When the player must have an object

Hey all–

I’m sure everyone has written or played a scenario in which a player needs an object for the rest of the game to run smoothly. In a “cruel” game, if they fail to take the object, well, that’s too bad.

But in a merciful game, what is your preferred way for this to be implemented? I think there are 3 options:
1.) Force the player to pick up the object: “You pick up the object.”
2.) Remind the player to pick up the object before leaving the area: “You start to head north, then look back at the object and think, ‘I could really use that.’”.
3.) (if not having the object will only be an annoyance) Let the player fail to pick it up and retrace their steps later to get it, which might involve backtracking a significant way. A “go to object” command might be implemented here.

Am I missing any options? I tend toward #2, because I appreciate a reminder. But @Jade and I have been discussing this, and it can make the player feel as if the author is guiding them too much. I kind of dislike “go to,” because it feels like cheating to me, although I have certainly appreciated it in games with big maps.

I’d appreciate people’s thoughts on the most parsimonious way to do this.

  1. Have the object available later when needed, but with negative score if picked up.

  2. Have a NPC give the object for you if you find the player to be wandering aimlessly.

  3. Roll a dice. 1 in N, you don’t need the object, with increasing value of N as time progress. Hint that the presence of certain object will make things easier.


Great ideas! My tunnel vision with my particular project (no score, no NPCs) led me to overlook these. I particularly like the idea of an NPC presenting the object later as a second chance.


Ones I’ve used:

  • Require the object to be used to solve an earlier puzzle, then prevent them from dropping it (ranging from a specific reason why it can’t be discarded to a more out-of-character “better hang on to that” block on dropping).

  • Have a fallback or alternate version of the object available later if the item was missed (like if they missed a torch in the first part of the game, there’s a flint-and-steel in a drawer later).


Another variation is the player begins the game with the item (under some pretense) and the player can’t drop it (again, under some pretense).

You might consider a different gradation on the Zarfian scale, such as Polite or Tough, and give the player the opportunity to UNDO.

So, if they leave the area without the object, the game immediately ends (Polite), but they can UNDO. This can feel artificial, though, so I get why it’s not always appealing.

Alternately, if they leave behind the object, make it really clear in-game that they’re disadvantaging themself (Tough) and leave it at that.

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Depends on the game. If it’s a puzzler, I have a strong preference for #3 (a command to get you back to the object) over the game overtly handing it to me or preventing my not having it. But certainly there are games for which those would fit perfectly…

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Wasn’t ‘that thing your aunt gave you’ from Hitchhiker’s Guide like that? The player has no idea what it is exactly, but can’t bring themselves to part with it because their aunt gave it to them.


I wasn’t thinking of that in particular, but yeah, that’s the sort of pretense I’m speaking of. Spell book for wizard character, Swiss Army knife for Boy Scout character, etc.

I didn’t go into it before, but I’ll point it out since it was brought up:

If it’s a real slog for the player to go back and get the item, then it’s technically Merciful but could be quite painful in actual game play. I recall such situations in old IF where inventory juggling required leaving an object behind, and it just sucked.

GO TO can help, but that’s not a particularly common command, so either the player needs to learn it from ABOUT or VERBS or what-not, or the game has to prompt them with a little help ("[GO TO can be used here…]") Seems a little hand-holdy for puzzlers, but as you said, it depends on the game.

Or, go with door #3, but do the Tough thing and include a clear warning in-game that the player really doesn’t want to leave the object behind. They can still go back and fetch it, but they were warned.

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I’d probably go with some version of #2. Depending on the wording, you can vary from a strong hint to get the object to a gentle nudge to draw the player’s attention to it.

Shoving some internal monologue into the PC’s (and therefore the player’s) head out of nowhere like in your example does feel rather forced. You could also have the environment do the work for you. A glint of light catching the object as you leave the location, or a random animal nuzzling it, or an acorn falling from a tree and hitting the object, making a POK-noise,…

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The object might be unique in the code, but it doesn’t have to be unique in the world. If the player doesn’t keep the Amulet of Protection against Boredom that the peasant gives him for unbewitching his pigs (probably hint enough for most experienced players), then it can be bought from the shrine outside the sanctuary of St. Nunculus or be found under the waterfall after solving the frog dance puzzle, or whatever. Presumably the challenge is that player has to use the object in some interesting way (using the leather thong which suspends it around the player’s neck to tie together the drugged elf-hunter’s thumbs or something.)

If the player does keep the amulet, then those two other access points simply give a generic reward like gp.

Yes, it’s true that it means that the player won’t be able to brute force a solution by simply trying everything in the inventory, but I think players should have the right to make the game more difficult for themselves. So long as the game doesn’t silently go into zombie mode, fair enough.

Of course, the player doesn’t even have to know that the unique code object is the same “key” object they chucked away before, it’s just more convenient because you don’t have to set up hints for more than one thing.


If the map is compact, eg hub-based, then #3. As this is not an inconvenience. Failing that possibly #2 but not done as a reminder but using a plot device; make them need it for something.

There’s the opposite problem if you want to stop the player from removing certain items. I’m working on a game where, at some point, you acquire a suit of armour. This is handy, but perhaps a bit too handy in other parts of the game. I’m thinking of ideas to prevent the player from carrying the armour too far.

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That’s easy enough - at some chokepoint, have the armor get damaged so it’s no longer useful. Perhaps the player has to walk through a pool of deadly piranha wearing the armor for protection, but then it subsequently rusts and crumbles to dust. (Not realistic, but these kinds of things happen in adventure games all the time.)


Thanks. I was thinking of something along those lines. Turns out you can solve the puzzle another way without using the armour. Which means you can keep it.
Nevertheless, I’ll come up with some sort of excuse. Perhaps it can be too heavy or something like that.


A narrow passage in a cave could be a plausible excuse for having the protagonist leave the armour. It doesn’t fit in the tunnel.


I like it!


Thanks for all these great replies! Definitely food for thought. It’s a hard thing to balance correctly. I’m starting to realize that one of the hardest things about game design is making the player feel free while keeping them to the path you want them to take. Sometimes you feel as if you’ve bent over backwards to indicate that the player should take this object. Here it is! It’s what you need! You should get it!.. and the player just zips past it. I have been guilty of this many times when playing games that have been very clear.


Or use magic word for teleportation. Or magic carpet, vehicle, etc.

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Alternate title for IF: “10,000 ways of telling the player no.”


Yes—this is the question I keep running into in my own games.

For my latest, I’m trying to take a “Zen” approach: If the player does something that hurts their options later, then so be it. I’ll warn them in-game, but it’s their game to play. I’ll also mention in ABOUT about this design aesthetic.

One related problem I’m pondering is if people play IF today how we used to play it. Back then, saving multiple times, sometimes tens of times, was the norm. If you really screwed up and couldn’t recover from a saved game, RESTART was on the table.

I have a feeling in today’s environment players are less willing to restart a game, and are not saving games unless it’s obvious that, as Floyd said, they’re about to do something dangerous. (UNDO obviously eases some of this pain.) This issue is also bending some of my design choices.

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I think this is true. And it’s true of me, too. I was nonplussed for years by having to restart, and I had many terrible experiences with failing to save enough and having to start over. But I did it, because that’s how games were. But as I age and IF has evolved, I get crankier with having to do that, and I always appreciate games giving me second (and third, and fourth) chances. I think cruel games are going the way of the dodo, and I can’t feel very sad about that, although it is a pity that it means that fewer people will play the wonderful old standards.