Puzzle v Plot

I’m sure everyone has a different opinion, so I guess this is more of a poll- but what do people prefer, the story-heavy IF, or the puzzle-heavy one.

For puzzle lovers, how important is the story? If you’re just thrown into the game Zork style with no explination, is that fine if the puzzles are well developed? What if the plot is against your moral code (you play an evil person or whatever).

For plot lovers, how important is the mechanics? If the choices you make don’t make any difference in the game, like Photopia, is that okay as long as the story is well developed? Would you get easily frustrated and quit a game if there were difficult puzzles involved?

I generally prefer story, if only because I suck at puzzles. Or I like puzzles I can deal with. If a game is going to be a story-free puzzlefest, it should at least get me from puzzle to puzzle quickly. I think this was part of the reason I like Gleaming the Verb better than other folks; at least it didn’t make me wander around a big map to find the word puzzles. Coincidentally, I was just playing Letters from Home, which was the opposite; a huge map I had to wander around to find the puzzles, though looking at the walkthrough revealed that “GO TO room” was implemented (it also revealed that there was a totally unclued bit of zarfian cruelty, where prematurely solving a puzzle locked off another one, but that’s another complaint).

Even in a puzzlefest, a story that violates my moral code is a problem. I was really put off by the part at the opening of Earl Grey where the game forces you to do something gratuitously nasty for no other reason than to allow the story to progress (and it then has unforeseeably horrible consequence) – that was part of the reason I gave up on it when the puzzles got really hard. (Though I also had problems with the puzzle design.) A Flustered Duck had something of that problem too, though for some reason I had a little less problem there – perhaps it established early on that the characters were pretty flat and the way to deal with them was through comic sociopathy, especially because they were often pretty horrible to the PC anyway. Also, what you do to the leprechauns is funny.

For story-centric games, I love Photopia, but I don’t think I’ve got as much out of any other game that railroads you to the same extent. I’d rather be allowed to discover things and move around on my own. (I didn’t feel railroaded in the same way in Rover’s Day Out, perhaps because you have freedom within the apartment even if you have a constrained list of tasks to do.) If there are difficult puzzles, I do get easily frustrated and consult the hints. Then I consult the walkthrough. Only then do I quit.

I think this is interesting. Do you feel the same way when reading fiction? Is it worse for first-person fiction? I generally only find morally objectionable behavior repugnant in fiction when it’s clear to me that the author intends me to be sympathetic to it. (Jerzy Kosinski is probably the most loathsome writer I can think of it in this regard, though there are lots of writers where it’s much worse, but I can’t take it seriously at all. Certain strands of American SF are clear offenders here.)

Have you played Varicella? If so, what did you think of it morally?

Both are bad. To me, IF is like a thriller where the puzzles are the culmination points. If there is too much plot between the puzzles, the game turns into an ordinary fiction. Then the author tries to make the few puzzles very elaborated and sucks badly at it. They won’t get elaborated this way, they only get complicated and boring. On the other hand, if there are too many puzzles the thriller turns into a scary movie. Then the puzzles get shallow and illogical.

Good IF has to maintain the balance between story and puzzles.

I like plot. Mechanics aren’t generally too important to me because I’m looking for I-F that engages my reader’s mind. I generally don’t care for linear narrative in I-F, esp. where the usual choices are whether and how much to explore. (Exploration feels like a side quest.) I want choices, that matter both in the large and in the small, including during the story not just at the climax or ending. Difficult puzzles turn me off.

Referencing past choices could be as simple as frequent and numerous if-statements that slip in an extra qualifying clause or so into otherwise static prose.

Best of Three did a good job of engaging my reader’s mind. And I’m not even sure what it means to engage such a thing, or what it entails. But it does feel different than “solving” things.

How so? Are the only two options a linear plot with puzzles and a linear plot?

I like to make choices in a story, or to explore it (literally or otherwise). I’d say the difference between IF and “static” fiction is whether or not I get to do anything meaningful in the story. That could be solving a difficult task in order to save the day, or it could be making a simple choice that will have serious ramifications in the characters’ lives.

Personally, I find that I don’t enjoy or have much of a knack for puzzles, so I tend to only wait a minute or so before turning to the hints. I want the story to keep going, and having to figure out how to make it keep going is not something that I enjoy.

I think this is depending solely on the reader’s perception of the work.

I try to dive into the story when I play IF, really become a part of it. That’s one of the reasons I like IF. For fictional books, the last time I’d dived into one was in my childhood. After that, diving into non-fictional books took over. If there is too few interaction, I fall back into an outsider’s view, just track the clues in the story and try to beat the puzzles a mechanical way. To me, more story has the odd effect of making me skip through it as fast as possible. It’s the same reason I usually don’t like to play a game again, even if it was really good.

So you are playing it just the opposite than I do. You like the possibility to fiddle with the game world. Am I right?

And it quotes itself: :ugeek:
“There are certain authors for whom I feel a great affinity, because in what they write
there is not only sense and information, but wit and warmth and personality, and all the
things that convey the whole of a person, not merely the mechanism of a mind.”

Yeah, I should be clearer here – I generally don’t have a problem with this in fiction, except in the sort of case you describe. Even when the author clearly does mean me to sympathize with a moral view that’s very different from mine, I can still find it bracing when it’s presented with enough complexity and force, for lack of a better word. I felt that way about The Golden Compass (but not the later books – I got turned off with “He is a murderer,” which seemed pretty cheap). Or in Gene Wolfe, a lot of his stories seem based on political views I strongly disagree with, but it doesn’t bother me with “The Hero as Werwolf” and “The Eyeflash Miracles” and does with “How the Whip Came Back” and “Petting Zoo.”

Also I think it’s less of a problem with the first person, because I can more easily treat that as the projection of a character – it creates a distance from me. The narrator can always be unreliable. Whereas in IF I’m actually doing it, so even with a sharply defined narrator I don’t have that distance.

I haven’t played Varicella (see sucking at puzzles, above), but I don’t think the morality would be a problem for me, because it’s clearly not endorsed. And I think there’s room for powerful moments in IF where you can trap the player into complicity with something awful the PC does. (The two best examples I can think of aren’t in textual IF – there’s one in the Trapped series of point-and-click games and there’s one in a puzzle platformer called “The Company of Myself.” I hear The Shadow of the Colossus is good at this too. “Backup” does something like this effectively, except it’s possible to evade doing the something awful, and “Slouching toward Bedlam” might’ve had that effect if I’d been able to figure out how to do anything besides get myself killed. Oh wait, “The Baron,” duh.)

The problem I have tends to be in puzzley games, where something repugnant has to happen to advance the plot. And it’s not that I think those authors have radically different moral systems from mine, except that Jim Aikin may genuinely be less fond of cute furry animals than I am. It’s that we’re supposed to ignore what’s going on for the sake of the puzzles. (Maybe not a coincidence that the protagonist of Earl Gray is an AFGNCAAP, and the protagonist of A Flustered Duck isn’t super deeply characterized, so I don’t even have that distance from them.) That sticks in my craw. The closest analogue in fiction is the brutal slapstick or humilation-based comedy you get in some movies, where you’re not really supposed to care about what happens to the characters, because it’s funny. Which it is, sometimes (and I did like some of the jokes in A Flustered Duck).

Maybe. I just don’t see that interaction has to mean puzzles.

(Just realised that you’re the Chancellor… or is it Yakra?)

My tastes of games changed when I started gamemastering GURPS instead of D&D. Without dragging the mechanics of those specific games into the argument, I’ll just say that I grew dissatisfied with D&D because the universe consisted of a known palette of approved monsters, each with known strengths and weaknesses, who were nearly always of a fixed alignment, with known treasure types.

At that time, I liked games of the predictable, almost autistically mechanical style, which mirrored the tactical certainties of D&D: if you have fire, then you can defeat trolls. If you fight zombies, don’t cast sleep. Certain strategies always worked in certain situations against certain enemies. Similarly, if you have the newspaper and the matches, then you can fly the balloon; if you have the lamp, you can go through the dark room.

GURPS could be filled with people — people with flaws, with weaknesses, with great strength of character, each of whom was different, with different motivations and equipment. The RPGs I ran for my players became less about how to get the Magic Trinket to defeat Enemy X, but how to gather allies against him; how to discove what Enemy X wants and why; how to interpret something mysterious that your friends or foes did. If you want Ally Y on your side, you must do A, B or C, but A is horrific, B is impossible, and C is conciliatory. What do you choose to do?

I began to prefer games like Baldur’s Gate over games like Diablo, where the game is as much about tactics as about political harmony within your team. It makes it more real, and more tense, to know that Edwin and Minsc will come to blows eventually if you try to put them together, or to know that sometimes there isn’t a happy ending where all of your followers get what they want.

I prefer people-puzzles to trinket-puzzles, I guess, because there’s more narrative strength in people. The newspaper doesn’t care if it gets burned or not.

I don’t think this has to be an either/or. I think generally, the puzzles should be in service to the plot. That is, they should be in character, make sense in the world, and reveal something about you or the story or the world. Thus, a “find the silver key for the silver door” puzzle is not a strong one unless says something.

There’s nothing wrong with a plot paying service to a mechanic - I think we’ve had strong examples of this, but it shouldn’t feel like the plot is merely there to service the mechanic. Violet was strongly puzzle heavy - the story is not terribly robust - but the puzzles all played into a sense of yourself, her, and your relationship. (Well, okay, many of the puzzles only did this tangentially through text, rather than directly through your actions, but still.)

A game world that feels solid is important to me, insofar as it helps my suspension of belief. Grammar, typos, responses to actions - all of these take me out of the experience. For me personally, getting hard stuck on a puzzle with no idea what to do is the same thing. It’s an irritation, not a bonus.

Good writing is something I sort of automatically lump into the story side of the equation, which I’m not sure is entirely fair. Often I think the “story” in a game is a scenario, but not one that’s taken anywhere. I’d like to see more games in which your actions do influence events, rather than you going through the motions of puzzles to get through the pre-determined plot. I think that’s a much more interesting direction than “now figure out how to open the vault with a stick of gum, a coke bottle, and three bars of sealing wax.”

If you’re interested in this kind of thing and you haven’t tried Make It Good, you should – it’s hard, and getting a “good” outcome is a prodigious amount of work, but it offers a very fluid world with responsive NPCs, where you can make your own complicated plans and watch them take effect. Of course, there’s a strong chance your plan will be thwarted by something you didn’t anticipate… but it doesn’t exactly feel like puzzle-solving in the usual sense.

I found this very interesting. In traditional fiction, the most distant POV is omniscient third person, then limited third. First person is generally one of the least distancing, the most personal. Here you’ve inverted it (yes?), treating first person as more distancing than omniscient third. And it makes sense to me: if I enter KILL KITTEN and an omniscient narrator non-person reports “The kitten dies,” I feel like a heel. But if the response to KILL KITTEN is a first person “‘And so it had to die. The little eyes, the pointy tail, the mewling: no longer would they mock me.’”, then I feel there is additional distance between my command and its result. I didn’t kill that kitten; the narrator did – you all heard him. The insertion of someone else’s voice in there explaining the result makes all the difference.

That contrast between int fic & trad fic I find really interesting.

(Did I, in fact, understand you correctly?)

Hmm. Maybe I got that wrong. Or it’s just that tggdan3 has asked the original question that way.

The Chancellor. I like him dropping his jaw when Chrono’s party escapes through the timehole before his eyes. All the other time he’s just obnoxious but in that scene he actually shows some real emotion. I never expected that to happen. Not that person. Not that way. Was a big laugh for me.

That is exactly what I meant about int fic, and in fact it applies even with a specifically characterized second-person PC, I think. Though I think even a very specifically characterized second-person PC wouldn’t wash away the bad taste of having to do something I dislike, which the author doesn’t mean me to take as a big deal – that’s more intimate than any degree of involvement with trad fic narrators, in a way. I can’t think of any specific examples I’ve played that have this problem, though, where the PC is much more finely drawn than in A Flustered Duck, say. (Maybe “Survive” from the JayIsGames comp, where I kept wanting to say, “Dude, the PC is a Nazi, I don’t particularly want him to escape,” but that game had enough other problems.)

About trad fic, I meant something pretty specific – that the first-person narrator gives me more distance from the author when the fiction seems to be expressing views that I find repugnant. The author gets more deniability when everything is filtered through a narrator than when obnoxious things are being said in a third-person omniscient voice. For example, I put down The House of Mirth when one character was described in a way that seemed pretty anti-Semitic (not that I didn’t mean to pick it up again, though I haven’t, but it was off-putting). If it had been written in the first person I’d have felt like Edith Wharton had some deniability about that description, but since it wasn’t I didn’t. (This was the “blond Jewish type” with “small sidelong eyes,” I think.)

This doesn’t mean that first person can’t be more intimate – when I read a first person narrative I may be more inclined to shout GET AWAY FROM ME YOU AWFUL PERSON than in a third-person narrative. Not sure. But that’ll be primarily a reaction to the character rather than the author, or at least the third person can give me that reaction to the author too.

Totally a tangent:

I’m afraid that particular characterization continues to be wince-worthy throughout the book. Which is a shame, because it’s otherwise a good story, and in other areas actively challenges contemporary prejudices about class and background.

I do mean to pick it back up sometime (if only to plunder the setting), it’s just that as a blondish Jewish type myself I needed to do something else for a little while after reading that passage.

Back to distancing. In books, we distinguish between omniscient third-person and tight third-person. The latter is from a particular character’s point of view (despite pronouns), it can include internal thoughts, and we expect it to reflect the character’s prejudices just like first-person.

When I play standard second-person IF, I process it the same way. Ditto when I write it. It is tight second-person. (I don’t think we have a model of omniscient second-person.)

I won’t deny that IF feels closer (because of the interactivity, not the pronouns) and it’s easier to be squicked by an action I’m typing in than by an action I’m reading. But I get thrown out of books, too, if I don’t like the protagonist. The difference is that I’m willing to finish the book (because skimming is low-effort), whereas I’m more likely to drop the IF as not worth the effort.

Well, some of Homestuck is written in this style. The first of today’s updates reads

[spoiler]But at the onset, you would know nothing of the queen’s aversion to an amphibious likeness, or about her orbs twelvefold, or any such details. You were informed of her disadvantage, and would act accordingly. You and your red teammates would work to dethrone the queen in your session, while the blue team members would take on the entirely separate set of royal adversaries in their own session. This was to be a competition, after all.

Or so you thought.[/spoiler]

(Spoilered in case anyone’s been following along and doesn’t want to read the update here. If you should read the spoiler and then go back and read Homestuck later, it won’t spoil anything, because it won’t make the slightest bit of sense until about two-thirds of the way through Act 5, by which time you will have forgotten it. That past sentence was not in omniscient second person. Also, I should say that Homestuck is a webcomic sort of thingy that’s a parody of adventure games of various sorts, because the last time I sent someone over there I think he tried to enter commands and got very confused, which also happened to me the first time I visited MS Paint adventures.)

Well, I don’t think it’s a question of disliking the protagonist, necessarily; Ruth Rendell has some books written (at least partly) from the third-person point of view of rather unlikeable serial killers, and while it’s deliberately an uncomfortable read, it doesn’t throw me out of the book. But actually having to type in their actions would be pretty unbearably squicky. Agreed that it’s not the pronouns, though.