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Steve Ince, freelance writer and game designer, posts thoughts and comments on these two meaningful aspects of his life.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Infamous Goat Puzzle

The first Broken Sword game, The Shadow of the Templars, was released ten years ago. So it was a little surprising to find that a thread appeared on the JA+ forums in which the poster asked how to get past the goat.

Looking at the puzzle with ten years of additional experience and hindsight, it's easy to see what it was that caused many players to regard it as such a stumbling block. the puzzle broke the partnership the game had established with the player. For the many players who worked out how to solve the puzzle this may not be obvious, so I'll explain what I mean.

The developer of any game creates a partnership with the player by establishing a set of rules and gameplay features with which the player can expect to work through the game, defeating enemies, solving puzzles, etc. When those rules are broken or added to without informing the player, the partnership is broken.


In the case of the goat puzzle, a feature was included that didn't appear before this point and wasn't even hinted at. The goat was tied up, but it's chain was long enough to prevent the player from reaching the entrance of an underground dig and butted George, the player character, each time it was tried. At the other side of the screen was an old piece of farming machinery, but the goat prevented the player from interacting with this by again butting George, who landed on his back each time.

Because of the nature of the gameplay up to this point, the natural conclusion the player would likely reach was to find an inventory object that would distract the goat in some way, but this wasn't the correct thing to do.

The actual solution involved trying to get to the dig entrance and George being butted by the goat. Then, as George stood up and the goat returned to its original position, the player had to click on the farming machinery. This caused George to jump up and run across to the machinery, move it a little and then wait for the goat to charge. The new position of the machinery caused the goat's chain to become entangled. This meant that George was able to move to the dig entrance quite freely.

The problem was that George had never run up to this point in the game and the player wouldn't necessarily make the connection that clicking on the machinery at a key moment would make this happen. This was also exacerbated by the fact that there had been no timing critical interactions of this nature prior to this point. The game had established a straightforward interface and gameplay style that suddenly was added to without making the player aware of the additions.

The gameplay consistency up to that point was one of the strengths of the game and the partnership between the game and the player was a strong one that suddenly broke.

In order to maintain the partnership in the best possible way throughout a game, a development team should put themselves into the mind of the player throughout development. The player doesn't have the in-depth knowledge of how the game was put together or the detailed design documents and the connections the developer makes are not there for the player.


Blogger Ninja Dodo said...

Hey Steve, great post! I remember being stuck on that. Hell, I remember the guy behind the counter at Gamestation *telling* me about it when I bought the game. I had already played it at that point so I could only nod in agreement.

I think this is a problem that adventure games deal with to a greater degree though. By their very nature nearly every puzzle in adventures is a highly unique conundrum. This is especially true of logic-defying tales such as Monkey Island, but even something like Gabriel Knight is very special case most of the time. Common sense goes out the window.

More action oriented games (eg Half Life 2 or Outcast) are often much more consistent in the ingredients that they give you to play with. Challenges may vary wildly, but the tools you use to tackle them stays largely the same. They may be simpler, but the player is left to be more spontaneous in exploring them.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Thanks Christiaan, I've been thinking a lot about the idea of partnership lately.

I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment about action orientated games. Their consistent interface and gameplay mechanics, while simpler at times, make it easier to form that partnership.

I think that adventure games as a whole have improved their consistency and often contain puzzles that are much more logical within the context of the game world. It's too easy to think that because you have a zany world you can throw any puzzles into that you like.

Even when a designer wants to put something new into the game at a certain point, it doesn't mean that he opr she shouldn't do it, just that the new gameplay should be explained in some way or framed in such a manner that the player understands what they are supposed to do.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

The goat puzzle in Broken Sword annoyed me for precisely the reason you intimate here: it introduced a timing element that had been utterly absent up until that point. The player was not prepared, had not been trained for it, or, as you eloquently put it, the partnership between the game and the player was broken.

But apart from that, and the fact that you could die (I don't share Charles' view on death in adventure games), Broken Sword was a classy piece of work.

It makes me want to pick through the problem puzzles and loose strings of Discworld Noir... but it's probably best I don't. :)

11:09 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

The strengths of the game probably emphasise the problem with the goat puzzle. If it had been a game fraught with problematical puzzles the goat would not have stood out in quite the way it did.

I have no problem with death in adventures if the style of the game suits it and if it is handled in the right way. In some ways, the deaths in Broken Sword were a little unfair on the player in that George often died before the player realised that this was an option.

For instance, when George had obtined the manuscript in the hotel and walked out with it in his pocket he got caught by the thugs outside. Now you may reason that the player might have realised this, but for most, I imagine, George died and they had to restore the game to progress.

The thing about the threat of death in a game (if it's used to create tenseion), if you don't deliver on that threat at least once then it loses its power.

11:28 AM  
Anonymous AK said...

I'm playing the director's cut of Broken Sword on DS at the moment and unbelievably they've changed the puzzle. You can get to the farm machinery and tangle the goat's chain without it butting you, negating the need for timing. (Found this via Googling 'goat puzzle')

10:50 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

This was actually changed for the GBA version (on which the DS version is based). Unfortunately, the art and animation resources weren't available to re-work the puzzle properly.

11:03 AM  

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