[Game Design] Keys and Locks

Let’s say I have 3 different sectors which are accessible from a central beginning point.

I see the need for the player to have multiple solutions to the puzzles in each sector, and to be able to complete the tasks in any order they choose.

But I also want to avoid requiring the player to have a “key” from one sector to open the “lock” in another sector. (Although some old school designers might say, “Well, it serves you right. Sorry, now you can’t win.”)

So my question is this: Should I place the “keys” to the “locks” in each of the individual sectors?

What are the (i.e., your) current viewpoints on this scenario? Please share your thoughts here.

Thanks in advance,

I may be misunderstanding your set-up, but if you want the player to travel freely, why have “locked” areas at all? Or if they are unavailable until a task is accomplished, you could make up all sorts of reasons why a player can’t go into an area yet that don’t involve physical mechanisms like keys.

I think what you’re asking about is “gating,” where you keep the player confined to certain areas until they learn certain things or do certain things. With careful thought, you can gate your areas appropriately so that the player doesn’t get caught in an unwinnable state. You can do this with NPCs that give you answers or objects when you’ve asked the right questions or solved the right riddles. You can do it with obstacles to be overcome or threats that need to be neutralized.

And of course, you can always just fall back on magical rules-- you can’t go here until you discover the magic word!

I am wholeheartedly in support of kinder games that don’t put the player in an unwinnable position, so I applaud you putting thought into a graceful way to do this.


Thanks for your thoughts! :smiley:

Let me clarify: The player can choose whatever unvisited sector she’d like to explore from the initial location.

I’m thinking that preventing re-entry to completed quest areas would counteract the typical time travel story that we see these days: “I’ll just go back and keep trying until I get it right.”

Consider it lending a sense of finality to the adventure. And maybe a dose of adulthood reality. :scream: :wink: :grin:

(For the record, I’m aiming at something in the neighborhood of Infocom’s “Wishbringer” for novice players.)


P.S. Magic word. :rofl:

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In the introduction the player finds one foozle. A foozle is an object that opens a arbitrary door/magical portal/time gate/whatever, but as part of its operation it disintegrates/deactivates/runs out of batteries and is therefore unable to open any further doors/portals/gateways.

Each area contains an additional foozle and/or a set of batteries for the existing foozle, allowing the player to open one additional, arbitrary, door/portal/gateway.


The classic model for this is “The Three Trials” in Secret of Monkey Island. The player has to complete all three trials to become a pirate, but they’re all mini-adventure sections that are not dependent on each other and can be worked on in any order or simultaneously.

Technically this is just a wide and expansive gate and key, but the point is to avoid getting the player to any situation where they only have one thing they can do to progress and risk them giving up if they get stuck.

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The only reason for having barriers at all is to lock off some parts of the game. If you want the player to solve anything in any order, then don’t have barriers.

The “key” to unlock the barrier can be left in plain sight (not so good) or require solving one or more puzzles (better). There are multiple ways to place the keys. The best way to do this is a design decision that’s up to you. The possible solutions are:

  • Don’t have any barriers at all.
  • Have one skeleton key that unlocks all the areas. The player can then choose which of the unlocked areas to solve in which order.
  • Have one key to unlock the first area, then another key to unlock the other two. The player can then choose which of the remaining two areas to solve in which order, perhaps involving puzzles that alternate between the two areas.
  • Have one key to unlock the first area, then a second key to unlock the second area and a third key to unlock the third area. This leads to a sequential solution, although there may be branching and alternatives within each area.

There are also variations on these, any or all of which can be incorporated in the same game.

Thanks, everyone, for your insightful comments! They’re a big help! :smiley:


No, the reason for having barriers is to pace or sequence access to some parts of the game.


Er, yeah, that’s what I meant…to temporarily lock off some parts of the game in order to pace or sequence access to those parts of the game.

Barriers usually present an opportunity for some interesting puzzles.