Friday, July 2, 2010

The puzzling thing about video games

I've heard 2D platformers as being 'puzzles in disguise,' and I think that really shows the nature of a game.  People complain about puzzles in Zelda, or Mario, but it is not the puzzle that is the problem.  The problem is that you can see the puzzle.  Think for a moment of a game you have played that had a great level design.  Now think of a game which had really poor level design.  What is the difference?   Take Final Fantasy XIII for example: I haven't played the game, but the most common complaint I hear is that for the first 20 hours of the game you are doing little more than running forward, pressing A, and watching a cut-scene.  How boring.  I would like you to think now of a puzzle game you may have played recently.  What was a really fun one?  What was a really boring one?

I would now like you to imagine a Sudoku or other number puzzle.  (If you don't know what Sudoku is, or feel a hankering for one, here's a good site for them.  You should try one.)  Anyways, suppose you are solving the puzzle and you reach a point where you have the option of putting a 5 or a 3 in a box.  What if it were possible to solve the puzzle with either number in that square?  Just imagine, solving the same puzzle while at the same time solving it differently each time.  Re-solvability right there!  Do you think that sounds fun?

If you do, great.  You're a better puzzle solver than me.  I don't think it sounds fun at all.  I actually thought it did at first, but then I thought about it:  if it's possible to solve with either number, how do I know if I'm doing it right?  How can I check the solution when I'm done to see if I messed up?  If it's possible to have more than one number in that box, is it possible for the rest of them?  Is it possible to have more than one number in a row, column, or block?   Really, if this were possible, what you would have is no Sudoku, but a simple grid where you can fill in whatever number you want.  Without the rules of Sudoku, it's no fun.

You may be able to guess the point I'm getting to.  My point is that video games are, at their heart, puzzles.  And the best kind of puzzles are the ones that can be solved in multiple ways.  Even puzzles like Sudoku have multiple ways to solve them, even if you end up putting the same number in the same square each time.  This is what is meant when, say, Malstrom says that the crux of a game's content is the interesting choices you can make as a player.  (as he puts it: "do I jump on the goomba or jump over it?)

The problem arises when the game maker doesn't understand this.  The complaint of it being the same every time is meant with a branching storyline and/or multiple endings, essentially letting you have the option of putting a 3 in the box instead of a 5.  And it does lead to a different ending, a different solution.  But if that is the case, wouldn't that mean that I haven't really solved the puzzle until I've found each possible variation at each junction point?  I thought branching storylines sounded cool at first, but then I got fed-up with those "choose your own adventure" books when I had to read through each possible situation to find the "Best" set of events, trying to find the "real" ending.  The same goes for any Video games with branching stories or multiple endings.  It's like a way to force me to replay the game, when really it feels like busywork.

And who wouldn't be excited about a user-generated Sudoku?  You mentioned that earlier, essentially what it is is a 100-page Sudoku book with only about 15 of the puzzles set up.  The rest is left up to you, the solver!  Why, you could even make your own game, and make a grid without Sudoku rules if you wanted to!  So much creative potential!  You could put a 27 in one of the boxes! so creative! 

 ...Wait, who are you and what's with the abrasive color to your font?

 Oh, by the way, the company created those 9x9 grids, so anything you make from them belongs to that company, and isn't yours.  And what do you mean you paid for 100 Sudoku but only got 15? you can make your own, you get to be creative!  isn't your creative potential worth more than that $50? 


Yeah, User Generated Content is the extreme variant of multiple endings.  I didn't really expect to take the Sudoku comparison that far, but it works out far better than I'd planned. 

At any rate, in case I didn't make my point clear enough:  Games are, at their heart, puzzles.  The way to make a good game is to give me multiple ways in which I can solve the problem.  This is a problem I see with many independent games, they really have only one way to beat each level.  When you beat the game, you solved the puzzle and really there's no point to play it again.

There's something I've noticed with the older Zelda games, they typically had multiple ways to do things.  While sometimes you needed one item or another to access an area or dungeon, the item was more than just a key.  It had other uses.  Link to the Past had you figure out for yourself that you could hook onto jars (skulls, in the Dark World) and there were no big, obvious targets with the "Use Hookshot Here" recently erased.

So, funny story.  I wrote the above (everything before the above paragraph, rather) because I read through part of this interview of Warren Spector about Epic Mickey.  (My post concerning Malstrom's post where I got that link from is in the works.)

Then I went back and read this:

How can it be more mainstream to insist that players have the skill to solve the puzzle the way the designer intended, or have the skill to defeat the thing by shooting it 10,000 times while its back is turned and its right foot is up, rather than just saying, "Hey, solve this problem the way you want, player!"
 And this:
In addition to paint and thinners, we have a secondary mechanic. I think every game needs at least two mechanics, a core and a secondary, to provide enough variety for players - especially an RPG. You can find these sketches which you can make real in the world, and they all have multiple uses. They’re like the tools in the Zelda games – in a Zelda game you basically use the tools for one purpose in the places the designers tell you to use them. You can use our tools anywhere.

And then I suddenly started to get very interested in Epic Mickey.

a few more quotes I found interesting:

If you look back at the games I’ve made, no one’s going to say they’re the best looking games in the world. I always put gameplay ahead of graphics, I always thought I would.

How much of a challenge have you found designing the camera?
We have the challenges that no other designers have had with a camera in a third person game. Designing a camera is hard enough, but imagine doing it when the wall behind the player may or may not exist – or the floor beneath the player may disappear. The camera troubles with this game are epic believe me, and I guarantee we’ll be tuning the camera the day Disney prise this out of my hands.
 I did notice problems with the camera, though I had to hear someone at E3 comment about it before I realized that that was what it was.  I just thought it looked like a Nintendo 64 game.  That's why it does.  It's good to hear that they're working on it.  I hope it works out. (as many early 3D games showed, a bad camera can kill an otherwise great game)

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