How can game writers play more games?

There was a time when I played a lot of games, without hints or only using them sparingly. When I was younger, had more free time, and wasn’t working on a game of my own. At a certain point I felt like that experience wasn’t helping me to be a better writer - yes, writers should read a lot, but that’s still no substitute for writing, and then comparing what you’ve written to things you liked reading (or playing).

By the way, I can’t stop thinking about this cool little sticker from street artist Curly:

I think that’s a very fair observation.

I will pretend I didn’t notice the smiley and dispute this; a hint that takes me halfway to the solution can still leave me the experience of solving the puzzle. Even when I need all the hints, there’s some use to the puzzle if it makes me think, “Oh, that’s clever, I should have thought of it.” And if that doesn’t happen when I see the hints, well, the purpose of the puzzle is already defeated without the hints.

One reason for puzzles is to verify comprehension. Did the player understand how the story world works? Did she see all the important pieces of information she needs to see in order to grasp the plot?

In those cases, it isn’t always vitally important that the player come up with all the answers herself, only that she knows what they are before proceeding. (From the author’s point of view, anyway. Individual players may feel it’s no fun to use hints, which is totally valid.)

I used to agree to that…

…and then I started playing Heist. It’s currently on hold, but man, that prologue was hard, and solving it gave me satisfaction like you wouldn’t believe. It really made me feel good to solve those puzzles by myself!

This is, of course, not the puzzle-for-comprehension, but rather the puzzle-for,-er,-for-being-a-puzzle,-really. The one you do have to solve.

Matt: I used to think that, too. But more often, by the time I get to the hints, I’m already tired, and I already exhausted my venues…

…which, incidently, used to be the standard; nowadays, the standard seem to be “I’m stuck and I can’t proceed, I need a hint”, rather than “I’m stuck and I tried lots of things, many of them quite clever, I’ve had small breaktrhoughs, but I’m still too stuck to make it on my own and need a damn hint”…

…and if the hint leads me somewhere I pointedly don’t like (case in point, “A Flustered Duck”, which I finished today and which has a couple of puzzles I deem bad), I’ll feel even worse. And if the hint was of the sort where I could have figured it out if I’d tried a bit harder, that’s no good either, because I did NOT figure it out, I had to ask for a hint.

What would be best, rather than a hinting system (though there should always be a hinting system!), would be just good design. Make sure your players know what’s important and what’s note. What they should focus on. For this reason, while I appreciate a good red herring that’s there to make the game world more colourful, they tend to grate my nerves more and more and more.

And I’ve derailed this a bit, I guess. Sorry!

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Bumping and further derailing; I don’t know if I disagree that much. But part of this is different playstyles, and I’m going to insist that my playstyle isn’t inferior. (Not that I think you’re saying this, but I think that there’s sometimes a bit of residual condescension to people who use hints – for instance that message in a standard hint extension that suggests you turn hints off so as not to ruin the experience.) I play these games for enjoyment, more or less, and while a certain level of frustration is essential to the enjoyment past a certain point it gets to be just frustrating. If I use a hint when I’m stuck but before I’ve completely stopped having fun, and the solution makes me say “Ah, clever” – well, maybe the puzzle hasn’t completely served its purpose for me, but it’s somewhat served its purpose.

“Flustered Duck” is a case in point. I played it and enjoyed it (except for some of the proverbially annoying parts where you have to repeatedly do things that take nine or ten commands), because I realized early on that I would never be able to do most of those puzzles on my own

around when you have to search your own room to find the saddle that you use to ride your pig into town everyday, and it was one of the days when I’ve forgotten that “search” is a thing you sometimes have to do

but I was still able to get some of them with use of the hint system. Not being worn out by the time I hit the hints was a blessing there. Also Jim has said that AFD is a parody of IF, so the unfair puzzles are part of that experience I think, plus as Jenni says in that link above sometimes it seems as though he writes games in order to showcase his hint systems in which case if you don’t use the hints you really aren’t getting the experience.

Of course good design is good design, but it’s simply impossible for the author to make sure that the player always knows what’s important and what isn’t. It’s the reverse of the read-the-author’s-mind puzzle; the author can’t read the player’s mind. Sometimes a player may pick up on the wrong thing and spend fifty turns experimenting with something that’s supposed to be used in a completely different way, and there’s nothing the author can do about that – where a gentle nudge from a hint could put the player on the right path.

To pick on Counterfeit Monkey (because it’s what I’m playing now, and because asking for a hint requires going to the forum; please be understood that it’s awesome and in most of these cases I’m not even complaining), there was one time I needed a hint because I just couldn’t visualize a puzzle or what was required

freeing the protesters from the tree, where I didn’t realize who I was close to and who I was far from and was trying a wordplay-based solution instead of just realizing I could grab the restoration rifle

there was at least one puzzle where a clever bit of design that primes you for the right solution led me completely up the garden path, because I forgot that there was an object tucked away in the corner of the map that would work

I had turned the preamps into a ream, and when it came time to fill the printer I knew I needed a ream, but I thought the thing to do was to get the ream from the bookstore and had forgotten about the cream in the fridge

–where, by the way, getting a hint that tells you where to look for something is so much rewarding than doing a sweep of an enormous map to find it, which just seems like busywork (the excellent GO TO system saved me from that recently, when I knew there had to be a certain thing somewhere on the map but didn’t know where

the chair, to make hair

)-- and then another where I was just confused about how the puzzle worked, and remain a little confused after finding the solution without a hint

from the example in Waterstone’s paper about asses and donkeys, I had thought that the thing to do was somehow to convince him that the cock could be called a “rooster.” I would dearly love to have been able to write “ROOSTER” on a piece of paper and put it up against his window. Yet somehow the solution was to come up with another ordinary object that combines two smutty names; but it’s not clear to me how that suits his purpose

so that in this case a hint would actually give me more comprehension than solving the puzzle on my own did.

So, in short: Going to the hints isn’t so bad. Especially because IF puzzles are more riddles than logic problems, where the rules are out in the open and the solution is always completely fair. There’s just no way to guarantee fairness in most IF puzzles, so there needs to be an out for the people who can’t get it. Which is not so different from what you said, again.

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Yeah, I sympathize.

I did try to think about how to make a good auto-hint system for CM, but the range of possible puzzle solutions, and the sheer difficulty of checking whether or not the player currently had something that could solve the problem (or once was something that could solve the problem, or could be turned into something that could solve the problem, or the player had at some point seen and then left behind something that could solve the problem…) was very daunting. Bronze does all this automatically, but Bronze doesn’t have a world model where items are being swapped out for one another constantly.

I realized after a few days of prototyping on CM that even my best-case theory for how to do it was going to have a huge performance hit, and that insisting on doing a full flexible hint system (and then testing to make sure it actually works, because nothing sucks worse than a hint system that tells you the wrong hint) would most likely postpone the game’s release by months or years, because my time to work on it at all comes along sporadically.

Well, I’m not complaining! You’ve been very responsive on your blog, and the community has been responsive on the forum thread here, so I’ve never had to wait long for a hint I needed – in fact on every occasion deciding I needed the hint took longer than getting it once I asked for it.

As I said, CM is on my mind because I’m playing it, and also it’s surely the puzzliest game I’ve got this far without using the hints for more than, oh, 40% of the puzzles at least. I’m much better at wordplay than at IF.

I’m just not as good as I used to be. It doesn’t really bother me that I have to use hints to finish most games now. I recall finishing many of the harder Infocom games without help, but I’ve destroyed a lot of brain cells since the '80’s. Currently I have more time for playing than writing, but that’s mainly because I’m a lousy programmer, and the game I have in my mind is rather daunting.

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