Jul 272008

The title of this post comes from a line uttered by Manny Calavera, the main character of Grim Fandango as you fail to solve a puzzle. Because Grim Fandango is an adventure game, failing to solve puzzles is something you’ll do an awful lot, so it was nice of the developers to at least give you a good laugh as you flail your pathetic way through the misadventures of a skeleton man in a film noir world. Adventure games always attempted to complement good stories with hard puzzles, and a widespread failure to achieve the right kind of difficulty probably contributed significantly to their fall from grace. As I’ve been playing Grim Fandango for the Vintage Game Club, I’ve been reminded of what kinds of problems they had.

This post will echo some things I said in the VGC forum, and it will also spoil the first two puzzles of Grim Fandango, so keep that in mind before you read on.

Adventure games had two kinds of hard puzzles. Some of them required you to pay careful attention to the game world, remember bits and pieces of dialogue, think creatively about the items you had found, and work it all together into a solution that gave you a great “Aha!” moment. The rest were bullshit. The problems Manny must solve in the first chapter of Grim Fandango mostly involve the first kind, but you start off, unpromisingly, with the second kind, and it is these that turned people off adventure games, with good reason.

At the start of Grim Fandango, Manny is desperate to get somewhere, but in order to get there he must get his boss to sign a work order for a car modification. To this point, the problem proceeds relatively naturally. However, in order to get the work order signed, Manny must leave his office building, discover a rope that his boss has used to sneak out of his office, climb up that rope, and change his boss’ automated message so that the secretary will sign his name on the work order.

This solution falls into the bullshit category for several reasons, the most significant of which is that there is no reason for the player, or Manny, to suspect that the boss isn’t in his office, that he is using an automated message system to pretend that he is in, or that the message can be changed to make his secretary sign the order. In fact, because Manny has received an emergency work order from his boss just moments before, both he and the player have a very strong reason to believe that the boss is in, a view which the secretary reinforces by stating outright that she is only at work because the boss is. Without knowing that the boss sneaked out of his office, or that he did so in a way that allows Manny to sneak in, the decision to leave the building (which is required in order to find the rope) is nonsensical. A key step to solving the puzzle requires an unnatural response to Manny’s problem.

When people say adventure games are “hard”, this is a significant reason why. It’s not that the puzzles are too intellectually demanding, it’s that they require you to act in ways that are utterly unnatural to the solving of the puzzle. If there’s an emergency and your boss isn’t taking calls, you knock on his door. You don’t go outside the building to check if he might have climbed twenty stories down a rope made out of ugly neckties. And if your wallet is locked in your girlfriend’s car, you ask her for the keys. You don’t try to combine a nearby cat with a mango from your inventory in hopes that this will produce a tool you can somehow use to unlock the passenger door.

Note that my problem is not that the solution requires Manny to go outside per se. In fact, getting Manny to go outside during this puzzle is an important part of making sure the player has the information he needs to solve the remaining problems of the early portion of the game. The illegitimate difficulty of this puzzle arises from the fact that the game never gives the player or Manny any reason to believe that going outside constitutes a step towards solving his problem.

Contrast this with the second main puzzle of the same game, in which Manny decides to steal a co-worker’s client by intercepting one of his messages. To do this, Manny must find the room of pneumatic messaging tubes, break the system using chemical foam, find a way to keep the door to the system from closing after repairs are finished, and figure out how to stop the messages so he can read them first. Stealing the client requires several more steps than getting the work order signed, but the dialogue in the game and the items Manny notices in the game world all provide definite (if subtle) clues as to how the problem can be solved. Each step towards the solution makes sense in the context of the game world. The puzzle is difficult, but legitimate.

This distinction matters because the kind of difficulty involved has an effect on how the player feels once the puzzle is solved. Solving a difficult, natural puzzle makes the player feel like he’s accomplished something—even if the player is frustrated while trying to solve the puzzle, success brings positive emotions because the player feels like he was in control of finding the solution. By contrast, puzzles that require unnatural solutions which are too obscure or don’t make sense in the game world steal this feeling from the player. They make the successful solution of a puzzle seem like a matter of luck, rather than skill. In my personal experience, solving a puzzle under these circumstances can increase frustration, rather than relieving it.

Another problem with unnatural puzzles is that they break immersion. The work order problem can’t be solved by thinking like Manny Calavera, but it can be solved by thinking like a guy playing an adventure game, who knows that you should explore everywhere to find the solution of a puzzle. Unfortunately, once I’m thinking like myself, my mind ceases to be active in the world of the game. While the game can get me back, each exit from the world of the game prompts the question of whether I should continue. If the player’s mind disengages at a point of frustration, then he is always more likely to quit, at which point your work has gone to waste.

I started this post talking about adventure games, but I think these two points speak more generally to the use of difficulty in games. A high degree of difficulty, even unfair difficulty, is acceptable in a game so long as the player’s sense of accomplishment and engagement in the game world are preserved. In games with very low difficulty, the player’s sense of achievement may not be a design value of the game; however, even games with low difficulty must take care not to disengage the player with unnatural puzzles or other kinds of gameplay problems.

  2 Responses to “"Run, you pigeons! It’s Robert Frost!"”

  1. haha! that post title is my favourite line!

  2. Hey, cool blog post.

    As for your opinion on “bullshit adventure game puzzles,” I just want to say, who gives a shit?

    Goofy puzzles are part of the experience. Have you ever played a game with really logical puzzles? It’s often boring. Part of the fun of adventure games is doing wacky shit. Grim Fandango has lots of wacky shit to do, and that’s part of the fun.

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