Search Results for: islands

Quern: Undying Thoughts: design ruminations

When the Obduction kickstarter fired up in 2013, it seemed like a good moment for adventure games in general. With Unity3D well-established and the Unreal 4 engine coming up, small teams were in a good position to produce really stellar visual environments. Then Cyan got a million dollars out of nostalgic Myst fans. Good sign, right?

Sure enough, a couple of years later, I saw several Myst-inspired projects on Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight.

Of those, I have now played Haven Moon (my notes in this post) and Neptune Flux (didn't have much to say). We're still waiting on Zed and Xing. (To be sure, Xing's Kickstarter predated Obduction's -- plus one point for foresight, minus one point for taking longer. Give the point back for making progress on a KS payout way less than a million dollars.)

And I have played Obduction, and now I have played Quern: Undying Thoughts. Spoiler: those are the two good ones, so far. In fact, the great ones.

(Note: I was a Kickstarter backer on Quern. Also on Obduction and Neptune Flux.)

Just as it was impossible to talk about Obduction without comparing it to Myst, I cannot talk about Quern without comparing it to Obduction. They're both aiming at the same target: a first-person adventure in which the puzzles span every aspect of the environment. They are graphical IF in the sense that I used to talk about: you must engage with them immersively, placing yourself in the world, imagining those objects around you (and in your hands), considering what makes sense to do in that physical reality.

(Note that that "Characterizing IF" post is harsh on CYOA games. That was me writing in 2002. The field has advanced.)

Quern and Obduction are both top-notch adventure games. Both have really great, creatively constructed puzzles. They both take advantage of the 3D world engine, both visually and in their puzzle design. Both are lonely worlds; they avoid human interaction (and thus the high costs of character modeling and animation). And I finished both in roughly 15 hours of play time. So those are obvious similarities.


Now I can talk about the differences -- which are smaller, but more interesting to discuss.

Quern has lots of visual detail, but it's not so good on focus. You will frequently find a workbench full of tools, and it's not at all clear which are the important tools and which are just scenery. So many hammers! There are things in the game that I want to smash! Sorry, no hammer for you. Even more annoying, there's a loose ladder in the very first room, but you can't take it or use it to climb anywhere.

In contrast, Obduction keeps the really tempting tools out of reach. It also avoids puzzles that make you think "if I only had a hammer..." (Or garden shears, or a couple of sticks, or...)

Quern is generally in tune with Cyan's house style, but it misses a few of the details. Obduction is good about showing the difference between a two-way switch (which can be flipped back and forth) and a one-way switch (which locks after you flip it). The control might retract to show that it's locked, or you might see a pin drop into place. Quern tends not to do this. Thus, one-way switches feel arbitrary. It's particularly annoying when the effect of the switch is not directly visible; then then you have no way to experiment to figure it out.

(You might say that every control should be flippable back and forth. That's how real life works! But when designing a game, you often want to simplify. Once the power has been turned on, it stays on. Once door X is open, it stays open for the rest of the game. And so on. This is a useful trick for keeping the player out of stuck-unwinnable states.)

Obduction was built primarily around one puzzle mechanism: the seed machines. There are other sorts of puzzles (starting engines, finding passwords, using the mine cart) -- but they're very much the Lord High Everything Else. I don't mean it's 99% seed puzzles, but you wind up thinking of the puzzles as "seed machines" and "the other stuff".

Quern, in contrast, has lots of puzzle types. It's downright exuberant with them. Slider puzzles, machine puzzles, symbol-finding puzzles, symbol-matching puzzles, letter puzzles, sound puzzles, light puzzles, weight puzzles, alchemy puzzles (yay!). That's not remotely a complete list.

Moreover, Quern mostly adheres to the puzzle design rule of "do everything twice". (Once as a directly-presented puzzle; once in a new context where you have to remember that thing you did earlier in the game.) Obduction does this too, but it has fewer puzzle concepts! With Quern, by the time you're halfway through, you are balancing a mental map of everything you've encountered. Any of the mechanisms or locations could wind up being relevant again. Not to mention a mental map of the island and where every unsolved puzzle is -- because any of them might be next.

The down side of this is that, with so many puzzle types, a few are worn-out hats. There's a Mastermind game. There's a block-slider. (But not the worst block-slider, which you have to pay me $50 to solve these days. Quern's slider was okay.)

There are, as I said, a couple of audio puzzles. I did not see any accomodation for hearing-impaired players. This is not a fatal strike (not like that flippin' Donkey slider!) but you want to ask if an accomodation is possible. In some games, the puzzle is "notice the audio component at all" -- any kind of subtitling would spoil it. The audio puzzles in Quern are different; they're about noticing qualities of sounds. A non-audio indicator could work. But you'd have to think about it.

There is one terrible puzzle. I know puzzles are subjective, but at one point I said "I hit a bad puzzle" and my friend said "There is one very bad puzzle" and we were talking about the same puzzle.

I don't want to rag on that one puzzle, because the developers have said in a Steam forum thread that they're considering ways to fix it. You can read the thread for the details.

However, it's a great example of the perils of puzzle design. So I'm going to dig into it a little. I will try to avoid spoilery specifics, but I will describe some elements of the puzzle. Starting... NOW.

The puzzle has two stages. ("Do everything twice", remember?) The first stage is a straightforward information-matching puzzle. You need to look at two clues, figure out what each diagram means, combine the information, and apply the result to a device. When you push the right buttons -- you're not finished. The device ostentiatiously turns upside down.

It's clear that you have to use the device again, but with a new button sequence. You now have to interpret the clues "upside down". There are a couple of things that could mean, so you try one of them. Then you try a different one. Then you try applying those ideas to the other clue. Then you start trying combinations of interpretations...

(If you look back at the forum thread, one player mentions trying sixteen possible input sequences, based on different combinations of what "upside down" could mean. I went down the same road.)

None of this works, so eventually you give up and go to the forum. Lo, there is a thread explaining what you missed: you have to go to the other side of the island and look in a place marked by a familiar symbol. There you will find a third clue, which supersedes one of the originals. Now the second stage is solvable.

So. What is the design problem here? Missing the third clue, right? I saw players talking about ways to make the marker symbol more visible, or making it easier to extract the third clue.

But I would say that the problem is not missing the third clue; it's believing that the first two clues are sufficient! The ambiguity of the upside-down hint, while a fine puzzle element in itself, misleads players into thinking that that's the entire second stage of the puzzle -- figuring out the right interpretation of "upside down". As I noted, there are several possibilities. Each time one fails, you look harder for another. Nothing points you at the idea that you've got the wrong clues in hand.

This is, of course, why game design is hard. You have to imagine the state of not knowing -- and then keep imagining every stage of figuring out. Including the dead ends.

Also, once someone has run out of patience and looked at hints, they're not likely to appreciate your clever design any more. I went and got the third clue (nice puzzle in itself!); but then I didn't have to energy to work it back through the puzzle logic. I just looked at a walkthrough.

(PS: Video walkthroughs are still terrible, but I admit that this game would have required too many diagrams for a text file.) (PPS: Wait, someone made a text walkthrough with diagrams! See this thread. Thanks!)


I don't want to give you the wrong idea. I've spent a page and a half talking about the worst puzzle in Quern, because it makes a good case study. Quern is packed with puzzles that are much better than that. I recommend this game! You should play it. The designers should make another game.

This is a good time for adventure games.

Posted in Zarf on Games | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Point-of-view in The Witness: design ruminations

I played The Witness to an ending, and then I went back and played until I had finished it to my satisfaction. (504 +82. I looked at just two hints, and no thanks, I am not going to beat the Hall of the Mountain King. Two of my friends did; I am happy to bask in their reflected glory.)

The Witness must be the most painfully-analyzed game release of the past few years. Painstakingly-analyzed? Both. I haven't even gone looking for the discussion threads. They're out there, because we all love to talk.

So I doubt I can say much. But (I love to talk) I will take a shot at the aspect I find most interesting, which is the game's presentation of its point of view. Your point of view? Both.

(This post will contain very general spoilers about the kinds of puzzles in The Witness.)


You can't talk about The Witness without mentioning Myst, but The Witness has curiously little to say about Myst. "Curiously" because Braid, the designer's previous game, was an extended and careful riff on Super Mario Brothers. Oh, it was plenty of things beyond that. But the design of Braid reflected SMB in its art, its enemy design, its jumping mechanics, and its frame story of a lost princess. And this was not unreasonable, because SMB has (perhaps retroactively) assumed the mantle of a videogame archetype.

So when I heard that Jon Blow's next game would be puzzles on a mysterious island, I said "Oh, he's doing Myst now." Myst is as much a videogame archetype as Adventure and Tetris. Taking apart Myst's conventions and assumptions won't necessarily make a great game (it might get you no farther than Pyst did) but it could be an excellent launching point.

Well, as everyone informed me the minute The Witness launched, it's not Jon Blow doing Myst. He went off in other directions -- fine. (One could make the argument that it's more of a riff on Portal.) But we can still pick up the thread, because it is a first-person graphical environment, and the conventions of Myst's design loom over all such games.

You are you; the game is your view of the world; you act by manipulating the world directly. These ideas were never perfectly implemented -- the original mouse cursor and 544-pixel-wide window strained to hold the illusion of being your hand and your eye. But the ideal seemed so obvious as to require no argument.

The Witness, with due consideration and no explanation(*) at all, rejects each of these conventions. Not blatantly; you won't even notice at first. But they all fall apart upon inspection. A disagreement so understated and distinct must be deliberate, I think.

(* Until near the end. We'll get there.)


You are you. The first-person view of Myst, like the second-person prose of Adventure, projects the world around a blank space which you invisibly inhabit. Your character has no voice, no body; your hand is abstracted down to a cursor.

Many adventures after Myst (and several before it) tossed this faceless ideal away with great force. Strong characterization serves most stories better than the invisible avatar -- what a later adventure mocked as the AFGNCAAP. And, of course, the blank protagonist isn't all that universal to begin with, not as long as "unmarked" still means "white, male, straight, not too old, not too fat..." (Yes, I've used the faceless protagonist in my own games. But I don't pretend that it counts as representation.)

The Witness lets you inhabit that blank space -- at first. You have a few moments to settle in and imagine yourself walking around. Then you emerge into the sunlight, and... perhaps you still don't notice your shadow. But when you do, the shadow is tall, lanky, short-haired, trousered, male. It's definitely not me. Is it Jon Blow? I certainly can't think of any other candidate, so let's assume that you play The Witness as a mute Jon Blow.

But why? "You" have no voice or background; the game does no work of characterization. But neither does it allow you to fill in your own. You are left a liminal, uncertain presence.


The game is your view of the world. Again, you initially have no reason to doubt this. The game's art style is not hyper-realistic, but we're all accustomed to visually stylized environments by now. Perhaps it's unusually low-poly for a modern game ("ironically low-poly", one friend commented). But then a lot of subtle work went into the texturing.

I figure the style was balanced to allow panoramic views across large swathes of the island. The Witness is generous with those. (Contrast Firewatch, which mostly hems you in with ridges, canyons, trees, and foliage to avoid the rendering cost of the whole world at once.)

Then you discover one of the game's more subtle puzzles, those of visual perspective. Why do two sticks, a rock, and a distant fence form that shape? It represents nothing in the world, but the game wants you to take notice.

Should we take the world as a purely visual contrivance, then, lacking physical reality? The perspective puzzles incline us that way, but then the island does have a physicality to it. Some clue-objects are bent or broken, implying a physical history: this twig snapped off and fell. A cable used to connect over there. That post was straight until someone leaned on it.

Again, we are left uncertain. The world wants us to believe every leaf was laid just so, but also that it is subject to physical decay. Why?


You act by manipulating the world directly. The first interaction most players encounter in the Age of Myst is a knife switch; you grab it with your cursor-hand and pull it down. From there, the game extends the arms'-reach metaphor in subtle but definite ways: you press buttons, pull chains, hold a lit match. (Plus, of course, the initiating moment: laying your palm on a magical book.)

Your first interaction in The Witness is a panel with a line on it. You drag the cursor along the line to activate it. For adventure gamers, the implication is clear: you reached out and swiped your finger along a touch-panel. (If you are my age, you went "Dzzzzzhhht!" like Kermit the Frog drawing a letter.) And you go on for quite a while, finding panels and tracing lines on them with your finger.

Only, maybe not. You might notice that your shadow, the ambiguous Jon-Blow-or-not, never reaches out to touch anything. According to your shadow, you're just standing motionless in front of each panel. A lazy animator, not bothering to construct the arm-motion? But you can see your shadow-feet shift and your shadow-head turn as you look around. This game does not scant the details.

It soon becomes clear that The Witness consists entirely of these path-tracing interactions. There is not a single lever, dial, or key in the game. Furthermore, you don't have to be in arms' reach to trace a path! The game makes it convenient to stand directly in front of each panel, but you can activate any path you can see. It works from any distance, as long the entire path is visible. (The visual-perspective puzzles hammer this point home, if you overlooked it.)

So we must give up the idea of swiping a finger along a surface. Touch has nothing to do with it. You never manipulate the physical world (if there is one!) in any way(*). Indeed, if you look closer, the island is most unwilling to react to your physical presence. You can hear your footsteps, but you leave no footprints, nor even ripple the surface of a puddle you step in. You cannot brush aside a twig or pick up a bit of paper to read.

You are a ghost, or a shadow of a ghost. Do you interact by observation? Perhaps you are simply recognizing the paths, and the panels react to that recognition. Or perhaps you are playing a game, manipulating it with your mouse or controller? Perhaps there is no metaphor at all.

But if you're a ghost, you're a ghost with eyelids and retinas. (Someone had to point this out to me! Hit the pause button; watch the solar afterimages fade.) And we like immersive metaphors, anyhow.

(* In a couple of places, the game seems to implement "pressure plates" -- triggers that activate when you stand on them. This might be a physical interaction, or it might be reacting to your presence (or shadow!) in some other way; it's not made clear. I'll let it slip by.)


So The Witness leaves us off-balance, uncertain in our presumption of how adventure games work.

We might question whether "adventure game" is the right label at all. Is this island just a pretty picture with abstract puzzles pasted on? No, that description is inadequate. The physical laws of the island may not involve you, but they exist -- sunlight, shadow, reflection -- and you must apprehend them to solve the game. You must consider how buildings connect and how they might have decayed. Those are the understandings of an adventure game. And there are, after all, gates and drawbridges and elevators to play with -- even if you do so by the tracing of control-paths on panels.

These ontological musings do not slow you down, regardless. The puzzles are before you and you work your way through.

(They're brilliant puzzles, by the way. This post is not a review, but I didn't want to leave that out.)

...And then you reach the end-game (or the post-game, maybe, or the epilogue). I said up top that The Witness has "no explanation"? Play far enough and you get, mm, not an explanation, but an indirect trickle of clue. You can make some guesses. If you pass through the post-end-game (post-epilogue?), you find a cut scene which exposes a little more information.

I won't spoil it, except to say that the game's motif is perception -- clarity, perspective, focus. That's the title, right? It (kind of) makes sense that you, the witness, are (sort of) seeing out of Jon Blow's eyes, and your presence is sort of perceptual (but not exactly), and the island is sort of physical (but not really).

But a theory isn't a justification. We can still ask why Jon Blow (the real one) wanted to make a game called The Witness, in which you are a ghost with his shadow. Yes, it's all a thematic package, but why that package? You have to bear the uncertainty through most of that game, after all, before the half-explanations ever appear. If that shadow is discomfiting, you spend a lot of time uncomfortable.

It's not an enticing discomfort. It says: something is wrong here, but don't ask why. It invites you to withhold rather than speculate. This is subjective, I know, but I never reached a point of saying "Aha, now it all makes sense in retrospect!" At best it was "Well, I have a theory which could be thematically consistent with it all."

In the end, I must chalk it up to an aesthetic disagreement. Jon Blow wanted his adventure game to be distancing and not-quite-immersive. He chose a theme and style (and title) which suited that effect. It worked. It's not what I would have done, and that's all I can say about it.

Posted in Zarf on Games | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment