Developing Thoughts 20

Puzzling Through the Obstacles

One of the criticisms levelled at Adventure Games these days is that they can feel a little old fashioned. I’m increasingly of the opinion that this is because they contain these things we refer to as “puzzles”. This term can then create the wrong idea in people’s heads as to what sort of game adventures are. Of course, there are adventures that probably fit this perception very well, but more and more adventures are developing a kind of gameplay that makes it difficult to think of the player as solving puzzles.

The word puzzle, to me, suggests gameplay that involves pulling levers in the right combination or fiddling around with sliders. While there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this type of gameplay, it does have a “static” kind of feel to it, particularly at a time when the majority of gamers want dynamic games. Some of the other aspects of adventure games – collecting clues, using inventory objects, developing story and so forth – are already being included in other genres, so it seems that adventures could find a broader player base if they concentrated on just these aspects. And stopped using the word, puzzle.

I believe that a much better term is “obstacle”. This has a much wider relevance and can be applied to almost any genre of game. For my purposes, an obstacle is anything that the player must overcome in order to progress in the game. A puzzle may be an obstacle, but obstacles aren’t restricted to puzzles. An obstacle is also the end of level boss in a platform game, or winning the gold trophy in a race game in order to unlock the special car.

One of the beauties of thinking in terms of obstacles is that you can take a much wider approach to your thinking than when concentrating on puzzles. In many respects, the antagonist, working his way through the plot of the game in opposition to the hero, is a large obstacle that lasts the length and breadth of the game and the other obstacles simply feed into that. At least they can if they are designed with an eye on how they fit with the overall story, design and the style of gameplay.

Obstacles can overlap and interweave with one another, in the same way that subplots do in a good film or novel. It could be that the player has a number of different obstacles to overcome at any one time and that they could be overcome in any order. Alternatively, in order to overcome one obstacle, another has to be beat to get the device, clue or information needed to address the first.

Sometimes an obstacle needs a multiple-stage approach to beating it, with some of those stages opening up new obstacles. Suppose, for instance, your character needs to get into the courtyard, but there’s a wall blocking the way. The character can’t just climb over, as it’s too high, so he brings across the nearby dustbin to stand on. Only then, he finds that broken glass has been cemented into the top of the wall and he’ll cut himself to ribbons if he tries to climb over. Therefore, he needs to find something like a heavy rug to drape over the wall. The only one he can find nearby is being used by a tramp who won’t give it to him unless he gets a bottle of whiskey in return…

Of course, if it were a GTA type of game, the player would simply blow the tramp away and take the rug. However, if you had the anti-gravity pulse boots I talked about a few weeks ago, the wall would only be a minor obstacle, as the player character would simply jump over the wall without worrying.

What the above shows is that while obstacles can be built upon to provide increasing gameplay, the same obstacles in different styles of game will require different solutions and approaches by the player.

The trick is in making the obstacles challenging without giving the player the feeling that they are going nowhere.

© Steve Ince, 2004