Puzzle solutions that the authors didn't intend (rant)

Most games don’t have the kind of mechanics in which unintended interactions can be (a) plausible in the game world (b) desired by the player © compatible with the author’s intent for the overall game design.

Thus, we are discussing games which do.

Couldn’t this also be done by creating rules? For example, if I need to get into a locked door, most games have an A + B = C result. A is the key, B is the lock, C is the open door. An emergent way of dealing with this might be X + B = C, where X is anything that is heavy enough to break the lock. It could be a rock you picked up earlier in the game, an axe you found behind the toolshed, or the key that opens the lock, or the well placed kick of the player – if they have the appropriate strength, which could also be determined by other factors, such as not being ill, or by increasing a skill, or whatever. This isn’t exactly emergent – but it could be, if you had to combine the use of the rock, which wasn’t strong enough to bust the lock, alongside a strength potion the player just drank. The combination would equal enough force to bust the lock – so a solution created by the player, based on values inherent in the rock, the lock, and the potion.

One of the design goals in Calm was to enable somewhat emergent solutions to puzzles. There are three different starting points in the game, and various ways of increasing calm and motivation. As such, almost every puzzle in the main part of the game can be reached with different items in one’s inventory, and differen game-critical stats.

This is achieved by having most puzzles require solutions using items with certain properties or combinations of properties (sharp, large, screwdriver, hard, soft, edible, pry-bar, tasty, rope, hook etc.). So, a butter knife might be, in game terms, usable as a hard screwdriver (you can unscrew hinges and break windows with it), while a mattress is large (which limits the ways you can haul it) and, like the doormat, a smothering item for getting over barb-wire. There’s a whole bunch of different items with varying combinations of properties, some of which are only available if you start in certain places. All parts of the game are accessible no matter where you come in from, but the exact ways players solve the puzzles and the order in which they explore the open-world will give them different options.

I think there’s a lot of scope in this approach: if we ever bring out another release, I’d probably increase the number of ways you can lose items, to force more variety in the player’s solutions.

Yes – you made the point better than I did. I get frustrated in games when only one solution is available, even though common sense points out other ones. Mechanically, it’s more difficult to implement this, but once the structure is in place, this could actually open up more puzzle opportunities, and make the player feel like they have actual control over the world – which is way more immersive, and open-ended, allowing for more unique play-throughs.

True, Calm is a great example. I did feel a bit lost as a player because of all the possibilities, which goes against my whole point. But I definitely felt that there were different ways of accomplishing goals, by taking advantage of different properties of items.

Mind, Calm did get me very frustrated when I completely failed to

make a swing out of a wooden plank

but that’s only one instance.

If you like that sort of thing, Craftian, I’d recommend giving Calm a play. As Peter hints, it wasn’t a complete success in all aspects-- perhaps a tad over-ambitious for the time we allowed ourselves, but it has a very consistent world model that allows players a large degree of agency over how they resolve puzzles.

I will! This is something I’m interested in, because I’m trying to see how people tackle the issue of how to pace a story while reaching bottleneck points. Having 10 different ways to open a door might not be a good solution for certain instances. What I’m trying to solve is the problem where – especially in an action sequence – you run into a locked door or bottleneck, the NPCs run out of things to say, and you’ve tried everything you can to open the door, and the pacing grinds to a halt. I think there’s a few things that motivate people to keep playing a game, and I’ve looked at where I normally hit “quit”, vs “trying one more thing.” Normally, I quit when the pacing of the story is out of phase with the pacing of the game. If you can try one more thing to open the door, and keep getting a 100% failure rate for each try, then the pacing slows. The traditional way is to have good implementation, where the majority of things you try have good reasons for failure, and maybe there is only one way through, but the failures are interesting, and time in some way moves forward. I’m looking at the other solution, which is to have more choices, based on object physics and properties. Having 3 ways to open the door (break it down, lockpick it, find the key) create a 30% ratio of success – so more ways for the player to “try one more thing”, and get there, before the pacing slows.

I found a really good blog about this, from Frictional Games:

It’s been a while since I played Christminster, but are you referring to

the toffee? It’s wasn’t in your handbag; the busker’s a magician.

Also, I never played them, but didn’t Magnetic Scrolls games have a more simulation-y definition that was more amenable to emergent solutions?

Oh, well that’s more acceptable, if hardly more fair to the player from the perspective of being able to predict the effects of your actions.

You can get as many toffees as you want from the magician. Just give the old one to the Constable and he’ll eat it, then go back and give the magician the handbag again. He’ll make another one “appear” from the bag for you.