On the nature of puzzles and immersion

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on my experience with puzzles, particularly after having completed Delusions and John Saul’s Blackstone Chronicles (and Clock Tower: The First Fear yesterday, but that’s largely puzzleless so it doesn’t count). In this post are the conclusions to which I arrived. It’s all subjective stuff, but maybe it’ll come in useful. Sometime. For someone. Maybe.

By now, I pretty much take for granted that at some point in any given game I’m going to need clues, hints, a walkthrough. I’m going to resist it like hell, but eventually I’ll need them. And whether I go “Oh. I could have solved this on my own, if I’d thought about it” (Eric the Unready, Blackstone Chronicles) or “What? How was I supposed to guess THAT?” (Delusions), from then on I’ll pretty much follow the hints. I become dependent on them. I try to avoid them, I really do, but then timed puzzles start happening; possible dead ends; and I know that with just a couple of clicks I’ll relieve the anxiety of not knowing whether I can still beat the game, or whether I’m walking down a less-than-favourable path.

But this is to do with my relationship with puzzles. I’ve noticed a pattern in my game-playing.

When I begin a game, I’m all for it. I’m ready to explore, to tinker, to think analytically. That’s when I solve most puzzles. I’m still thinking of the game world as a diagram, of the objects as potential anythings and everythings. I’m fresh. I’m sparkling. And most of all, I’m not emotionally connected to the experience, though I may be immersed.

But here’s the thing. As the game goes on, I become more and more immersed. As Blackstone Chronicles went on and I started getting to know the inmates, and seeing what was forced upon them, I become emmotionally very involved. If the safe combination puzzle (and here’s a side-note about that sort of puzzle - I ABHOR it, because there’s been a trend, and I’m looking at YOU Black Dahlia, of hiding the safe combination amongts all sorts of numbers in all sorts of places with all sorts of “add first then subtract last then look at it upside down” shennanigas. When I find a safe, I automatically shudder, because I know there’re tons, TONS, of possible combinations, and unless the author TELLS me the combination I’m in for a lot of guesswork, finding birthdays. I mean, in Blackstone Chronicles, there were all these important days in Malcolm’s life! How was I to know which was the correct one!) had appeared at the beginning, maybe I’d have cracked it. Maybe. But when it does appear, and I’ve met so many of those people, and time is running out, and Joshua keeps calling for me to save him… I lose patience.

Similarly on the music box puzzle. I’m not going to stop to think that maybe opening the music box in front of the organist is a good idea, because I’ve met Abby and learned of his atrocious fate; because I’ve just narrowly escaped a deathtrap, and learned how all the other inmates died. I’m not thinking logically, I’m thinking emotionally.

And that’s the way I WANT to think. If I’m going to start being logical at that point, I’m going to have to distance myself from the gane, risk breaking that emotional connection.

Mind you, looking at hints does not improve the emotional connection either.

In Delusions, I happen to completely agree with Plotkin. There’s tons and tons and tons of plot - I get swamped, and puzzles start to annoy me because I don’t even know in which direction to move (plus the computer GUI is the most cumbersome, unwieldy thing I’ve ever ever ever seen in IF). It’s even worse because I HAVE connected emotionally, but it’s not the puzzles that are stopping me - it’s the lack of direction.

So, do I mean that puzzles should be easier? Well, no. No, not at all. One of the biggest thrills was solving the elevator puzzle in Hollywood Hijinx, all by myself. But you see, HH does not exactly create an emotional experience. Same with… with… hang on, let me check.

Ah, here they are. “Aura: Fate of the Ages” and “Sentinel: Descendents in Time”. And I spotted “Shivers”, too, which I ALMOST finished when I was a kid (solved everything but the damn chinese checkers!). Those three games are quality puzzle-fests. They provide immersion, but little emotional connection. Your logic is never put in check by your emotions, and yet you are compelled to go on. Heck, that’s the secret behind Myst, I’m sure. And the reason why Phantasmagoria is such as easy game - the puzzles acknowledge that the player must stop thinking logically, because the story makes that happen.

Graham Nelson said, in his Craft of Adventure, that the endgame should be easier than the midgame - forcing a bottleneck, limiting the rooms and objects available. I’m not saying that the whole midgame should be easier too, but maybe it’s time to start thinking about the nature of the puzzles we’re using - adjusting the puzzles to the experience we want to give the player - , and how logically one must think to solve them. If I have to think too logically in a game where I’m too emotionally attached (heck, the Iron Maiden puzzle in Blackstone Chronicles - made worse by me not even understanding what some of those symbols were!), then I my enjoyment will decrease. I’m not even clear-headed at that point - I want to follow the story through. I’ve no objection to being thwarted by a puzzle, but by then my mind is formatted to certain patterns. I still want to solve puzzles, make connections, but not the kind of connections that force me to distance myself from the moment in the game I’m currently playing. For instance, the BACH puzzle in Blackstone was brilliant in that aspect, forcing me to think like the man who set that particular lock; piece, from his love of music, the correct numerical combination, all the while knowing that I had all the necessary information and needed only to stare at the lock and think. The “Rhinovirus” puzzle was not - it sent me on a wild goose chase, walking by all the rooms, hoping for something to click. Needless to say, I didn’t bother with it, especially not when I was so close to the endgame.

So this was my rant. I’d been wondering about my experiences with puzzles, my sucesses and failures, and finally arrived to this conclusion. Now, here’s the big question: am I talking sense?

Here’s another big question: has this all been covered somewhere before?


I’m sure this ground has been covered many times, but I hadn’t heard it before – except as frustrated whispers and exasperated sighs in my own mind.

I wouldn’t say (and I think you’re not saying) that puzzle-solving must needs detract from emotional involvement, but I do agree that some (kinds of?) puzzle tend to do just that, and that it’s a pity.

I am taking this to heart. One reason I’ve never made a game in the past is I find the design of puzzles intimidating. How could I tell if they were too easy or too hard? I’m going ahead now on a project, which I’m guessing is on the easy side, but I think tailoring the final puzzles to fit the player’s state of mind sounds like a good guideline.

Capmikee, I’m thinking about what you said about walk-throughs, and about all the games that I started and never was able to finish - the Infocom ones. When they first came out, I didn’t have access to the Invisi-clues, and I ultimately put them down until an ‘ah-ha’ moment (if it ever came).

To this day, my brain is wired in such a way that I can pick up the same game that I dead-ended on way back in the 80’s, and I’ll dead-end the same way again. It’s frustrating, but I don’t want to give up and go to a walk-through on these games. But only these games. Others (especially non-IF ones), I won’t hesitate to stop the insanity and ‘cheat’. Like you said, once the floodgates are open, it’s cheating from there on out.

Has the appearance of the Internet made us lazy players? Is the ease of an answer at our fingertips to much of a temptation? Can we not handle the idea of failure when it comes to gaming? I know that for gaming I have much less patience than I used to, so the idea appeals to me that a game should get easier as it progresses - which until I read this, the idea sounded insane to me.

In my opinion, make the game easier as it progresses. Don’t ruin the illusion of the world, don’t let the player lose the immersion. Make it so that ‘cheating’ is not necessary, but don’t tip your hand that the game is getting easier; it’s important to make the player feel like they are accomplishing something (seemingly difficult?) throughout the game to the end.

It’s interesting that this is much more infrequently a problem in action games, even those that are more story- and puzzle-oriented (Deus Ex, Portal). I think this may be because action games tend to have dynamic environments that draw the player’s attention to ‘where things are happening’ or ‘where I haven’t been yet’, where after arriving whatever action is underway makes it clear what needs to be done. Adventure games tend to have static environments that don’t change until the player figures out what to do. By their natures, a dynamic environment almost can’t help but clue you in while a static environment is likely to leave you floundering unless very well-designed.

Of course, many action games also to avoid this issue by having exposition fairies tell you what to do, and adventure games tend to shun that approach. I’m not sure I could think of a long list of adventure games with an equivalent of Polito in System Shock 2.

I think I was the one to talk about walkthroughs. :unamused:

Actually, I’ve just had a very interesting experience. I’ve just finished playing Leather Goddesses of Phobos, the Solid Gold version - i.e., the one with the hints built-in. I accessed the hints some times - the very first time just to make sure that I hadn’t put myself in an unwinnable situation (that damn barge…). Other times when I thought I’d finished a puzzle and nothing happened (the orphanage puzzle). And many times I came this close to revealing hints for something I was stuck on… and I always stopped myself and said “not until I’m sure I can’t work it out for myself”.

And here’s another interesting thing. If I’d been strapped to my PC, I would have given it up, and have most of the game unsolved. But I played it in ZaxMidlet, carrying it with me everywhere. Whenever I had some free time, I dabbled with it. I played it at different parts of the day, in different environments. Eventually, this relaxed state in a scavenger puzzlefest allowed me to solve practically all of the game by myself. Exceptions: the riddle, getting to the sultan’s palace (but then, as I realised later, the barge WASN’T the only way to do it), opening the door to the igloo (AFTER having solved the puzzle - it’s amazing how these little things thwart you), defeating the assassin, and of course I $CATACOMBed my way out of that maze as soon as I saw it. I’m not sorry, either - these were classic sticking points for me, and I’m pretty sure I would have been stuck in them too long for me to continue enjoying myself. The other puzzles? I had faith in them and in my abilities, and boy, neither disappointed.

A couple of personal observations:

 1.  If you have a friend who's also into IF, playing together can be productive.  Different people think in different ways, and a puzzle which seems impossible to you might be obvious to somebody else; even if its not obvious, by bringing different insights to the table you're more likely to reach the solution before frustration drives you to give it up.  The aphorism that "two heads are better than one" works here.

 2.  Early IF was often more free-form than some  more modern work.  Even if you ultimately had to do things in a particular order to "win" the game, in the early stages typically a number of puzzles presented themselves and if you got stumped on one you could always turn your attention to another for a while.  Thus, it was more likely that you could maintain a sense of making progress.  Later on, when you come back to the puzzle you temporarily abandoned, you might have learned additional things in the interim which help you solve it; even if not, just the exercise of clearing your mind by turning to something else might allow you to get an idea that you never thought of originally.  The more linear the plot structure, the less ability you have to do this, and the greater the likelihood of frustration.

 3.  To me, a "great" puzzle has the following characteristics:  You try some ideas; they don't work.  You try more things.  Eventually, you reach the point where you're tearing your hair out and cursing the day the author was born.  Eventually, you either solve it by brute force or you resort to the cheatbook.  And at that point, as soon as you get the answer, you hit yourself on the side of the head and say "Of course, it was so obvious!  I must have been an idiot not to see it!"

 Of course, I would not want to play a game where every puzzle was "great" in this sense.  I want a number of puzzles of varying levels of difficulty.  One "great" puzzle per game seems about right.

 What's a "terrible" puzzle?  It's just like a "great" puzzle until you get the solution -- at which point you either still don't understand it, or you do understand it but conclude that there was no way the player could have reasonably been expected to figure it out other than brute force or looking at the cheatbook.

 Robert Rothman

Of course. My apologies :blush:

Interesting. I hadn’t considered that the platform would assist with the avoidance of peeking for a hint. Perhaps it might be sufficient to make hints difficult enough to obtain to keep the player playing & not peeking. There have been attempts at this in the past, where a small hint is given and then it’s a matter of escalation (in various forms), but on the internet it seems that some things cannot be kept hidden.

Rothman: I always found the experience of IF most enjoyable as a single player, but that’s just me (and I do realise I’m a minority in this). As regards your other two points - 100% beyond you. In fact, those points sum up why I had so much FUN with both Hollywood Hijinx and Leather Goddesses. And Sorcerer, come to think of it. Aw heck, and most Infocom titles I’ve played so far.

I think I used hints too much with LGOP. The riddle was one of those puzzles where I thought to myself “I swear I already tried that one” - it was so obvious, and yet so cruel. But the catacombs - I think perhaps they were the most tedious maze ever invented. Nevertheless, I bullied my way through them without cheating. I have an inexplicable compulsion to carefully map mazes, and make sure I’ve visited every room. Having a partial map made it seem more reasonable, and I did a lot of copy-and-paste with long sets of commands.

I really like gradually revealed hints, culminating after ten hints or so in a conclusion. Jim Aikin’s hint systems are always superb in this way. Sometimes just seeing the hint topic will get me going by reminded me that I haven’t investigated some object, sometimes I need to see the whole thing (as in one puzzle from “A Flustered Duck” where the next-to-last hint was

“How do you turn left when you’re on a surfboard?”

to which my answer was “I have absolutely no idea”). And of course different people will have different reactions to those puzzles. Making hints difficult to access doesn’t work for me – the point-and-click game Machinarium did this, where you could get a complete walkthrough for a screen by playing a platform game that was so frustrating that I just looked for hints on the internet.

I like Robert’s definition of great and terrible puzzles. And I think Egon makes an interesting point about action games. For me, the thing about action games is that I often get the sense that I’m closer to my goal when I fail, so I’ll try again to get more practice. With IF, when I’m stuck I’m just stuck, and I can feel that I’m making no progress whatsoever. (Though I often get just plain stuck in action games, too.)

I’m almost ashamed to say how often I get stuck in action games because I can’t figure out where to go next. Only happened a few times in Portal, but I seem to have real problems with things like Half-Life 2. You’d think I would notice everything important playing on a 22" widescreen, but you’d be wrong. I do better in some respects with text adventures because I’m able to read and re-read and pick apart the sentences in a way I can’t do as easily (or at least, without getting bored) with a graphical game.