I follow Ryan Veeder largely because I’m on the opposite end of some spectrums and it’s always interesting to see what he likes and makes and what parts are cool things that I wouldn’t have thought of and what parts just don’t work for me at all, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that I disagree here… sorta.
I think liking or disliking hidden gameplay dynamics is a personal thing that varies a LOT between people and it’s perfectly reasonable to get upset about it… for some values of upset. Obviously organizing review bombing or attacking the devs aren’t cool. But feeling misled when you thought the game was something you’d like and then finding out that it isn’t? Deciding that you don’t want to play any more of that dev’s games? Totally fair. Tipping over into “nobody should be allowed to make things I don’t like?” Not cool. But if you’re upset and your language shades towards “this is bad” as a shorthand for “I don’t like this; this didn’t work for me” I’m not going to worry much about that.
I think there are a bunch of factors. A couple that stick out to me:
Does the game or its marketing tell you that there are hidden depths?
As a farmer, I have enough uncertainty and “is this even a puzzle at all?” in my everyday life, where it’s interesting because it has real, deep reasons and consequences: I’m way less interested in the usually-shallow and meaningless human-constructed ones: if it’s supposed to be entertainment, I want to know what I’m getting into. But some people are exactly the opposite: they’re only interested in the uncertainty and exploration in a space where it’s explicitly play (a privilege thing? Who gets to play?).
And then there are games that depend for their interest on the twist or the surprise. Doki Doki Literature Club (though I’m not sure why that one was surprising to anyone: I thought it was super strongly telegraphed), or Frog Fractions or whatever. I don’t have much use for those but they’re also wildly popular.
Then there are things like Tunic, or Fez. Or The Witness. Those tend to really miss for me, but I know that up front, so I just don’t play them unless I’m in the mood. I grew up without almost any of the pop-culture things, so I enjoyed Fez well enough in the beginning until I got stuck on a puzzle where… I think it was an audio puzzle, and I’m very much a “computers should be seen and not heard” person, so I didn’t even have the audio on. And then you were supposed to… pick out the Zelda theme from under a bunch of random noise? And that would give you the clue to decipher the code. And I’m not at all sure I’d even recognize the Zelda theme if you outright played it to me. And I think I fell into that one through a deep hole, so I couldn’t even get out. I had to die and restart at the last checkpoint. So that felt totally unfair. But that kind of thing is very cool if you’re in the fandom: it was just unfair because I thought it was a self-contained puzzle game, not a pop-culture trivia one.
Is the game built around discovery?
Roguelikes tend to live in this space. NetHack, as Ryan said. Again, I’m way on one end. I enjoy roguelikes, but I’d enjoy them even more if they gave me the tools to practice the specific thing that I’m bad at sometimes instead of getting to practice it only the one run in twenty that the game actually throws up that situation. I’d enjoy them more if I got item descriptions and details, instead of having to try things out and potentially lose the run (which is one thing in 20-minute action-roguelikes like Spelunky or Nuclear Throne, another in longer ones like NetHack or ADOM). It’s… maybe it’s like character creation in RPGs: some people love spending time on that while I’m like “I don’t know what your story is about yet, how would I know what characters would fit? Just give me something good.” But mechanical comparing items and stuff, I love that. Give me that up front.
Long-form simulation games too: Dwarf Fortress, the Crusader Kings series. The Sims? I tend not to like these because the amount of surprise is too low. Some people live for the surprising interactions. I’m like “if you authored this I could have a cool surprising thing happen every half-hour instead of picking the one cool thing out of ten hours of boring repetitive play.” And it would probably be more surprising and interesting than the thing that occurred randomly. I don’t care if I’m the only one who’s ever seen this thing happen: I care if it’s interesting to me. Victor Gijsbers’s thoughts around Scents and Semiosis are very much how I feel about this (though ironically as a programmer I love making this stuff).
Broad vs. deep mechanics?
This is about puzzles specifically: you have things like… say, Braid, where the core mechanic (time rewinding) is actually kinda boring and there’s not much you can do with it. So the puzzles are all about adding other mechanics on top of that. And there are some that get layered throughout the game, but a lot of them are one and done: you get a new mechanic for every level and then you never see it again. Some people love that. Especially in the non-videogame puzzle space, like the custom sudoku community or the mystery hunt communities.
I don’t find it that interesting: I like puzzles where you take a simple set of mechanics and wring lots of interesting situations out of it. Slitherlink. The Swapper. In The Swapper there were two consecutive puzzles that looked almost exactly the same, but one had an extra step. And you had just barely managed to solve the previous one: how the heck are you going to solve this one? And then you notice the other small change that makes it possible and it feels cool: look at the subtleties of this mechanic. And you get better and better over the course of the game so you get to the end and look back at the beginning puzzles and think “how could I have struggled with that? Look how good I am now!”
Whereas in Braid… I know a lot of people got the “I felt stupid and then very smart” sensation, but for me, I’ve done enough puzzles that I could see that, say, these two consecutive puzzles look almost identical, but I can also see that the thing you need is carefully off-screen. So you’re not stupid, you just literally DO NOT HAVE the information you need to solve it. You have to guess. And the puzzle is set up so you can’t rewind, so if you guess wrong, you have to wait through all the menu animations to quit and reload and then walk your painfully slow-moving character through all the steps over again. That doesn’t make me feel stupid and then smart, it makes me feel ticked off at the !#@#?! designer.
And also with its single-use mechanics, it just felt like a random grab-bag of “guess which one it is this time!” and not like I was actually getting better. I’ve never played The Witness, but when it came out I watched the trailer and then spent 30 minutes brainstorming all the things I could think of to do with that mechanic, and then looked up a walkthrough and… I had thought of all but two of the things in the game? Which isn’t to say I could have designed the puzzles: no way. But the “lots of one-time variety” doesn’t really do much for me.
Is the game a deconstruction/parody? Do you know that?
I’ve been listening to Ryan and Sarah and Zach’s podcast about Earthbound, a game that I bounced off of several times. And I’ve finally gotten into the game a little. I still think it doesn’t work great for me, but I can see why it’s interesting. Because it’s playing with “what even is an RPG? What are the well-worn ruts that people fall into and how can we play with and subvert and joke about those expectations?” But for me it… well. As with Braid, I think a bunch of the things it does are just unfun and I would have left them out instead of putting them in for completeness.
So the puzzle where it matters where you stand when you talk to the NPC, which is… almost a one-off, as far as I’ve gotten. Like that would be cool if it was a thing that they played with regularly. And they do give you kind of a clue in the dialogue, and if you were looking at everything you might have noticed another instance nearby. Or… you might misunderstand the dialogue as meaning something totally different and have forgotten about the other instance of this behavior because you ran across it three hours ago (even though it’s right there) and it was only used in that one place.
The dungeon that’s just a simple annoying maze, with the NPC who’s like “I’m learning to make dungeons; what did you think, how did I do?” Which… ok, funny, but also just annoying and… why?
But when you approach it with “this is what the game is playing with” then it’s ok, I guess. And if you’re into that kind of thing it’s amazingly cool.
On which layers does your game give certainty vs. uncertainty?
Inkle’s just-released A Highland Song bills itself as a short pilgrimage, which makes it feel like a game that you’d play once. But then it’s almost more of a… roguelike exploration game? You’re meant to play it over and over to learn the surprisingly complex mechanics by trial and error. And if you get unlucky with the randomness and miss some subtle things you can have a very frustrating first (only?) run.
For instance, it only tutorializes some of the navigation mechanics. And some of the story events give you a very wrong impression about how the health mechanics work. Which fits with a roguelike “figure out the mechanics for yourself over multiple runs” but it feels unfair if you’re playing it just once to get your single story that you’ll take away as canonical. They add to the uncertainty of this trek through the unknown mountains, sure, but in a way that can feel much more unfair than atmospheric.
So where is the secret stuff hidden, and where are you on firm ground? Does your game communicate that to the player, or is it supposed to be part of the fun that anything could be shifting ground? Does the marketing communicate that to prospective players so they can avoid buying it if they don’t like that?
spoilered for those who like exploring mechanics
So it’s a parallax series of mountains that you traverse with 2D platforming/climbing mechanics. The landscape stays the same, but you find map fragments which unlock new paths and tunnels between parts of the landscape.
They tell you that if you go to a peak, you can flip through your journal and mark spots on the landscape where you think the map points to, and then go down to that location and confirm it. So a lot of times you’ll be struggling to find a way forward, you’ll discover a new map that points to a path right near where you are, and then, oh no! you have to dangerously climb back up to the peak in the rain and near-dark to point out the place and then come back to where you were to follow the path or shelter in the cave overnight. So what they don’t tell you, and the game kind of hides to avoid spoilers, is that if you’re standing on the spot, and you open your journal and flip to the correct map it’ll say “oh yeah, that’s the spot right here!” Which saves quite a lot of unnecessary and dangerous backtracking.
Similarly, your max health tends to go down over time. And they tell you that if you stay in a bothy or shed or house, you’ll recover some max health. But then of the early bothies that are easy to find, and lie along the route that the game kind of funnels you toward on a first run, a bunch of them have horrors inside that actually decrease your max health if you sleep there. So I spent nearly my whole first run thinking it was a kind of grinding horror game where you keep getting weaker and weaker and can you get to the sea before you die… and then I stayed in a good bothy and my max health went almost all the way back up. So it’s way more forgiving than the game made me think.
And there are single waist-high wooden posts sunk into the ground. And they don’t really stand out: there are lots of little rocks and trees and things, it’s easy to just think they’re scenery. But if you stop there for a second, you’ll realize that they’re a local path to a higher or lower ridge. So if you fail to notice that cue you’re in trouble. Similarly, you’ll often see a single deer grazing and those lead to the rhythm sections that take you on a run from one mountain to the next. But it is possible to go backwards to a previous mountain, and some of the sections you run right to go forward and some you run left. The game does kind of an amazing job of funneling you forward: I never went backwards by accident. But it’s easy to get lost, even if you have a pretty good sense of direction. So again, if you miss the cue that “the deer generally mark the path forward” then it’s easy to think that the left-facing ones lead backwards (especially because the first couple are to the right).
You probably remember the where will the little match girl travel next? puzzles. So on the seventh of those images, the one with the morse code and semaphore and braille characters… I like that. Because there are enough variety of symbols that I’m likely to recognize some of them even though I don’t do pop-culture stuff at all. And even if I don’t, there’s a good chance that I can recognize what kind of a puzzle it is and think, “OK, probably some of these symbols are an alphabet from some TV show that I’ve only vaguely heard of, like The Simpsons or Futurama or something.” And I know that I don’t have the knowledge to solve it, so I can decide to leave it for someone else or to switch it out for the different puzzle of “how do you search the web for an image?”
But then Ghost Train had me extremely frustrated because the form made me think it was a completely self-contained puzzle, like a word search crossed with an alphabet substitution cipher or something, when in fact it required pulling in outside information. And I actually did know the cultural stuff I needed, and it was a really cool puzzle once you saw it, I just… it felt like the puzzle was actively misleading me. I ain’t got time for that. Though again, many people in some of the puzzle cultures really really really love that stuff.
Ugh. I’m just rambling. I think it’s individual. I think one big thing is whether you’re looking to be surprised and delighted by anything, or if you’re looking for a more predictable experience where the surprises live within certain bounds. And how well the game communicates its expectations, so you can choose not to play the stuff you don’t like. And it gets especially tricky because there are genres where not knowing what you don’t know is the whole point.