, especially if I leave in the ability to brute force the puzzle open before hand. I mean, it might still irritate people, but at least it doesn’t come off as cheap. Thanks for the perspective, I’ll keep that in mind when working on this one.

I’ve got to wonder though – if the player character is getting irritated too, does that make the situation more “okay”? It’s not a blank slate character just doing nothing as they try a key over and over. That’s one of the ways I’m fixing my situation – a sort of “this is stupid – anyone could notice it’s stupid – and you’re supposed to be upset”. It’s a situation where you agree with the main character on something, and I think that’s a good thing, and I think that mitigates the cost a little.

I don’t know. There’s a certain acceptable amount of frustration that goes into any puzzly game–it’s not fun if there isn’t something to push back on. But if I’m getting really irritated as the player, and the game is also telling me “This is irritating!”, I may wind up thinking “It appears the author knows this is irritating, so why didn’t they make it not irritating instead of hanging a lampshade on it?”

You might want to look at the 2010 IFComp game “Heated” and some of the reviews of it for some examples here. That’s a game where a primary mechanism is the PC getting frustrated, and the game was kind of frustrating too, and well, you can see the various reactions people had. (Oh dear, I remembered this from the comments.) And I guess Bureaucracy had a similar mechanism, and there’s a legendary puzzle in Hitchhiker’s Guide that’s kind of like that, but I’ve never actually played those.

As long as your narrative is sound and the game doesn’t somehow focus the player on an unwinnable puzzle without providing other obvious paths to take, a “red herring” puzzle isn’t unheard of.

The one I currently can remember is in Ryan Veeder’s THE STATUE GOT ME HIGH which seems to set up a logic puzzle which involves placing guests at a table based on detailed preferences of who they are friends and enemies with, and spatial preferences. The puzzle has nothing to do with the plot and only serves to give the player some initial motivation that is quickly thwarted.