Killing players.

From a design perspective, which of the three options do you all think work best?

Consider the following scenario: to get past a a hungry NPC, players could give the NPC either a regular apple, or a poison apple. The idea is that if the player gives the NPC the apple, the NPC will still be there guarding the same area when the player returns. If given the poison apple, the NPC would get sick, and not be there (the desired result). Here are three different ways I’ve thought about handling this:

  1. If the player gives the NPC the regular apple. end the game. This seems a little harsh because, at the time, it seems like a pretty logical choice.

  2. Prevent the player from giving the NPC the regular apple. This prevents you from putting the game in a later unwinnable state, but the thing is, it’s a logical action. Technically either apple would satisfy the NPC’s hunger, but only the poison one makes it to where he’s not around later, preventing your escape.

  3. Allow the player to give the regular apple to the NPC. This is the most “realistic” choice, but this puts the game in an unwinnable state at the halfway point, meaning players might play another 30 minutes only to discover their original blunder. I’m guessing most people wouldn’t care for that.

How have people handled this in the past, and what are your thoughts (as both authors and players) on these types of situations?

As a player, not an author:

01 doesn’t seem well-motivated, and is anyway functionally equivalent to 02. “After giving the guard the regular apple, end the story saying ‘you’re screwed, bub’.” The player will undo.

03 would fill me with blind rage, unless you’d already thoroughly established that it was easy to put the game an unwinnable state and you should be saving all the time… in which case I would probably have stopped playing. I don’t like messing around with save games, maybe more than other IF players.

Which leaves 02… except what I’d actually do is try to redesign the puzzle in a way that makes it clear what to do. Like have the NPC insist, out of politeness, that you also have something to eat. In which case it’d be perfectly well motivated to end the game if the player eats the poisoned apple. Is the problem that you need the unpoisoned apple for a later puzzle? Maybe give the player three apples, one of which the NPC eats, one of which the player eats, one of which remains.

It’d depend on the character and relations of the NPC – and this would make this an even nastier thing to do to the NPC – but that seems like it’d be more ideal.

Let me describe a better game scenario.

Consider a bank heist. Access to the bank’s vault is being blocked by a hungry guard, and the player possesses both a regular apple, and a poison apple. Since the guard is hungry, it stands to reason that he would accept either item. So the player gives the guard an apple, and is allowed to enter the vault. Inside the vault, an alarm sounds and the player must quickly escape. My idea was that if you had given the guard the regular apple, he would still be standing there and nab you – whereas had you given him the poison apple, he would have become sick and left his post.

(Also note that half the game takes place in the vault, so it’s not like players would die two moves later. It would be more like 30 or 40.)

If it helps, neither apple serves any purpose in the game except to solve this puzzle. Removing the regular apple is certainly an option.

Having the guard decline the regular apple is also an option, although it would take some creative writing to explain that one away. Then again, about 10 moves later the player will encounter an alien that looks like a cross between an octopus and a pizza, so I’ve got a little bit of creative leeway in the explanation department …

I’ve often though of such issues in a “Monkey Island vs Sierra” sort of vein. Briefly, for those who haven’t played either MI or Sierra games, in Monkey Island, you cannot die or put the game in an unwinnable state. In many Sierra games, you can die without any advance notice, and you can easily put the game in an unwinnable state in such a way that you don’t find out until much later.

When I played Monkey Island, I found I was saving my game out of habit only, really; with Sierra games, I saved often as a matter of necessity. Neither approach is, to me, ideal. With Monkey Island there’s never really any sense of tension. It’s more that you’re just solving puzzles. With Sierra, you can get into endless save-restore cycles as you are killed off in various ways. It’s not fun to replay a section of the game because of some random stupid death, or because you did something innocuous early on that happened to be the wrong thing to do. Of course, I enjoyed all of these games, in part because of the writing/story, puzzles, graphics, etc; so my criticism is only on a small part of the game.

So: I think it’s OK to kill a player or to put the game in an unwinnable state, but only if you do so reasonably. In your situation, if I know I’m robbing a bank, and I know there’s a hungry guard, and I know I have a poison apple, I don’t think it’s a stretch to penalize the player if he does not feed the guard the poison apple. In my mind, that is a reasonable puzzle: it’s not as though you didn’t know you’d need to incapacitate the guard.

Along the same line, I would not consider it evil if you are allowed to eat the apple yourself, putting the game in an unwinnable state. Innocuous things should not destroy the game, but going around eating everything you see, or chucking it into a chasm, or whatever, is just reckless behavior. More than once I’ve done something rash like that, and told myself it was probably not a good idea. If I recall properly, in Anchorhead, you can throw things into the swirling ocean patch off of the lighthouse. I tried that, and immediately felt that it was a stupid idea, because, why would you do that? It helps that Anchorhead featured a protagonist who performed, for the most part, reasonable actions, so when I did something “out of character”, it gave me pause. Good writing and a good story help!

The main problem, of course, is that there are differing ideas about what “reasonable” means!

3 would be the point where I would rage-quit, and complain bitterly to anyone within hearing distance.

I would want the effect to be immediately apparent (no going away and coming back), and I would only have the one apple (or a regular apple that you turn into a poison apple). Also, if we’re talking poison poison, a nonviolent solution would be nice (assuming the guard is a mere obstacle and it’s consistent with PC motivation, yada yada.)

That would make it a lot worse for me. (Especially because your 30 or 40 turns would probably be more like 150 for me, probably.) Rage depends more on the amount of time I’ve just wasted rather than with fairness of the puzzle.

Now if it was just a question of getting a bad ending instead of a good ending, I might find that kind of funny. The People’s Revolutionary Text Adventure Game did something like that – it was possible to lock yourself into a situation where you had to do something that led to a suboptimal ending (and was clearly marked as doing so). But it wasn’t like you were locked out of further progress in the game. One thing that helped was that there were multiple puzzle solutions, so there was some value in replaying for the better ending.

Anyway, if the unpoisoned apple is just a red herring, I’d definitely leave it out. (I also agree with gravel that it’d be nice to have it not be poison poison, or to have alternate solutions.)

I’d just have the guard eat the apple, but still refuse to let the player in, or - even better - make a second puzzle out of getting past him the second time.

I’m completely on the “LucasArts-side” with regards to cruelty to the player. I’m not good enough at solving puzzles to get any enjoyment from unwinnable states, and avoid those games if I can.

Puzzles with multiple solutions are always appreciated.

Alternately, make sure the “NPC catches you” ending is funny, fascinating, or otherwise satisfying enough that the player won’t mind that there was also a slightly more ideal resolution available. If replays aren’t too complex, even casual completionists will want to go back through and find all your AMUSING suggestions anyway.

TP’sRTA had the right idea: Solving the Monkey Island vs. Sierra problem involves allowing the player to make the game “unwinnable” only when doing so creates an interesting alternate to the conventional storyline. Only disallow an action or have it end the game immediately if it will destroy any hope of ending the narrative in an enjoyable way. If doing that action would just lead to a not-so-ideal ending, not-so-gently imply that much at the moment they do it… forbidding neither continued play nor a quick UNDO. If the action leads to a perfectly reasonable alternate ending, gently foreshadow its importance and carry on.

Perhaps if you feed the guard the regular apple, it necessitates a bit of combat with him that causes delay and makes it more likely the player is arrested.

When you give the guard the regular apple, flashing red letters should fill the screen, screaming ‘FUTURE IN JEOPARDY!!! FUTURE IN JEOPARDY!!!’

Less dumberly, I don’t think having the delayed unwinabble result is inherently bad, it’s just a fact that in 95% of contexts, it will piss players off. You either have to create a context for the whole game that’s amenable to this kind of savagery, or find a friendlier solution. Since it seems from this topic that you’re polling to see what people think of this situation, and what possible solutions might be, the whole vibe you’re giving off suggests you’re interested in finding the friendlier solution.

Somebody mentioned the fight with the guard. I think that kind of thing is a good strategy. If there’s a moment that must be handled in one way to avoid the unwinnable state, each time the player acts against it, throw up another situation immediately that needs dealing with , which may lead back to the thing you wanted them to do initially, or an equivalent. This will strongly suggest to them ‘YOU REALLY NEED TO DO THIS’…

If they go all out to fight against, say, 3 such ‘strong suggestion situations’ in a row, that demonstrates a bloody-mindedness on their part where you can say, ‘Well, now you deserver to lose…’ And perhaps the player who did that will actually not be so pissed off when they later hit the unwinnable state. After all, the game went all out to signal them, and for whatever reasons, they fobbed it off repeatedly. They may even smile ruefully.

  1. Allow the player to give the regular apple to the NPC. But the supply of apples is not limited to 1.

Poison apple makes escape easy. Non-poison apple makes escape more difficult. Neither need put the game in an unwinnable state.

yup, this is the best option, the guard is hungry and loves apples, he could eat tons of apple they are healty. No player should complain with this solution.

and… let the player eat apples as well, kill the player if he eats a poisoned apple.

The idea that a hungry guard would accept food from a stranger while on duty strikes me as completely ridiculous. If that isn’t the first thing they teach you in Vault Security 101, it’s surely somewhere on the syllabus.

I would recommend a puzzle more in keeping with the scenario. Perhaps the player could execute a hostage every turn until the guard surrenders? Or kidnap his wife and kids, or blackmail him with something sordid.

The problem with the choice of apple vs. poisoned apple is that it’s an exercise in reading the designer’s mind. It’s not an obvious choice to make and it’s not obvious what the repercussions will be either way. Punishing the player with an unwinnable state is not justified in those circumstances.

Boy, everybody’s hung up on the apples. I thought I kind of clarified that the apples were just an example in this scenario. My question has nothing to do with apples or poison – the question was and is, “should you allow a player to make a move that renders a game unbeatable, should you prevent the player from making such a move, or should you kill the player immediately for making such a move?” It really has nothing to do with apples. Next you guys are going to be worried that the guard may have dentures and the apple may hurt his dental work!

If it helps at all, the puzzle is about trying to bribe a guard (and no, it’s not at a bank). Of the two food items, one is candy, and the other is a rotten piece of food. When talking to the guard, it is revealed the brand of rotten food is indeed his favorite. Originally I was thinking that both pieces of food would get you past the hungry guard, but the rotten one would send the guard to the bathroom, which would help you return past the guard later. Based on this thread, I think what I will do is allow the guard to accept the candy, but not leave his post because of it.

I appreciate all the feedback and apologize if my scenario contained too many red herrings. If anyone, you guys will be the ones playing the game, so I didn’t want to spoil one of the puzzles by posting too many details!

You did. My answers were structural and in response to your core question; I don’t care about the apples any more than you do.

Yes. My answers stand. If they were unclear, I can simplify them for you. If you disagree with them, that’s fine, but they are responses to your actual question and would stand no matter what props you choose.

I think it is unfair to spring unmerciful game states on players without serious warning, preferably in the direct form of “You should know that this game can be made unwinnable.” either at game start or in the about text. Partly, this is because I am just that bad at puzzles; I don’t want to worry about doing the right thing and spoiling the game. An instant, undoable “game over” in case of a mistake is an acceptable substitution.

In the “overthinking it” category: I know it’s just a puzzle, but any food rotten enough to make you throw up is more likely than not rotten enough to detect by smell or taste. Real, undetectably food borne illness takes hours, usually a day, sometimes longer, to show up. Combined with the fact that the guard might naturally be suspicious if he ate something and immediately got sick, I’d actually expect this choice to make escape harder rather than easier.

Maybe one way to do this would be to make the magic piece of food a giant bag of Olestra-filled potato chips, or a really enormous box of chocolates, or something like that. By the time you come back, it’s empty and the guard’s in the bathroom. (This idea is inspired by a comic mystery story that I can’t find right now.)

Really, the more you describe it the less I’m convinced that you should have the other piece of candy. The puzzle structure is something like “There’s two things you can use to get past the guard, but using one puts the game in an unwinnable state that you’ll discover much later, and that object has no purpose other than to set this trap.” It sounds pretty cruel, unless the game has thoroughly set up the expectation that this sort of thing can happen. Puzzle-impaired folk like me often assume that if the game is letting us progress, we’ve done something right – that we’ll find some way to get past the guard even if it’s not obvious now.

(And I think I still subscribe to all my other remarks, especially the ones about The People’s Revolutionary Text Adventure Game and multiple solutions and why being locked out of the best ending there wasn’t so bad.)

If a game has unnatural barriers, I start playing it like a game designer, looking for ways to break it…I’d be the person who would have to try both pieces of food.
I like Ghalev and mattw’s suggestions for a fourth way. Playing games like Deus Ex where you don’t feel railroaded, there’s a bit of a thrill of agency and power.

Looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

Reminds me of the time when a kid I knew in school gave me some chocolates without mentioning that they were laxatives!

I’m dealing with questions like this in my WIP, and I’ve decided that the fair thing to do is let the player make the wrong choice, but fix their mistake later with an optional puzzle. I’m not totally happy with this, because I’d like it to be possible to “see” all the important parts of the game in one play-through – I’m not a fan of multiple endings. But I’m also not clever enough to design a nonlinear set of puzzles that all must be solved, while still preventing the player from getting stuck.