Puzzling Game Design


I need to make a confession. I’m a cheater.

Now before you harangue me, let me explain. I don’t use hacks. I don’t exploit maps, camp spawns, or bunny hop to the frustration of multi-player opponents. But I do have a history of cheating: I’ve used walk-throughs.

Most developers will agree, relying on an outside source to accomplish tasks is not how a videogame is meant to be played. In fact, some would out right criticize those who spoil an experience by peaking into the future. Games, one might say, are about exploration, about making the experience your own, about having moments of frustration mixed with moments of exhilaration. Particularly with puzzle games, even a small hint can ruin the enjoyable sense of accomplishment during the moment of epiphany.

Which is exactly why Jonathon Blows Braid walk-through told players to solve the riddles on their own. I tried; I really did. But I did find some of the solutions on YouTube, and the guilt weighs heavy on my soul. The stack of Final Fantasy strategy guides in my closet betray my past sins. Thankfully, Clive Thompson absolves me in this month’s issue of Wired:

In some senses, Blow is right. Walk-throughs can ruin the pleasure of a puzzle that’s designed for one person to solve. But he’s ignoring the fact that people don’t necessarily want to solve puzzles on their own. They often enjoy attacking them in online collaborative groups that include dozens, sometimes millions, of fans.

Even a single-player game can become more akin to an MMO, with groups of intelligent gamers working cooperatively to help each other and point out interesting, and frequently optional, tactics. Similar to player created challenges, player created solutions can bolster an enjoyable experience. Admittedly, this isn’t always the case, particularly with puzzle games.

But audiences know this. Research Mia Consalvo has found that gamers are judicious in how they use networked smarts. Most play puzzle videogames alone, dipping into walkthroughs only when they get truly stuck and then only briefly, like a temporary brain enhancement.

These tactics are not exclusive to puzzles either. Narrative riddles can be just as intriguing, with teams plumbing for meaning instead of solutions. The Path, developed by Tale of Tales, succeeds partly because it invites these collaborative interpretations. The game’s forum is alight with theories and insight into the bizarre stories of six young girls. But according to Thompson, a great "hive mind" design resembles that of Alternate Reality Games:

Because ARG clues are distributed so widely across the globe, it is impossible for any one person to solve the mystery alone. The joy of playing an ARG isn’t in doing it yourself. It’s in becoming a neuron in a much bigger intelligence: Finding a piece of evidence, contributing it to the wiki that players inevitably create, and brainstorming with others to figure out what everything means.

A single-player game that is also a massively multiplayer riddle is not impossible to imagine. Already the metagame of Noby Noby Boy, that has players around the world stretching a Noby Noby Girl to planetary bodies, blurs the nature of what is essentially a solitary experience. If gamers are growing accustomed to cooperative elements across the Internet, why not design games that encourage or require collaborative knowledge sharing akin to walk-through creations?

Some existing ARGs aim to accomplish exactly that. But the entrance to such games are frequently elusive (often intentionally) and the barrier of entry too high. Long running MMOs are already too much to handle for some newcomers. I’m doubtful a game that is shared and created amongst many players could prevent the inexperienced from feeling overwhelmed or outsmarted. But can we shrink these ideas? Can we make a collaborative game, full of mysteries, on a small scale? Can group gaming be marketable? Now these are puzzling questoins I would like someone else to solve.


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Author: Jorge Albor View all posts by

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