Locked in room with NPC - one exit on asking


My game is designed to be fairly open world, but at one point the player is temporarily transferred to a new region. There’s one puzzle across two rooms after the exit from the first room, but this first room contains an NPC and a hidden exit. This is designed to push an important narrative, and talking to the NPC assists in the narrative development. The room has nothing to examine or pick up, it’s just you and the NPC, although random descriptions of the room are generated every few turns (these don’t pertain to anything specific, they’re more for atmosphere). The NPC isn’t random, they’re central to the game, but this is the first time you meet them.

This room is locked. They can’t return from where they just came and the player can only move forward once they have asked about any of a few specific topics. These topics seem obvious to me but just in case the player gets stuck, I’ve included some hints and many variables in the NPC’s response to make it dynamic. Indeed, the player will miss most of the responses if they guess the topic quickly enough, but they’re in there to keep things stimulating. Even the ‘i don’t understand that question’ NPC response has many random alternatives. I’ve tried to make this as dynamic as possible.

Finally, just to make sure the player doesn’t get completely stuck, I’ve included an NPC response after 30 turns to unlock the exit.

My question is, how realistic is this scenario in terms of game design and game play? Could this be a bottleneck where a player may give up, despite all the text to keep things entertaining? Is unlocking the exit automatically after 30 turns reasonable? To be clear, this room doesn’t contain the puzzle, that’s in the next two rooms and the NPC follows them, so conversation with the NPC can continue if necessary. Maybe an alternative is to unlock the exit after just a few turns and encourage the player to continue talking to the NPC as they start tackling the puzzle?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and insight, thanks.


I think Being Coy, which is what I’d call this strategy, can be a dangerous one in a conversation system where the player can enter anything, if you’re not directing them to what may be acceptable. If they don’t enter what you think is obvious, they could be stuck and angrified. That would probably happen to me. It’s why I mostly don’t play games where I have to use ask/tell, and come up with topics myself… But that also makes me not the target audience. You don’t have to cater for people who don’t even like this system, just make it work for ones who do.

It’s not impossible you could do it this really sophisticated way you suggested where you let them continue after a few turns, and let the NPC conversation continue. In theory I view that as harder to deliver well, but it makes sure no player will be stuck.

Safer overall I think would just to be less coy. You either direct the player explicitly towards the subject matter they will need to talk about going in, or just before they go in, or make the NPC much less coy. The NPC themselves can be directing players the right way with their responses to attempts that aren’t going that way.

Beware attempts to entertain when players are stuck :slight_smile: They would much rather have guidance towards the right way, rather than 15 variations on ‘I didn’t understand’, which are likely to only increase frustration at that moment.



Generally it seems reasonable, though 30 turns can feel quite slow if a player’s struggling - I think your idea of bumping the automatic progression down to 10 makes sense.

In general though this is the kind of situation where five hours of theoretical musing is worth less than five minutes of testing, so this would be a sequence to pay close attention to once you’ve got some testers’ transcripts, IMO.

Edit: I was cross-posting with Wade, and I definitely agree with his points - I think from your write up I assumed the topics would be pretty clear, but that’s often an area where what seems clear to the author will be lost on players. And that thing about different non-helpful responses not necessarily being a positive is very true - depending on how exactly they’re being used, they can wind up making players think they’re doing something effective when they’re not (there’s a lot to be said for the default responses since they communicate the player’s probably on the wrong track). So stuff to keep in mind!


My motto is “always be on the player’s side”. If you’re making a puzzle gauntlet specifically for hardcore puzzlists that’s one thing; if you’re telling a story whose pacing or momentum or player fun is at risk because you want them to solve this one puzzle and they’re stuck until it happens, you risk breaking immersion if there’s a sense the game is stalling or ad-libbing to give the player time to figure it out and that doesn’t always work well in a serious game. Of course this itself can be funny depending on the games sense of meta-humor.

One of the most fun things about IF is solving a puzzle and feeling smart. One cool variation of this is simulating a difficult puzzle with full intention you’re going to let the player solve it quickly, but make it seem much more difficult than it is. Don’t be afraid to be a generous evil genius and let the player think they’ve outsmarted you - “Golly, gee, you solved my most difficult puzzle on the first try (because I arranged it so you would…muahahahah)”

If the player has one chance to cut a red, blue, or green wire to defuse a bomb, you can get all the same drama out of letting the right wire be whichever one they choose so the story continues. If they happened to look at the bomb defusing manual they’ll feel they solved it. If they cut the right wire by “luck” (author arranged) that’s also satisfying. If they get it wrong and have to reload to choose a different random wire, that is not so satisfying.


Thank you for your feedback, much appreciated. I guess I posted this question because I have my suspicions this is a potential bottleneck that could frustrate the player. Until I get it tested by others I’m second-guessing, but the points you all make are a great help.

What’s making this difficult to balance is that I intentionally set my game out to be verbose, knowing that this may alienate players who just want sparse description with puzzle after puzzle, but be more appealing to players who like a solid story arc. Perhaps I am getting lost in the detail. At the moment most of my game is puzzle after puzzle because I’ve been concentrating on the mechanics and neglecting the story, so maybe this is me getting the balance of the story wrong. So far it begins puzzle heavy, then there’s a solid chunk of story (as per the NPC, above), then lots more puzzles, then a return to the NPC for more story-filling, and so on.

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The approach that I normally take (both as player and author) is to TALK TO the NPC, then ASK NPC ABOUT anything they mention, somewhat like a detective interviewing a suspect.

Rather than automatically opening the exit after 30 moves and the player not knowing why that occurred, you might be better off keeping track of the significant things that the NPC has mentioned and remind the player that the NPC mentioned those things after (say) 5 moves and prompt them to ask about those things.


“Demonboy” and mine’s handling of NPC and narrative, has points of contact and of difference. The point of contact are that the NPC assist in narrative dev, and are central to the story, and was the first convo between them, then the NPC became a follower.

The main point of divergence is that the convo isn’t puzzle-related, but story-related, and is a major shift in the narrative, and the minor (?) detail that the location isn’t exactly devoid of things to examine

I settled for a “guided” conversation, using TADS3’s suggestedTopic mechanism (ISTR that also Inform 7/10 has a similiar mechanism, but in an contrib library…) keeping for the the player the freedom of asking non-suggested but logical and expectable, either with an answer or a “let’s talk about this later” stock message if the topic isn’t consistent with the situation.

in my specific, I disagree with severed hand, because “being coy”, or more exactly, cautious and oblique gives a naturalness, so to speak, to the guided conversation, the PC sorting in his mind what question can be reasonably asked (players of The Portrait should know that indeed the PC’s situation is rather unusual…)

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.