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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.

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My Obduction nonreview

Obduction is a really good adventure game. You should play it.

I finished the game a week ago and I've had a heck of a time thinking of anything to say. To be sure, my Myst review was written in 2002 and my Myst 5 review in 2010, so the sensible course is just to wait five or ten years and see where Cyan's gotten to. An Obduction review will make an excellent retrospective.

But I do want you to buy the game. (To help make sure Cyan makes it another five or ten years.) So, yeah, it's a really good game and you should play it.

Some of the Obduction posts I thought about writing, but didn't:

Comparing Obduction to Myst. Everybody else has done that. Summary: it's Myst except larger, and also Cyan has gotten better at story and puzzle design. End of blog post.

Comparing Obduction to Riven. Yeah, Riven is also Myst except larger and with better story and puzzle design. So Obduction is pretty much a new game as good as Riven. End of blog post.

Comparing Obduction to The Witness. Problem is, my whole Witness post was just comparing The Witness to Myst. Summary: The Witness really has no interest in being Myst. It's doing something else. Obduction is doing the same thing as Myst only Cyan has gotten better at it. End of blog post.

Talking about what I liked most. Boring and spoilery. I want you to play the game, not read about it.

Talking about what I liked least. It's not a perfect game. The plot is weirdly off-screen, and the couple of times it's thrust on-screen are the scenes where you're most confused about what you're doing. A couple of the puzzles are underclued, and in one case a puzzle's clues become unavailable (so if you didn't take notes, you're in trouble). But these are not large gripes, and you should still play the game.

Talking about the puzzle difficulty. Worth mentioning. Obduction keeps a tight hold on its puzzle mechanics; there are just a few major ones and most of the puzzles are about understanding them. But the game also exercises restraint about how far to take them. It does not take the Witness tack of "push every mechanic until your brain explodes." The result is a fairly smooth ride (although there are some shaky spots, as I said). There is no "that damn puzzle", which I think we can agree Riven has one of (and Witness has two or two dozen, depending on your mood).

Describing the bugs. Good grief, that's what Steam forums are for. Go wallow if you like.

Talking about the shadow. I admit a desire to go on a tear about the shadow. The Witness gives you, without recourse, a male shadow -- tallish, slender, short hair -- probably Jon Blow -- or if not him, certainly not you. Obduction gives you a choice between two shadows. Is that different? It's not much different.

It would be a great expenditure of effort to import the whole Uru avatar-modelling system with body shape and hairstyles and clothing -- plus height! -- just to model the shadow. Perhaps that's silly. But at this point, offering the choice between a 160-pound male avatar and a 120-pound female one feels like a thoroughly inadequate gesture towards player inclusiveness.

(Yes, it happens that late in Obduction you get an exact readout of your weight. It's not my weight, I'll tell you that.)

And so: This is even less a review than most of my not-really-reviews. I suppose I feel somewhat bruised by today's culture of games discussion, where DID THE DEVELOPER LIE is a more central question than what the game is doing and how well it does it. Also HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY CHARGE THAT MUCH. And THE BUGS.

I admit the bugs aren't great. (I suffered from the black-page journal bug, and had to hit a wiki to fill in the holes.) But when I look around, I see a bunch of discussion that I want to back right the heck away from. Thus, all these posts I'm not writing.

If you want to know whether Obduction is worth the money, go take a long walk and think about what kind of games you enjoy. If you enjoy environmental puzzle adventure games, play Obduction. And I'll come back and write a review in a few years, when we've all gotten a better idea of how the next generation of adventure games is playing out.

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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.

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Soma: meanderings by a wuss

(This post will be generally spoilery for the setting and background of Soma. I will avoid specific plot details, however.)

I've had Soma on my stack for several months. Last month I pulled it off the (virtual) shelf to take a look.

Contemporary-world prologue: good setup. Transition to the creepy future undersea base: excellent. Creepy undersea base: admirably creepy. I pushed through the first bit of the base, moving very cautiously -- though, from a design standpoint, this was clearly the "shadows in the corner of your eye" phase. The monster was not yet on screen.

So then I get to the room where the Frictional monster comes on screen. "Oh," I said, "look, it's the Frictional monster."

I've played through Amnesia: Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs(🐷). They have the same monster. It shambles towards you and kicks your ass. And I remember specifically, in Pig Machine, that the monster is fundamentally harmless. If you just stand there and wait, it shambles up and whomps you and then disappears. I mean, you die -- or almost die, or the game gives you another shot, or something -- but the monster is gone and you can get on with the plot.

I can see how the designers got there. Getting stuck isn't particularly good for the game flow, and the threat of sort-of-death is a still a decent incentive to sneak around and play the game "right". For most people. I guess. Not me. "Face your fear!" I shouted, and let the monster walk up and pop like a soap bubble.

In that light, the Frictional monster is hapless and pitiable. Poor poor fleshy monstrosity.

So there I am in Soma's underwater base, and the Frictional monster is coming at me again. It's dripping black biomechanical goo this time, but still instantly recognizable. I tried hiding -- pro forma, just to see if I could -- but no, it spots me and shambles in. Whomp!

I wake up -- but wounded: limping, blurred vision. Interesting. And the monster is still there. Hm.

Clearly the designers have backed off from the Piggy soap-bubble stance. Okay, that's fair. Facing the monster down really isn't the intended play experience. So I manage to sneak around the monster and make it to the next room. Explore a while. Find a healing... thing. Makes sense. Getting hurt has consequences but you can recover.

Oh, look, the monster has followed me. I hide. It finds me and whomps me. I wake up wounded. Oh, wait, it found me again. Whomp. Game over. Game over? Yes.

Unfortunately, I am caught in the fork. Playing the fearless Piggy way might have deflated the tension, but I could do it -- I finished Machine for Pigs and had a good creepy time. But bold isn't an option in Soma. Playing the "right" way, hiding from the monster, is tense but it isn't working.

Conclusion: maybe I'm bored with the Frictional monster. After three games, maybe they should have come up with something new?

(Yes, I know Pig Machine was made by a different studio. Doesn't help.)

But, before I delete Soma forever, I think: maybe I'm not the first? Indeed! With a very little bit of Googling:

Wuss Mode: Monsters Don't Attack by The Dreamer

This addon renders nearly all enemies in the main story non-hostile during regular gameplay. Surprisingly, it completely changes the atmosphere of the game, often for the better, since the servants of the WAU quietly patrolling the abandoned halls of Pathos-2 have a chilling poignance to them. [...] Playing it is an incredibly surreal experience, and while I personally prefer the vanilla gameplay, I think for those with weaker countenances, this is certainly a worthwhile way to play. Perfect for wusses who can't take the scares but still want to experience the amazing story and atmosphere of SOMA!

I quote a large chunk of the creator's blurb because I agree and disagree. It is surreal and poignant. The monsters -- not just one, I got far enough to distinguish variations -- are once again pitiable, wretched things. But they're threatening wretches. There is a great difference, I find, between a soap-bubble monster and one that shambles around in your face until you manage to escape it.

To be concrete: it is really hard to sit down at a computer console when there's a howling monster behind you. Even when you know it won't whomp you.

There are also a couple of chase scenes where if you're too slow, you die. The mod doesn't affect those. (I imagine they're not implemented as monsters, but with some other engine mechanic.) But I didn't have too much trouble getting through them.

Back up; re-read that blurb. Note the whole social-signalling issue, where the mod author has to be very clear that people who use this mod are weaker and can't take the scares. (It is, in fact, the stealth mechanics that I couldn't take.) I don't read that phrasing as real contempt -- for a start, the author made the mod. They must have some empathy for me, the prospective user. But they couldn't address me directly, either! I imagine them standing in a crowd of gamer-bro stereotypes, holding up this sparkling mod... but not too high... not too far outside the circle... lest someone mistake them for some kind of... wuss.

Well, I'm happy to speak for them, and to you. Soma is a haunting game. The environments are oppressive and beautiful. The pacing ratchets nicely between exploring in the light and creeping through the dark (but always edging deeper and dimmer). Even if the monsters cannot hurt you, there is tension in where monsters might be, and where they are. And so the game works with this mod. I recommend it.

(To enable Wuss Mode for Soma on Steam, search for it in the Steam Workshop and subscribe; then launch Soma and select "Play Mod". I'm not sure if it's available in the Playstation version.)

I should talk about the narrative, but I don't have a lot to say. I'd already played The Swapper and The Talos Principle (my review) so a story based around identity-and-philosophy-of-AI? Not really new territory.

I will say that Soma manages to tie the player's actions into its philosophical concerns. (Talos didn't do that -- it had a lot of nice writing which never intersected the gameplay. As for Swapper, I'm afraid its story never made much impression on me at all.) Soma's story is a bit scattershot, but it lands a couple of solid hits which have thematic weight behind them. It's horror, but existential horror in the end.

(I will cordially disagree with the designers' decision about the final scene. Shoulda left that right out.)

(Or, okay, left it in but distanced? Third-person? I'm trying not to be spoilery here, but you see what I mean.)

(🐷 Such a shame that David Cameron resigned before I wrote this.)

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The Room 3: design ruminations

(Or "roominations", har har.)

I have finished The Room 3, third in the series of gorgeous puzzle-box games for touchscreen. I didn't know it was in production -- The Room 2 seemed to wrap up the storyline, such as it was -- but I guess the designers have decided to ride this clockwork train for as long as it ticks. I'm not objecting; this entry in the series is a satisfying chunk of puzzle manipulation. It's longer than the first two games put together, and it expands the original game mechanic into an explorable environment. (By offering an architectural space of rooms, and also adding a new "zoom into tiny sub-rooms" mechanic.)

I want to talk about one particular aspect: the storyline. In idle post-game chatter, I tweeted:

I can't say I think of these games as narrative objects at all. (--@zarfeblong)

That may sound nuts; how different is the Room series from the classically-narrative Myst series? Puzzles + journals = IF. But there must be a difference. When I said above "the storyline, such as it was", I wasn't kidding. I literally don't remember anything about the storyline of The Room and The Room 2 except that R2 seemed to wrap it up. And there was "the Null", but that's something that R3 reminded me of.

R1 had no environmental storytelling. It was ostentatiously unanchored in any physical environment. It had physicality, yes -- its puzzle-boxes were of wood, brass, glass, and steel, as conveyed by texture and sound and the direct manipulation of the touchscreen interface. But the boxes sat on spotlighted tables. The walls around you were unfocussed and dimly lit: the bare minimum to keep you feeling grounded at all. Despite the title, the game kept your attention resolutely off the room you were in.

R2 added furniture -- adjacent tables, mechanisms on the walls. Now we could talk about "the room" as a space that the game took place in. But these were still silent spaces: no history, no future.

In R3, as I said, we are given an architectural environment. We can move from room to room. We can backtrack to consider clues that were originally obscure. Occasionally the topology even becomes relevant, adding a Rhem-style puzzle or two.

These additions expand the scope for puzzle design. But do they add to the storyline? I don't think so. The journals tell us that this house is named "Greyholm", but that's the only mention of the house or anything in it, aside from undescribed "keys" and "parts of the Null". We get no history, no sense of events occurring here. We have no reason to imagine the Craftsman reading in his library or puttering in his greenhouse.

Now you may object: who says this game needs a sense of history? Perhaps the designers wanted to hew to the original R1 aesthetic -- an uncontexted puzzlebox -- while embracing the expanded puzzle possibilities of architecture. And I agree with that!

Or, from the other side: does Myst really have much more than this? Atrus writes about construction in his Ages, but you never get a picture of little Sirrus and Achenar playing in the planetarium or swimming by the dock. Myst Island resists being placed in any context beyond "they burned the library". And I agree with that too. (Although Cyan clearly saw that as a shortcoming; they stuffed as much history into Riven as it could swallow.)

So I am not criticizing The Room 3, but observing how I reacted to it: as a garden of puzzles in spotlights. The journals and letters, lacking historical context, presented themselves to me as irrelevant. So I didn't read 'em! I gave them one glance each, to check whether the pattern had been broken by a surprise clue or something, and then moved on with the "real" game.

The designers may be frustrated by this reaction. Here they are writing content and I'm ignoring it. (And I call myself a text game fan!) They're even trying to set up some narrative tension by having two sets of notes; one says "do the thing!" and the other says "it's a trap -- don't do the thing!" And I'm ignoring that too, because the game just doesn't have any space for it. There's no action you can take which corresponds to "don't fall into the trap". There are only puzzles. You solve the puzzles, or you quit out and go back to Pac-Man.

Myst, of course, set up a very similar narrative tension (red pages or blue pages?) but it managed to make it stick because you could make a choice. It was a silly choice, a clearly terrible choice, but the game let you express it. So you had a reason to at least listen. And then when the third alternative came along, you were engaged enough to count it a victory.

R3 tried an interesting variant of this. You progress through rooms, solving puzzles and collecting pieces of the Null. But as you do, you discover extra puzzles on the side. These appear unsolvable at first, but you can discover an "in" and begin solving them in parallel with the mainline puzzle rooms. Or not; up to you. If you complete both threads, then you can reach extra endings from the game's final scene.

These side puzzles are associated with the "it's a trap" notes -- but, since I was ignoring the notes, I didn't actually notice that until later. In retrospect, the designers must have intended this to be your choice: finish the main puzzle thread or the side puzzle thread? Accept the Null challenge or refuse it?

Except the game doesn't work that way at all, because puzzles are for solving. You're never forced to choose between the threads. You can work on either at your leisure; alternate threads or leave the side puzzles for later. (The side thread is unlocked by the main thread, so you can't solve it on its own. That's what makes it "side".) This is an open design (to a degree, but more open than R1 or R2 were) -- an excellent thing, but not a narrative choice. Final-scene choices are never narrative choices in the game, because the game is over.

(Yes, I'm talking about Myst here too.)

The game has structure; the main-vs-side puzzle construction is admirably clear. The final scene invites you to discover the extra endings -- unsolved puzzles, and then an extra goal beyond that -- purely through presentation. (The closing screen nudges you about which endings you've found, but it didn't have to.) My point is that this structure is not the narrative choice that the journals seem to be conveying. In fact it actively cuts against it; the game wants you to solve all the puzzles.

I'd extend this to the atmosphere, as well. The Room series has a tone of unearthly horror. But this does not flow from unreliable letter-writers or Lovecraftian tentacles. (The tentacles are kind of laughable.) It comes from the unexpected abrogation of your physical environment. You are simultaneously led to think of the world as real and as a directed dreamscape. When your expectations of structure, solidity, and architectural space fall out from under you -- that's what makes these games disturbing.

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Designing alchemy in a puzzle game

A question about Hadean Lands from the tweet gallery: "Have you written anything about how you approached designing the alchemical system?"

Excellent question! The answer is "No, but I should, shouldn't I," yes okay. (Thanks @logodaedalus.)

My twitter-sized reply was "Sound cool while supporting the puzzles," but I can say more than that.

(Note: I will start this post by talking about HL in generalities. Later on I'll get into more spoilery detail about the game structure. It won't come down to specific puzzle solutions, but I'll put in a spoiler warning anyway.)

The keynote for HL's system was the alchemy puzzle in The Dreamhold. The Dreamhold lab had just two ingredients and three actions to take, but it felt like a dense explorable territory.

Dreamhold's principle was that any action you try on a given substance will produce a new and interesting result. And then you can try new actions on that! Obviously this exponential expansion has to be tied off pretty soon. Many of the combinations converge to common outcomes. The tree is only a few steps deep, really. (I think there are twelve possible substances to find.) But it's enough to give a sense of experimentation and discovery.

For HL, I wanted that sense, but bigger. Did I succeed? Heck no! It was an impossible goal. HL has forty-odd starting ingredients and thirty-odd magic words (not to mention other ritual actions, and the environmental influences, and...). Just providing the first step of a dense exploration tree would be... well, somebody might do it, but I wasn't going to.

So I developed HL with a less ambitious principle: you get recipes. When following a recipe, you should always be able to tell a right action from a wrong one. That is, a particular magic word will produce a unique response if you use it at the right time -- different from the response you get if you use it at the wrong time. The differences may be slight, but they're perceptible.

I didn't want to entirely crush the spirit of experimentation. So the second principle was: recipes aren't everything. The opening puzzle demonstrates this, and various later puzzles require you to substitute or invert ritual elements. I set up parallel structures and oppositional structures to make that make sense.

I think everyone agrees that I didn't hit the perfect balance. The game starts you with an off-recipe puzzle, but there's too long an interval before the next one. In between are lots of recipes that you have to follow perfectly; you lose track of the initial lesson. But most players were able to get onto the right track (or jump off the wrong one, if you like).

A followup question was "Did you have alchemical dynamics in mind when making the puzzles?" The answer is... mixed.

(Spoiler warning for the overall game structure, starting here!)

The core arc of HL is the limited supply of four key elements. You need all four for the endgame, and there are intermediate goals which require two or three. So initially you can only accomplish one intermediate goal at a time; then you have to reset.

That was my initial puzzle framework. I wrote that down, and then started complicating it. What ritual needs elements X and Y? Is it the ritual itself which needs those elements, or do I invent a sub-ritual which consumes X and provides a related X2? And so on.

At this point, I was inventing puzzles and alchemical mechanics in parallel. Or rather, I was going back and forth -- every decision on one side firmed up the possibilities on the other side. I needed puzzles whose solutions would seem reasonable; I needed mechanics which would feel like parts of a plausible magical science.

You'll note that I didn't start by creating a complete magical system and then deriving puzzles from it. Nor did I invent a bunch of puzzles and then invent alchemy that could solve them. Neither approach has ever worked for me. So if you're hoping for a complete, consistent model of HL alchemy -- I'm sorry. No such thing exists.

I knew that it couldn't exist, of course. That's one reason that the alchemy is described as being eclectic and syncretic. It fits nicely with the social background, too. The real-life British Empire did steal artifacts from all over the world. I evolved the idea that a magical British Empire would lift occult knowledge from every place they conquered, and jam it all together without regard for consistency or context!

(We assume this made them better at conquering. The game doesn't touch on much history, but references to the "East Empire" imply that they've got a firm grasp on Central Europe, and no doubt the New World as well. If I were a better writer, I'd have built a story about the Navy running into aliens and trying to treat them colonially... oh, well, room for a sequel.)

(There will be no sequel. That was a joke.)

The point is, I could make up whatever alchemical rules I wanted. I tried for a balance -- consistency in some places, chaos in others. I could draw on mythical, mathematical, or religious sources without having to be accurate about any of it. Convenient!

Back to the puzzle construction. As I said, there were a few key resources whose scarcity determined the game arc. Then I invented more resources -- both ingredients and formulae -- which either resulted from or combined with the key ones.

This could itself have created an ever-expanding tree of dependencies. But I constrained it, or at least bent it back on itself, with a third principle: everything in the game should be used at least twice. Ideally, in slightly different ways.

A naive adventure game uses each item exactly once. Indeed, many graphical adventures remove things from your inventory once you've used them successfully. This cuts against your sense of immersion -- not because of the anti-realism, but because you wind up watching the game mechanics rather than the game. An object disappearing (or being checked off) is a better signal of progress than the response of the game world. Text adventures don't have this disappearance convention; nonethless, the player learns to keep track of what's been used and ignore it thereafter.

I would rather teach the player that there's always more to learn. You may think you understand an item, but you still have to keep it in mind for future use. You have to keep everything in the game in mind at all times. This is the underlying challenge.

So I went over and over the list of rituals, looking for singletons. Magic word used only once? Work it into a new ritual. Alchemical potion only solves one puzzle? Invent a new place to use it. This added a richness to the mechanics. Two uses of a reagent imply there must be more; you have the sense that there must be underlying laws to explain it all. This is, as I said, an illusion; but it's a well-supported illusion.

Of course, it added up to a gob-smacking number of puzzles. Fortunately (or perhaps not), I was blessed with a very large list of formulae, resources, and recipes to scatter around the Retort. I could "use up" these extra puzzles as obstacles to various resources. (Thus all the locked cabinets.)

Also, since these puzzles weren't involved in the key resource plotline, it was okay if they had multiple solutions. (Some of the cabinets can be opened two or three ways.)

The final principle of Hadean Lands: involve all the senses. Let me go back to a line that I quoted in 2010, explaining the HL Kickstarter:

"If a witch could teleport (a thing that seems impossible, but I could be wrong), it would involve hours of preparation, rituals, chanting, and filling all the senses with the desired result until the spell would work in a blinding explosion of emotional fulfillment." (Steven Brust, Taltos)

Magic should be a transcendent experience. I tried to describe the effects of your rituals in colors, textures, sounds, scents... even the words that you speak are given synesthetic weight. Not to mention the ineffable air of things going wrong or right (so useful for cueing mistakes).

Of course, an adventure game involves lots of repetition, and nothing wears out faster than a repeated sense of transcendence. (Except maybe humor.) I dodged this problem with HL's PERFORM mechanic. When you PERFORM a known ritual, it doesn't repeat all of the descriptive text; I kept the output bare and mechanical. You're not reading it anyway! You just want to know whether the ritual succeeded. This preserves your sense of involvement with new rituals.

(Admittedly this falls apart when you're failing at a new ritual. That's a somewhat repetitive experience -- inevitably, I think.)

So there are my principles of magic design. I don't suppose I sound like a Hermetic occultist. I hope I do sound like a writer or designer describing his craft, because that's what this is. A lot of fussy details and a clear plan, is all.

Like the man said: writing is the art of causing change in a consenting reader, in accordance with the writer's will. You gotta be pragmatic about that stuff or you'll get nowhere.

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The Talos Principle: design ruminations

As it happens I replayed Portal 2 right before The Talos Principle launched. That's gotta be the last thing a game designer wants to hear, right? "We don't use the term 'Portal-like', but, sure, Talos is... wait, you just replayed Portal? You couldn't have waited a couple of weeks in between?"

(I haven't gone to check whether the designers used the term "Portal-like". Nobody's going to disagree with it, nohow.)

Talos is a pleasant puzzle game with a nice script and good art and bullet-holes in several of its own feet. I recommend it but I wish it had fewer self-inflicted wounds.

(Note: in a "ruminations" post I don't offer an overall review. Instead, I focus on particular areas of design that I find interesting -- or problematic. So don't freak out just because I complain a lot.)

I hate to say this: Talos's problem feels like laziness. I hate to say it because the creators are not lazy. They worked hard. There's plenty of game here, but... well, I stand by this tweet:

Talos Principle has some great stuff, but wow, serious case of "Made a large game because it was easier than making a small one." (@zarfeblong, Dec 15 2014)

Let me talk about the structure. Talos is a bunch of puzzle areas with a hub-and-spoke structure, and once you unlock a few of those you reach a higher-level hub which leads to six more puzzle hubs, and then you unlock a third level. It's a lot of puzzles, but they open out in a nicely paced way. There are a bunch of puzzle mechanics, which interact in clever ways. Some of these mechanics are available immediately; others have to be unlocked by solving earlier puzzles. Then there are some bonus puzzles, which unlock optional puzzle hubs. There's an endgame sequence, which is a series of puzzles that you unlock as you complete the body of the game. When you get through those, you reach one big final "boss" puzzle.

So what's wrong with any of that? Nothing, except that word "unlock" which you just read five times in a row. See, the reward for every puzzle is a "sigil", a.k.a. a tetromino (a.k.a. a Tetris piece). To actually unlock every part of the game, you take your six-to-ten tetrominoes and fit them into a rectangle. Music plays, angels cheer, the lock opens.

There are... oh, I didn't count, let's say approximately one hundred and eleventy-one tetromino puzzles in Talos, in between (and gating) the actual puzzles. The actual puzzles are creative, engaging, and constantly demand creative thought about new ways to combine the basic mechanics. The tetromino puzzles are all exactly the same.

Hear us. We're not shouting "Oh, yay, another forty-leven tetromino puzzles!" What you hear are ceaseless mutters: "Not another damn tetromino puzzle." Cleverness is not required; in fact it's useless. You just have to put pieces in the grid and shuffle them around until they fit. Again.

(I try to imagine replaying Talos, like I've replayed the Portal games. Going through the puzzles would be fast, if I remembered the solutions, or fun, if I had to figure them out again. That's the adventure tradition. Going through the tetromino locks -- would be exactly as tedious as it was the first time.)

This is laziness. The designers had a structure, and they forced themselves to put creative puzzles in the structure, and then there's the rest of this boilerplate where they said "Tetrominoes" and never thought about it again. Or maybe they thought about it and decided not to do anything about it.

What could they have done? Variations. Triangles and hexagons. Pieces that you have to stack instead of tile. Anti-tiles. Transparent tiles. Diagonal tiles. Tiles that you have to flip over. Letter tiles that make words. They could have gone metapuzzle and made you reuse the basic game mechanics in the tetromino puzzles. Add your own ideas here. Anything but another sixty-twelve rectangular tetromino grids.

The designers had so many tetromino puzzles lined up that they released the extras as a separate game on Steam. Look, people, when you can generate that many shallow variations off the cuff, it doesn't mean you have a puzzle bounty. It means your players got tired of that puzzle model back in the 1990s.

I could extend this complaint to other aspects of the game. The scenery is pretty, as I said, but perhaps there's too much terrain and not enough variation in the decor? I suppose I'm stretching my point. The three worlds are three distinctly different landscapes (and the hub world is a fourth); the zones within these are variations on the theme. They made an effort. If I weren't already exercised about repetition, I could let it slide. But... no, it's a bit too much terrain and not quite enough variation.

Do there need to be, what is it, ninety-odd puzzle areas? Portal and Portal 2 together don't have that many. Talos's are all good puzzles, sure, but you could have cut some. I know -- it's a thorny thicket of audience expectation -- "$35 game, gotta satisfy the players" -- there are always complainers.

But you could have tightened Talos up. Really. It would have been extra work, because editing is hard; killing your darlings is hard. But you'd have made a better game.

On the plus side, there's a clear distinction between the main puzzles (clearly presented, well-demarcated areas, smooth difficulty curve) and the optional "star" puzzles (out-of-the-box thinking, hidden secrets, random exploration required, goofily hard). That's the right way to put your wild ideas and extra content into the game.

(I'm a bit grumpy that the bonus stars unlock bonus puzzle areas. (With, yes, more tetromino locks.) The point is that players should solve all the main puzzles but struggle with the bonus puzzles; they'll only solve a few of those. (I only solved eleven.) But then why make some of the bonus puzzles extra-hard to reach? Offer them all, let people solve what they can solve.)

Nothing that I've said implies bad game design. These are places where the design could be better. The only failure is the failure to take that extra step. Or, okay, to run that extra mile. (The hardest mile of the marathon, to be sure.)

...And then we reach the boss puzzle, the place where I nearly stopped playing. I get that you want to impart a sense of urgency. But a time limit on thinky-puzzles just sucks. Lack of checkpoints, that sucks the giant oozing slimy banana-slug of suck.

What's that you say? Both Portal and Portal 2 had time limits in their endgame puzzles? Yes, but they had really good checkpointing. If the neurotoxin killed you, you restarted that stage of the endgame, working on the same task as before.

When you die in the Talos endgame (and you will), you start it all over. There are five stages; I must have repeated that first stage six times. Why the hell is that a good idea? I already solved it! Five times! Let me work on the puzzle that I'm stuck on!

Did you have any play-testers? Did they say "Oh, well, solving the same puzzle over and over is the best part of your game"? Or had you already destroyed their will to live with tetrominoes? What's frustrating is that if there had been checkpoints, the time limit wouldn't have bugged me; and if there had been no time limit, the lack of checkpoints wouldn't have bugged me. (Much.)

I got through it eventually. (After giving up, going to bed, and re-launching the game the next day. Not eagerly; with fear and trepidation and grumpiness.) I got the good ending (or as good as it gets without obsessively walk-through-ing the bonus stars, which I don't intend to do).

...I haven't discussed the script or the narrative, and I should, because they're solid. Talos uses the "trawl historical databases about the end of civilization" story model, well-known from games such as (sorry) Portal. Then, slowly, a more interactive element intrudes.

This isn't the usual sort of "I am an NPC, you are a PC, let's have a conversation that moves the story along" thing. I mean -- it is, but the format is -- okay, this is going to sound silly -- the format is a sophomore late-night stoned philosophy bull session.

Let me back up. The concern of Talos is free will and moral agency. The interactive dialogue is an interrogation of your ideas on those topics. It asks you questions and then (in the manner of all sophomore stoned philosophy sessions) tries to undermine your answers with thought experiments and more questions.

Of course (and ironically) the machinery behind this is a bog-standard menu-choice dialogue tree. (With some state.) But it carries off the illusion surprisingly well, just by tracking your answers and reflecting them back at you. It's a sneaky trickster character, so its voice shifts occasionally, which keeps it feeling fresh. And since any sophomore argument about free will and morality can be summed up in one line, and demolished in another line, the dialogue-tree format actually fits really well.

I don't think it's revolutionary IF technique. It wouldn't apply to most games. But it's a nice marriage of theme to a familiar form.

So that's what I've got. I recommend The Talos Principle -- with reservations. No, I haven't talked about the good puzzle design; there's plenty of good in there. You'll enjoy the game. You just have to get through a lot of frustrating moments as well.

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Raetikon, Fract

This week I tried two different puzzle/exploration games. They were both pretty cool, but I only finished one of them. Does this mean I am going to delve into details of game design? Yes!

Oh, sure, it'll boil down to personal preference -- but details can be fun.

Secrets of Raetikon (I'll spare you the ligature) is a... somebody asked me what genre it was, and I said "Fez." "Oh," they replied, "an artsy pixel platformer." Yes, except that there are no pixels -- it's all vector art -- and there are no platforms -- you're a bird, you fly everywhere. But it's got a simple cipher alphabet that most players ignore, and doesn't that sum up Fez better than anything?

This used to be called "action-adventure", back when there were enough games-like-Soul-Reaver to be considered a genre. That is, 3D games where you jump around but it's not cartoony and you're not collecting coins. But then the 2D ones wound up called "metroidvania" -- except that term implies gaining abilities over time. (As Fez does.) Raetikon is 2D but I don't think it has the notion of gaining abilities. Maybe it does! I didn't get very far into it.

(Speaking of Soul Reaver, I hear that the license has bought up by somebody doing a team brawler game. I regard that with about as much enthusiasm as the idea of Zork as a casual MMO. I saw at least two terrific Raziel costumes at PAX this year, and this is how you repay fandom? Oh, ye classic IPs of yore...)

Sorry. Maundering. Genre amuses me.

Raetikon has a killer visual style. It does a good job of conveying some game mechanics and goals in the first few minutes of play. You're a bird; you can swoop around grabbing rocks and branches and stuff. There are dots to find. (You could reasonably call them coins...) I flew around finding dots, and secret caves, and secret caves full of dots -- until some jerk bird stooped on me and blood flew everywhere.

Okay, it's a 2D action game with enemies. That's very common; the default model of action games, even. But in this one you don't seem to have a way to attack. You have to dodge, which involved a lot more flailing than it did dexterity. I was using the keyboard, mind you, and the game recommends a gamepad. Maybe that was the problem. But from that point on my exploration was just... a lot more work than I wanted to put in.

I managed to find another one of the game's goal-objects (dodging more birds and an evil-ass lynx). Then, as I toted the object home, a full-on asshole of a bird dived on me and stole it. Seriously, I think it was Yelling Bird from Questionable Content. I flailed some more and managed to get the object back, but then Yelling Bird stole the next one I found too -- after the lynx chewed on me several more times -- and I just could not summon the energy to keep trying.

There are several negative factors that stacked up here:

  • Like I said, no gamepad.
  • Having enemies that I could not get rid of. Usually these games are about exploration, with fighting as a way to pace out the world. But that implies that you can neutralize the enemies and get back to the exploration.
  • Death sends you back to the beginning. The world isn't enormous (so far) but trekking back to where you died is not appealing. (And when you do get there, whatever killed you is still waiting.)
  • I got lost sometimes. (But see next review.)
  • Having an enemy swoop in and steal your reward for solving a puzzle. This was way more discouraging than it should have been.

Maybe these are problems to be solved, rather than strict game limitations. If so I never saw ways to attack them. Should I be throwing dead rabbits to the lynx to distract it? I don't know. The game seemed to be offering mechanics of exploration, magic-collection, and physical environment puzzles. (Rolling rocks downhill to break a tree, etc.) Animal interactions didn't occur to me.

Anyhow. This is maundering again. I bogged down in Raetikon. I'm sad about that because the puzzles and exploration seemed neat. On to the next game.

Fract (I'll spare you the all-caps) is... everybody reaches for Myst as the comparison. This is entirely fair. It's got big environmental puzzles embedded in pretty landscapes, and it's got abstract combination locks with clues that you find scattered around the world. But Fract diverges from the Myst model in some subtle ways which I think have gone unappreciated.

(Footnote: Fract is possibly titled "Fract Osc", or "Fract OSC". The game site waffles on the "OSC" part. ("Original Sound Creation"? "Original Sound Crack"?) I guess some trademark conflict appeared late in development. If nothing else it gives them room to name the sequel "FRACT REVERB" or something.)

Anyhow. The Myst series was justly famed for landscapes, but Fract does fantastically well at big landscape. It is one enormous world that you can walk across, one end to the other, and the sense of scale is palpable.

The Myst games archetypically restricted themselves to islands. Even when the series broke out into free-roaming 3D (Uru and Myst 5), the worlds had the sense of mazes -- networks of limited pathways -- or else broad but featureless spaces marked by a few interesting highlights. This is an inevitable consequence of the highly-detailed visual style of those games. The artists could only build so much interesting scenery. Recent games such as Dear Esther have followed suit. It's only the super-big-budget games (Darksiders, WoW, etc) which have been able to build truly continuous large worlds.

Fract is an indie game with a very abstract style: all flat neon colors and light. This gives the designers the freedom to build really enormous landscapes which are geometrically interesting. There are mountains, craters, abyssal chasms filled with glowing crystals. Some regions delve underground, but the passageways are never cramped; they liberally open up into vast caves or openings to the larger spaces outdoors. (Indeed the distinction between "underground" and "outdoors" is vague, conveyed more through lighting than through a lowering roof.)

So you wander around, guided by the game, but without the sense of exploring a maze. And you get lost -- at least I did.

The nice thing here is that while the space is large, it is learnable. This is again a personal balance. I spent a couple of play sessions completely disoriented, with no sense of how different parts of the landscape related to each other. That got me through about 75% of the game. Then I sat down and said "Okay, dammit, time to stop being lost." I explored with intention, paid attention to landmarks, looked out across vistas, and pretty quickly found my way to the remaining areas that I'd missed.

Contrast Raetikon, where I had the getting-lost experience, but never put in the effort to get oriented. I expect Raetikon is just as learnable -- it's 2D, but with no long-distance view, which probably balances out. I just got bogged down before I got to the learning stage.

Fract's puzzles are pretty good, but they don't overshadow the exploration aspect of the game. This may disappoint people who are playing for the puzzle-fest aspect. (It didn't bother me at all.)

I'm not saying that that the puzzles are easy. The problem (if you call it a problem) is that there are just a handful of puzzle types, iterated with increasing complexity. So the game doesn't have that Myst quality of constantly throwing new stuff at you. When you're exploring the Bass area (for example), you know that each stage will be a pipe-puzzle followed by a gate-puzzle. The last pipe-puzzle is quite difficult, in fact, but there's no surprise in discovering it.

Happily, the endgame puzzle is a complex piece built out of completely new mechanics. It's not a Mystery-Hunt style metapuzzle, but it ties together bits of the game in a pleasingly thematic way.

(For those of you who don't know metapuzzles, I mean a puzzle that ties together all the game's puzzles in a puzzly way. I finished Fract's final puzzle without noticing how all the rest of the game fit together. That only struck me afterwards. In a Hunt-style metapuzzle, I would have had to figure that out in order to solve the endgame.) (Of course, that would be a harder game structure. Too hard for the general adventure audience? Probably not, in these days of forums and walkthroughs, but it would definitely be a community solving experience for most people rather than a solo experience.)

Fract's puzzles are mostly variations on a theme, but they have some interesting qualities. For a start, they all have a musical theme. (I just murdered a pun, didn't I.) So as you solve the puzzles, the world acquires more and more beats and rhythms in various locations. The larger puzzles, of course, light up large sections of the world with power chords. It was very satisfying to plow through the endgame at 2 AM, with the lights off and the speakers turned up. oontz oontz oontz

This kind of purely sensual reward hasn't been well-exploited by the adventure genre. (The ball-ride in Myst 3 is a standout exception.) But it's not just a matter of "solve puzzle, get cool tunes." Many of the puzzles -- though not all -- have a "loose" quality. You have some leeway in how you reach the goal. This is particularly true in the big section-end puzzles and the endgame, which have mechanisms which seem entirely irrelevant to the solution. You have to turn them on, but it doesn't matter how you set them.

In the common puzzle tradition, these are red herrings, and players hate them. They distract you from the important mechanisms without adding to the puzzle. But in Fract, they have an obvious purpose: they change the tunes! You have direct control over the melody that the world-instrument plays. By the time you finish the endgame puzzle, you're surrounded by layers of notes that represent your moves. It really is kind of tempting to go back and adjust everything to sound better.

(Although you don't have to. There's a "Studio", outside the game, which gives you a direct synthesizer interface. The controls are unlocked as you solve puzzles. So I could be building a tune for you right now! But instead I'm writing this review. You're welcome.)

I should note that the looseness of the puzzles extends to the landscape. While it's open, there are some barriers that are meant to structure your progression. In a few places I managed to short-circuit them. This didn't break the game; it rather fit in with the puzzle structure. But there was one spinny-platform puzzle that I definitely solved backwards.

It's worth contrasting Fract (exploration paced with puzzles) with Raetikon (exploration and puzzles paced with combat, or at least active enemies). Almost nothing can hurt you in Fract -- the exceptions are falling into glowing "water", and one puzzle type that can mash you in a closing gate. In those cases, you snap back to the most recent of the (ubiquitous) checkpoints.

Passive dangers and frequent checkpoints are clearly a workable model for an exploration game. I'd say that Raetikon would have worked just as well with that model. I'm not sure what design process led to Yelling Bird and Bitey Lynx. Maybe the rest of the game makes that clearer. Maybe at some point I will return and try to reach the rest of the game, but at the moment I'm thinking not.

So there we are. Two games, and I finished one of them. It's all my fault, but there are reasons.

(I will vigorously resist the suggestion that I finished Fract because it's basically Tron fanfic. But I will note that Distance, a racer that got Kickstarted a while ago, is even more Tron fanfic...)

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Emergent gameplay vs whatever the other kind is

I spent the weekend at a delightful little game-dev conference at NYU. Much cool stuff happened there. However, I want to focus on Saturday morning.

Saturday's first talk was by Warren Spector, who has recently switched from developing games (Deus Ex, etc) to teaching the subject at UTexas. His thesis was simple: emergent gameplay, emergent gameplay, emergent gameplay are you listening people.

Here's a writeup of Spector's talk, thanks to Leigh Alexander and Gamasutra.

(Footnote: the quality of emergent gameplay should be referred to as "emergency". As in, "Yeah, that game had a lot of emergency." Hat tip to Vernor Vinge for pointing this out.)

Spector tried not to say "Everything else sucks." He stated right off that he was oversimplifying, and that he's just presenting the kind of games that interest him. But it was hard to avoid the subtext that any scripted, linear, or single-solution interaction was inferior -- bad game design. Inherently. That if players tried the emergent (simulative, rules-based) gameplay they'd be happier and never go back.

This led to a lot of backchannel muttering among the audience; you can scroll back through the #practice2013 Twitter hashtag if you want the dirt. I disagreed, Emily Short disagreed. But one can only fit so much pith into tweets, of course.

Then the next two speakers (Soren Johnson and Keith Burgun) started their presentations with exactly the same analytic framework: linear versus generative, scripted versus emergent. And they seemed to assume that this question was settled -- that all of us were already committed to the emergent end of that dichotomy.

So. I am not part of that stampede. I disagree with the conclusion, and I disagree with the premise.

First: this emergent-vs-linear thing is oversimplified, just as Spector said. Any analytical model is simplified, but this is the bad kind; it trims away something crucial. One of the later speakers posted a slide with a linear-to-emergent scale: games could be placed at any point along the scale. But this is still too simple!

A game can do more than one thing. Most do. To describe a game, you need a whole stack of scales. For example, Bioshock (the first) gives you:

  • free movement in a complex spatial environment;
  • a fairly rich array of tactical combos for combat (built on power and weapon upgrades chosen over time);
  • exploration through a branching tree of rooms (with much backtracking as you achieve goals and are rewarded with new tools and options);
  • an irregular sequence of environmental puzzles, each of which has a single solution to be discovered;
  • an infrequent sequence of binary choices for dealing with Little Sisters;
  • a fixed sequence of story chapters leading to a narrowly forked ending scene.

So what in there makes Bioshock a "linear" game? Certainly the last aspect. Certainly not the first two. The middle ones are worth an argument in their own right. So, can you ignore the combat or the Little Sisters or the overall storyline, and still claim to describe Bioshock as a whole?

Heck, look at Myst. For twenty years, gamers have been dismissing Myst as a linear slideshow -- while other gamers remember it as a completely open, unconstrained, explorable environment. I refuse to declare that either view is wrong. Surely this demonstrates that there's more than one layer here? Every "emergent" game has scripted aspects to it, and every "linear" game has aspects of surprise, and they can both be happening at the same time in different ways.

Moving on.

One of Spector's repeated points was (I paraphrase) "If you create a clever puzzle with a solution, you're showing how clever you are. Let the players show how clever they are." And much other language about "putting players in control."

I find this painfully misleading. For a start, complicated systems are expressions of the designer's intent! If they weren't, we wouldn't have to spend so much effort tweaking, adjusting, and getting them right! (The word "right" is itself an admission.) To quote some of the replies:

ok look when "emergent" interactions occur they're part of the possibility space the designer set up, not magic out of nowhere (-- Michael Brough)

it is possible for the rule set itself to express a world view; emergent gameplay != absent designer (-- Emily Short)

Or, in my own words: bringing more player agency into the experience does not mean pushing authorial agency out. It makes authorial agency different, more complicated, yes. But the simplistic see-saw trade-off is a phantom terror.

Go back to Spector's immediate statement. Is it bad to work very hard, to be extremely creative, in designing a puzzle? Shouldn't we laud that effort, when the designer chooses to put it in? Surely the point of emergent gameplay isn't to let the designer be lazy. (If so, it's not working, nohow.)

No, what Spector wants -- rightly -- is to permit the player to be creative. We both treasure games that require the player to think creatively. We don't seem to agree on what that means, though.

Most of my text games hearken back to old-school IF: puzzle situations, unique solutions, hand-crafted outcomes. Two people who finish Spider and Web will, ultimately, have found the same solution for every puzzle. And I thought of that solution before either of them. But does this mean that they have not been playing creatively?

I say they have been. The work of solving these puzzles -- the play experience -- is of experimentation, discovery, and then synthesis of the results in a way which was not immediately obvious. That's creative thought. Dismissing this as "square key in square hole" is ignoring the point.

IF traditionally builds a complex, rule-based world out of hand-crafted, unique responses. One action is shallow. A hundred actions, revealing common underlying rules, is a fluid environment. (That's why "square key in square hole" is an oversimplification. A puzzle with one clue, one option, and one action is a trivial toy.) Seeing unexpected possibilities in a fluid environment is... exactly what Spector says he wants.

random thought: at one point if a dialog tree is big enough, it will FEEL emergent. Is that what matters? (-- Reynaldo Vargas)

Yes. (I could quibble about "tree" being a prejudicial term here. Make it big and stateful, and it'll stop being a tree. Down that path lies Versu.)

Switch to a more familiar example: the crossword puzzle. It has a single solution (unless the designer has been really creative). But you have to be clever to find it. Crossword solving is not a monotonous dictionary attack. Puzzle fiends then move on to baroque variations (the cryptic crossword, the variety cryptic... the MIT Mystery Hunt) which require even more creative thought to solve. Yes, the designer has to be cleverer yet. Crosswords are harder to construct than to solve. I don't see that as a reason to criticize; I'm grateful to the designers.

Let me wrap up by stepping back. I am not an enemy of emergent gameplay. It's awesome. I try to build my games, even the tiny ones, around an explorable mechanic with complex, generative results. I love Spector's pithy metric: how much do you know in advance about a player's play experience? That's an important question; it permeates every design decision you will make. (To say nothing of the crass realities of replayability and Internet walkthroughs.)

But I do not accept that this is a quality metric. It doesn't tell you whether a game is superior, or even (if you dare ask) "more fun". And it's not a simple metric. You don't ask that question once per game. You ask it over and over, interrogating each aspect and element of your design. Never "is this an emergent game" (blech); rather "what are the emergent interactions in this game?"

Go now and do likewise.

Footnote 1: There's a whole subdiscussion to be had about minimalist games -- games which have been boiled down to a single core mechanic. (This was the focus of Keith Burgun's talk.) To the extent this is possible (Go already exists!) it avoids much of my argument. Some games really are doing only one thing! And if so, you'd better get as much oomph as possible from that one mechanic.

But let's not confuse the simple case with the general case. Commercial games tend to be large, rather than minimal. And both in and out of industry, genres love to hybridize, forming interesting compounds and complexes.

Footnote 2: I forget what footnote 2 was.

Footnote 3: Don't imagine that the entire conference was a buzzsaw of absolutist "emergent" rhetoric. Later on Saturday, Emily Short sat next to a couple of the Walking Dead designers and they talked about the balance between generativity and prescription. No, it wasn't a counter-spinning buzzsaw of authorial control. Nobody wants that. Tradeoffs are always where the interesting design is.

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Slash Fiction and other puzzles

mime_slashfiction.pngAs I have done every year since 2004, I spent the second weekend in January playing (or solving, to use the field-specific lingo) in the MIT Mystery Hunt. I always feel quite privileged to play; each hunt iteration represents a one-time-only interactive artwork that a team of passionate amateurs spends the better part of a year planning and constructing, culminating in a single weekend where a thousand puzzle-hungry solvers trample through it.

Like an informational World’s Fair, it leaves its husk behind for the late-but-curious to tour: you may browse all this year’s puzzles online, and note that they seem to be arranged around a theme of ill-advised Broadway mashups. Without the context of the hunt alive around them, though, the puzzles lose a certain amount of motive force. When presented all at once like this, they lack the light but necessary hunt-specific narrative that organizes paths for the solver to follow. (This year, it featured a storyline based on the further adventures of the swindling showmen from The Producers.)

I would also argue that, even though each puzzle now links to its own solution page, these puzzles must still seem impossibly obscure to curious layfolk who stumble upon them. So in this article, rather than examine the hunt’s overall form where carefully paced groups of puzzle-sets slowly reveal the twisty superstructures of meta-puzzles, I’d like to highlight a few of the several dozen individual challenges which defined the weekend for the hunt’s players.

Let’s start with the puzzle titled Slash Fiction, designed by (and starring) Seth Schoen and Vera Yin. It makes a nice blog-post headliner because it happens to take the form of a six-minute video, one as fun to watch as to solve.

Have you watched it? All right, then: your challenge, as with every hunt puzzle, is to somehow definitively produce an English word or phrase based on this input.

A novice solver might start searching through the video to see if the answer word flashes by at some point, or might forgo analysis entirely to simply guess answers like MIMES or PARIS. A more experienced solver knows that well-constructed puzzles avoid expressing any information that don’t contribute to their own answers. This player will take the more fruitful route of examining the video shot-by-shot, probably creating their own table of contents for the video on paper or in a spreadsheet. They would then proceed to look for interesting patterns, and move forward from there.

In this case, the first level of pattern that emerges is that the video is broken neatly into groups of three shots: first the gentleman-mime does something in close-up, followed by an oddly minimal intertitle of “/” (or sometimes “/x-“), after which the lady-mime does something else in a sunny urban setting. After a flash of static, the pattern repeats. The video contains twelve twenty of these static-separated scene-triplets, and nothing else (beyond a delightful accordion-and-piano soundtrack). [Thanks to Seth Schoen for the correction.]

Having built a neat three-by-twenty table describing the scenes, a seasoned solver now has reason to suspect that each such triplet corresponds to a single alphabetical letter, and that these letters should, when ordered properly, spell out an answer. This may seem like quite a logical leap to the uninitiated! However, encoding letters into distinctly non-alphanumeric stimuli (such as video snippets of capering mimes) represents a very common design pattern in hunt-style puzzles, and solvers who’ve played through a hunt or two learn to recognize its signs. The solver’s ability to organize the puzzle’s surface-data into a regular table is a strong indicator that this puzzle involves a string of encoded letters, one letter per table-row.

So now, there is the simple matter of working out those letters, as well as the order in which to arrange them. This particular puzzle calls for further pattern recognition regarding the landmarks which the lady-mime cavorts around, as well the significance of the mimes’ antics paired with those odd intertitles. The willingness to perfom a bit of web-based research helps in both cases. I invite the reader to try working out the answer, perhaps with a friend or two. You can find the answer, along with a full explanation of its derivation, on the puzzle’s solution page.

It happens that I didn’t get to work on Slash Fiction during the hunt, sadly. I, a single player from a team of around 40 solvers, see only a few puzzles on any given hunt weekend. A typical puzzle can take hours to work through, while the hunt only lasts two or three days — and unlike some of my harder-core teammates, I like to leave campus at night to sleep in my own bed. Before calling a taxi home on Friday night, however, I had the pleasure of solving most of Andrew Lin, Elan Pavlov, and Jit Hin Tan’s The Undiscovered Underground, a puzzle which, while suffering from broken design, worked well enough to lead two teammates and I to build a very satisfying logical bridge, and follow it up with an unexpected and rewarding bout of real-world exploration.

As this puzzle is literally unsolvable by people who don’t happen to have immediate access to the MIT campus, I shall speak less coyly about its construction. The puzzle presents you with a faux text adventure. While its title and opening paragraph both directly quote a real game, the rest of the text is only Infocom-esque pastiche, with no real next parser; the player may only key in compass directions to move around the game’s map, unable to interact with anything its text mentions.

Clearly, the first step to cracking this one involves drawing that map on paper. A wise solver will follow up by marking the map with the locations of all the conspicuously repeating props and phrases that appear throughout the text, such as mentions of carrier pigeons or the message “you can rest here”. Steps three through ten, for my two co-solvers and I, involved turning this information around every which way. My friends experimented with folding the map into some sort of three-dimensional object — maybe you were traversing the inside of an person’s body, somehow? — while I played through the actual Undiscovered Underground interactive Fiction game, looking for similarities with the puzzle text.

After an hour or two of this, we took a break to compare notes and bat ideas around out loud. This is when I hit on a breakthrough: one room’s description of three portals leading to vertical shafts, one strangely giant-sized, reminded me of the elevator doors found on every floor of the very building we all sat in, which included an extra-large freight elevator. So if mentions of “vertical shafts” referred to real-life elevators, then the “carrier pigeons” might be… mailboxes? On a hunch, we called over another teammate, an MIT alumnus intimately familiar with the university’s famous underground tunnel system. “Oh yeah,” he said, as soon as he saw our drawn-out game map. “This part here’s under Lobby 7, and over here would be underneath Building 26…”

After getting directions to the nearest mapped intersection our teammate recognized, the three of us bolted down the stairs and into the tunnels. Very quickly, and to our profound delight, we saw we were right: the “pigeons” were indeed FedEx drop boxes, while “you can rest” statements pointed to nearby bathrooms. Other notable features of various tunnel locations all appeared in the game text, though similarly obscured into the language of fantasy role-playing quests. Most rewardingly, every place the text mentioned a pile of coins, there existed in reality a plaque with a you-are-here map of the whole tunnel system. Each of the 20 plaques we found prominently featured a single, large, unique letter. Score! Surely, we were steps away from the answer now. Once we completed our unexpected guided tour through MIT’s bowels, we rushed back to the our team’s headquarters to wrap the puzzle up.

Unfortunately, our team progressed no further with this puzzle. Unlike an elegantly constructed puzzle like Slash Fiction, The Undiscovered Underground presents far too much information. We had connections between these screenfuls of bogus text-adventure text and letters, but no idea how to shake an answer out of them, because there were so many things we could do. And the connection with the actual Infocom game continued to nag at us — why would the fake game’s text extensively quote the real game, if it wasn’t important somehow? Before we gave up, we pursued the possibility that the game’s exact wording about whether you picked up the coins you found clued whether you should “pick up” the associated letter and add it to the answer, but that went nowhere.

As the puzzle’s solution page states, the real answer involves taking note of features in the map that weren’t reflected in the actual tunnels, and using only those locations’ letters to spell out the answer. Sadly, this wouldn’t have worked for us: in at least one case, I was able to connect one of these extraneous features (“a temple to the goddess of wisdom” — a reference to Athena, MIT’s campus computer network) to an object at that location the designers apparently hadn’t noticed (a locked but clearly labeled network-utility closet). The following afternoon, during the hosting team’s wrap-up presentation, The Undiscovered Underground received some catcalls and boos, so I suspect we were not the only players who fell victim to a puzzle that asked its solvers to not pattern-match as much as they could.

In closing, I can link with pride to Andrew Lin’s Any Old Puzzle, the only puzzle I managed to definitively co-solve all weekend, right up to confirming the correct answer. I suspect, alas, that it was also one of the easier ones (though not the most minimal). If you can wring the right word out of this one, you’re at least as good a solver as I.

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Dan Feyer Facts

Dan Feyer won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this past weekend. Andrew Greene has collected a list of #ChuckNorrisFacts-style jokes about his preternatural grid-filling abilities, penned by those who were humbled by him in person. A sampling:

I once had an idea for a crossword but I decided not to construct it because Dan Feyer had already solved it.

When Will Shortz says “On your marks, get set, GO!”, Dan Feyer gets up and goes, because he’s done.

IBM considered calling its Jeopardy computer “FEYER” but didn’t want to insult Dan Feyer.

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Thumbdrive Riddler is never gonna give you up

RiddlerLast year at PAX East, an anonymous riddler dropped a stack of mysterious USB thumbdrives in the People’s Republic’s hospitality suite. The Wingding characters emblazoned upon them, it turned out, were the first key to cracking the code-based puzzles found in the drives’ data. The rewards were a series of playable Infocom spoofs, starting with a mutation of Zork where the thief appears to have been replaced with Rick Astley. (He sings exactly what you’d expect.)

At PAX east 2011, they struck again, silently insinuating one more thumbdrive into the suite’s washroom. I discovered it while helping to lock the place up on Sunday, pocketed it… and immediately forgot about it. But then, just last night, a twitter account connected with last year’s riddles cleared its throat at us, and I remembered again! Much frenzied solving on IFMud followed.

Solvers were curious at the payload’s size, which at more than 60 MB is far larger than any of last year’s puzzle-packets. “It might be just a giant rickroll,” I suggested, and… well, you can read the results yourself.

As I write this, the solvers on the Mud are still scratching their heads over what appears to be an audio-steganography puzzle. If you’d like to lend a hand, you can grab your own copy of the thumbdrive’s contents and then join us on IFMud, where we’re using the chat-channel #PAX-USB-drive.

Update: Wow, looks like the team on the Mud cracked it literally within minutes of my posting this. Nice job! (The transcript linked above now reflects this.)

I’d like to offer my appreciation to the merry pranksters who are keeping this little game going. We’re all having fun with it, and even if it sometimes takes us adventure-game fanatics a little while to figure out where the puzzles are, at least we’re in-character enough to pick up and carry around everything that looks remotely interesting.

Image credit: Photograph by David Marriott Jr. (CC BY-NC-ND)

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Puzzle structure in 2015

I recently read Tony Bourdain's Medium Raw, which was a fascinating look into the world of people who are really, really interested in food. I like food. These people think about food more than I do. So much so that I can barely understand their explanations.

At my first meal at Momofuku Ssäm, one particular dish slapped me upside the head [...] It was a riff on a classic French salad of frisée aux lardons: a respectful version of the bistro staple -- smallish, garnished with puffy fried chicharrones of pork skin instead of the usual bacon, and topped with a wonderfully runny, perfectly poached quail egg. Good enough [...] But the salad sat on top of a wildly incongruous stew of spicy, Korean-style tripe -- and it was, well, it was... genius. Here, on the one hand, was everything I usually hate about modern cooking -- and in one bowl, no less. It was "fusion" -- in the sense that it combined a perfectly good European classic with Asian ingredients and preparation. It was post-modern and contained my least favorite ingredient these days: irony. [...] But this was truly audacious. It was fucking delicious. And it had tripe in it.

(--from Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain, chapter 17)

Mind you, the whole book isn't like that. Bourdain talks about everything from hamburgers, to fatherhood, to foie gras, to the Food Network, to the stupid things he wrote in his first book. But that paragraph in particular grabbed me because I have no idea what he's talking about. I can look up the recipe (frisée lettuce with hot pork, vinaigrette); maybe I've even eaten it somewhere. I've eaten spicy Korean stews. But why is this ironic? Or audacious? What is it reacting against? What are the things it is reacting against reacting against? If I'd been sitting next to Bourdain, eating off his plate, I still wouldn't have a clue.

I recalled this paragraph on Sunday afternoon, sitting in an MIT auditorium, listening to the designers of the 2011 Mystery Hunt talk about their puzzle structures. I knew exactly what they were talking about. I'd just lived through it (or half of it, anyway, since I got two good nights' sleep during the Hunt.) Everybody in the room was smiling and nodding along to the speaker's presentation, and laughing at the jokes on the slides. This was our field. This was our side of the wall. Tony Bourdain would have been completely befuddled, see?

(Mind you, if I'd tried his salad, I'm certain I would have enjoyed the hell out of it. Puzzles have more of an entry barrier. But put that aside.)

I want to talk about how the Mystery Hunt has evolved in the five years I've experienced it. But that wouldn't be enough perspective. Many of my teammates have been doing it for ten years; some longer. Several of them have designed Hunts. Somebody needs to write the Hunt history thesis and it shouldn't be me. But I can start pointing at the questions.

What was new in 2011? What does puzzledom look like when it's playing above itself, reacting to things that the non-puzzlers have never heard of? I'll put down two lines, and then fill in the explanations for those of you who don't know from lardons.

Backsolving is solving.

Metas are a tool.

The earliest Hunts, we are told, were unstructured lists of puzzle questions. Then some genius added the idea of the "meta", or metapuzzle -- a puzzle built using the answers to other puzzles. (I first encounted this concept in The Fool's Errand, in 1988 or so.)

A simple example (not from any Hunt or game in particular): imagine you've solved a group of ten puzzles. The answer to each is a ten-letter word or phrase. In fact, each answer is a ten-letter name, and it's the name of a famous scientist or inventor. ("MARIE CURIE", for example.) You write down the ten names, in order of their famous discoveries (radium, 1898). That gives you a neat ten-by-ten-letter square. Then you read down the diagonal of the square. It spells out a new ten-letter word, which is the answer to the metapuzzle.

(Why the diagonal? It's not an arbitrary gimmick, although it is something of a genre convention. You need to pull an answer out of the letters of ten names. The important insight is that the order of discoveries is important. Given an ordering, you can pull the first letter from the first name, the second letter from the second name, and so on. The diagonal is just a way to visualize this rule.)

(Why not simply use the first letter of every name? Some metapuzzles do work that way. It's a question of puzzle difficulty. No insight is needed to look at the first letters -- that's such a common convention that we do it automatically. With that setup, you don't have to figure out the ordering of the names. You do have to unscramble the letters, but a ten-letter anagram is trivial with the right software. So that would be an easier final stage, which the designer might use if the earlier parts of the puzzle were particularly hard.)

(By the way, this example is kind of weak -- Marie Curie discovered more than one thing, you know! And radium could be said to have been discovered in 1898, when it was identified, or 1910, when it was isolated in pure form. A serious puzzle designer would eliminate these ambiguities. Fortunately, I'm just making stuff up for a blog post.)

But this metapuzzle system leads to an interesting side effect. You can solve a meta without solving all the puzzles that feed into it. If you've solved nine of the round's puzzles, figured out the ordering, and gotten "INS-GHTFUL", you don't need to solve "MARIE CURIE" to guess that last letter. You punch in the meta's answer and move on to the next round.

That leads directly to the question of backsolving. Say you're in this position, with nine puzzles solved. You can easily solve the meta; but you also have a lot of extra information about the earlier puzzle, the one you're missing. Because of the meta structure, you know that it's a ten-letter name, a famous scientist. The fourth letter of the name is "I"; and the scientist worked between, say, 1880 and 1915 (or whatever the years of the third and fifth letters were). With that information (and Wikipedia) you could probably guess "MARIE CURIE". That's backsolving the puzzle -- working from meta-information you know about the answer.

So do you punch that backsolved answer in? In my first hunts, my team preferred not to. It seemed like a form of cheating, and it didn't really get us anything -- not when we already had the meta solved. (The winners aren't the team that solves the most puzzles; they're the first team to solve the last puzzle.)

But this year, the organizers made a couple of subtle changes which flipped this on its head. First, they used a point system in which solving any puzzle got you closer to unlocking new puzzles. (Thus, going back to fill in old gaps was valuable.) And second, they added a simple checkbox to the answer page: "Did you backsolve this puzzle?" Just by recognizing that option, they made it feel more legitimate.

As a result, everybody did a heck of a lot more backsolving this year. And my impression is that this generated more fun for everybody.

After all, any given Hunt puzzle involves looking for patterns, and working both backwards and forwards between the clues and the answers. (If this makes no sense to you, think about crosswords. Of course you work back and forth between the clues and the grid. Looking at the crossing letters in the grid isn't cheating, it's the whole point.)

If metas are part of the solution process, then that back-and-forth information flow becomes multilayered. Any puzzle might require both clues and context to solve. That can only lead to more interesting puzzles.

(Plus, of course, backsolving is solving, and solving is fun. One teammate remarked that the best two moments of the weekend were the Hunt's launch, when the first brand-new puzzles appeared -- and 3 AM Sunday morning, after the successful cracking of a meta pulled the group into an intense burst of fruitful work on its related puzzles.)

Back to this year's metapuzzles. Metas are now a standard Hunt element. Standard enough, in fact, that for several years everyone took them for granted. That's why "metapuzzle" got abbreviated to "meta", right? A round consisted of a bunch of puzzles and a meta. Solve all the metas, you get into the endgame. That's the way my first Hunt worked.

There were always variations in this structure, of course. But the 2011 hunt got a little more crazy than usual. It was divided into five rounds -- five "worlds", as it had a videogame theme. Each round was roughly twenty puzzles, divided into (say) three groups. Each group had a meta. The solutions to the three metas then had to be assembled into a meta-metapuzzle for the round. When you had the five meta-metas, you got to the endgame. (Which was not technically a meta-meta-meta, because you weren't assembling the five meta-metas into a new answer -- you just had to collect them.)

Furthermore, each of the five worlds had a different meta structure. (Spoilers coming for anyone who wants to try the Hunt puzzles...) The first world was an unadorned meta-meta, involving the answers to the three metas. In the second world, each meta answer describes a transformation that has to be applied to the previous meta puzzle name. In the third round, each puzzle has three answers, one for each of the three metas... and so on.

The creators were justifiably smug about their experimentation. In a sense, they wrote five mini-Hunts, each with a creatively different meta structure.

In another sense, I think, they put the knife in "the meta" as a concept. (Although it may be a while before it expires.) The meta-metas are the first hint. Why not go for a meta-meta-meta? Well, you could, but it wouldn't be three times as clever -- it would just be another puzzle relation. These new structures? They're interesting puzzles, which involve the answers to other puzzles. But all the puzzles in a Hunt should be interesting! And they are.

Metas aren't qualitatively different puzzles. They're a tool for hooking puzzles together.

For some reason, the Hunt spent several years going around in this loop where all the metas kind of looked the same. I mean, they were distinct puzzles -- but they all had the same shape, where you looked at an incoming set of puzzle answers and applied brain-sweat. This, as the non-meta puzzles went through cycle after cycle of creative improvisation.

So what will the Hunt look like in 2015?

I'm waving my hands, of course, and I don't particularly expect to be the one writing the 2015 Hunt. (My team consistently does well, but not that well.) But let's say that I'm right.

Designers will let go of the notion that solving has a direction. It won't be puzzles feeding into metas; it'll be puzzles connected to other puzzles. And those puzzles connected to yet others, or maybe back to the first bunch.

I don't mean that all structure will dissolve into an N-simplex of every puzzle using answers from every other puzzle. That wouldn't be constructible. (Although someone's gotta try it.) But the point of puzzle design is insight, and insight about where the answers are coming from -- or going to -- is a valid dimension to play with.

Certainly there will be puzzles which you pick up and solve directly, with no other context. My points are (a) knowing that from the start is less fun than figuring it out; (b) if you are stuck, shouldn't the context -- the related puzzles -- be an avenue of attack? Start wherever you can make an entrée, and work around to the puzzles you're stuck on. The more directions you can approach your stuck spots from, the more fun you'll have.

Maybe a "nexus" puzzle -- one which involves the answers to many other puzzles -- will actually be solvable on its own. (Or partially so.) You'd be expected to then "backsolve" into the other puzzles and make progress on them from there. Or maybe you'd find two puzzles that were unsolvable on their own; you'd have to work them in parallel, through a common relative.

Maybe all puzzles will just get a little bit harder, because back-and-forth is the expected mode of solving. That might be frustrating at times, but then it would be more satisfying at other times. It's hard to deny that Hunts have been getting more complex, though the creators have tried to keep the difficulty balanced. This sort of interweaving is the way I see that evolving.

And, in closing, I'll link to the 2011 Hunt's opening act and closing credits. If this all sounds like tripe, you can still watch those.

Mmm. Spicy Korean tripe.

Posted in Zarf on Games | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Friday linkdump: Three stories about cubes

IMG_1393.JPGOK, two of them are about dice.

Your Uncle Dudley’s Knucklebones appears to be the online gallery of a dice collector (with a casually Google-resistant identity). The mysterious blog contains only two posts, but the enormous latter entry contains many dozens of individual photographs.

The dice lay against a ruler on a white background, looking more like bullets in an autopsy, removed from their police report. The site offers no textual explanation of where any of the dice came from, or what purpose the more oddly specialized ones may have served. But if you’re like me, you’ll find delight in imagining the designs these little rolling-bones once played a part of. (Granted, the aim of the rather NSFW dice towards the end seem plain enough…)

I was interested to see that the first post, dedicated to the display of a single prototype 60-sided die design, mentions the fabbers at We’ve mentioned their contributions to the games-and-puzzles world before.

I have not read The Bones, but I probably should. It’s a collection of essays on dice edited by Will Hindmarch, and my fellow tabletop-game aficionados will recognize many of the collected author’s names — Costikyan, Kovalic, Selinker, the increasingly inevitable Wheaton, and many others. A print book is currently for sale, with an ebook edition in the works.

(Bonus aside: for a delightful coffee-table book about these most venerable gaming tools, Ricky Jay’s Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck, which pairs smart text on the history and culture of dice with truly beautiful and haunting photographs of our cubical friends by Rosamond Purcell. It’s still in print, and findable through the book-oracle of your choice.)

Finally, allow me to share with you the good news that God’s Number is 20.

With about 35 CPU-years of idle computer time donated by Google, a team of researchers has essentially solved every position of the Rubik’s Cube, and shown that no position requires more than twenty moves.

[ … ]

One may suppose God would use a much more efficient algorithm, one that always uses the shortest sequence of moves; this is known as God’s Algorithm. The number of moves this algorithm would take in the worst case is called God’s Number. At long last, God’s Number has been shown to be 20.

It took fifteen years after the introduction of the Cube to find the first position that provably requires twenty moves to solve; it is appropriate that fifteen years after that, we prove that twenty moves suffice for all positions.

I don’t pretend to fully understand exactly how this solution came about, despite the cogent explanations on that page, and its many interesting links to other Cube-fiends’ attempts at finding this elusive number, going all the way back to typewritten correspondence from 1981. But I am delighted to learn about such a vertiginous level of recreational puzzle solving — not solving the Cube, but solving a puzzle that’s made out of solutions to the Cube, a true meta-puzzle. All the better, I suppose, that I learn about it specifically because some folks have finally laid it safely to rest after nearly 30 years of shared effort. Less fundamentally frightening, that way.

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Similar journeys in very different games

DASH-colossus column illo.pngI have lived in Boston for ten years, but I had never seen the swan boats before Saturday.

The event that got me exploring my own burg was DASH, an annual puzzle competition that takes place simultaneously (time zones be damned) across several American cities. In typical puzzle-hunt fashion, the event's structure comprised several thematically linked printed puzzles whose answers fed into a metapuzzle, and a team completes the event once they can provide the resulting single final answer.

Appropriate to an event meant to be solved in a single afternoon by folks working outdoors and away from their PCs, the hunt focused on "groupsolves" -- lighthearted puzzles that don't require any research or heavy cogitation, instead inviting a small group of friends to bash through as a team via their overlapping areas of common knowledge. This year's DASH chose television as its theme, providing a rich mine of cultural trivia for puzzles to draw their wordplay from. The offhand-knowledge requirement never got more obscure than an early puzzle that involved assembling constellation names from a jumble of phonemes. (As with all good hunt puzzles, as tricky as the wordplay-work was the sussing out what one was meant to do with the starting materials; naturally the clue text for that puzzle involved the show Dancing with the Stars.)

DASH's props included a map of (in our case) Boston's South End and Back Bay neighborhoods, with a couple dozen or so spots marked, and you did have to figure out the correct route for proceeding through them. Once you answered a puzzle, you consulted a lookup table to learn where to head next. There, you'd receive that location's puzzle-materials from a DASH organizer idling nearby (and helpfully demarcated by their wearing a pair of TiVo costume-antennae), and you'd set to work anew. Despite the map, however, the puzzles were not tied to location; that is, none required you to take the third letter off the second word of the nearby statue's plaque, or somesuch. Entirely self-contained, the puzzles could therefore be safely identical in every DASH-participating city.

It would be reasonable to ask why the hunt bothered with the run-around element, then. Why not take the more traditional puzzle-hunt route and have teams stay put throughout the event?

The whole hunt's pace of puzzle challenges separated by short stretches of travel reminded me of another game: Shadow of the Colossus. While most conversation about this videogame concerns itself with the climactic and emotionally fraught battles with the titular titans, a less spectacular but still memorable portion of play involves the player's travel between the fights. Unusually for an adventure game, the "overworld" contains no threats or challenges, beyond the basic necessity of navigation. (And even this is mitigated by an enormous THIS WAY, DUMMY beam of light that the protagonist can summon without penalty.) While it's been years since the single time I played through the game, I clearly remember details of its landscape: the shape of the natural bridge you'd cross when leaving the central temple, the carved details upon the silent ruins you must traverse in the desert.

All this despite the fact that none of these places "did" anything; all of Shadow's game-challenge is contained in the battle that awaits you at the end of each journey. But the two activities -- traveling and fighting -- end up much less separate than they may at first appear. Subtly and inevitably, the knowledge and anticipation of the next colossus encounter flavors the travel the precedes it, inviting the player to savor their journey, taking in and contemplating the scenery while they can, before they willfully enter the next arena. Without this context, the game's world would be a mere Playstation 2 technology demo, a mildly interesting curiosity that would have not invited nearly as much time spent exploring and appreciating as I put into the actual game.

For me, DASH brought the very same effect to the streets of Boston. In a very smart design move, DASH stops a team's time-spent-solving clock when its members find a puzzle's answer, starting it up once more only when they arrive at the next location and receive the new puzzle's materials. This encourages teams to take their time in traveling between the map's puzzle-points. They are free to explore a bit, take in the nearby sights, or pause to enjoy some lunch. At the same time, eagerness to tear into the next challenge goads them into not tarrying excessively. Just as with Shadow of the Colussus players, DASH solvers will soon enough pack their scenery-appreciation away, choosing to trigger the next event.

Note also how the respective world-environments of these two games complements the overall tone of their core challenges. The world of Shadow, while geographically varied and beautiful, carries a universal feeling of loneliness and desolation, appropriate for the travels of a protagonist doomed to slay all of the very few living things he meets over the course of the game. It results in a fine backdrop for silent contemplation of your actions as you clippity-clop along the path to ram your sword into the next poor 50-foot-tall sod that had never so much as said boo to you.

In contrast to that grim setting, Saturday's puzzles were mentally stimulating challenges celebrating popular culture, shared among friends working beside you. It took place in the heart of a living city, on one of the year's first warm spring days, the time of year when any New England city is at its happiest and liveliest. The sidewalks and parks were full of people, and our little knots of wandering puzzle-fan geeks fit right in to the day's shifting human landscape, as we let the energetic joy of solving bear us down the street to the next challenge.

And as I wandered with my group, I did in fact stop to admire the swan boats (iconic to my city but less ubiquitous than its familiar skyline) for the first time. I also gawped at the beautiful interior of Boston Public Library, also never seen before, and took note of a large but heretofore unknown monument to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. While the rest of my team scratched their heads over the metapuzzle, I was moved to explore the square we found ourselves in, photographing this jawdropping statue of an admired local preacher-man of yore, forever firebranding in silence to the descendants of his original flock.

By recasting a slice of Boston into the magic circle of a game, DASH lent a sparkling context to it which encouraged me to explore and appreciate the neighborhood. For that brief moment it became a game-world, as full of mystery and character as the lonely plains of Shadow of the Colossus. That it also happened to be based on the real world, rather than a computer-generated construct, only deepens my admiration of what is ultimately another facet of the transformative power of games.

Image credits: Swan boat photograph from David Paul Ohmer / CC BY 2.0. "Shadow of the Colossus" photograph from Richard Lemarchand / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Postscript: My only negative criticism of DASH's structure was its reliance on puzzles whose materials involved small bits of paper or cardboard (which teams usually had to scissor out of printed templates themselves). While manipulating physical pieces in order to find a key pattern makes for an engaging puzzle, Saturday was a moderately blustery day in Boston, and this added the unwelcome distraction of keeping the wind from carrying those same bits away.

I also cheerfully congratulate Team STDP, comprising Gameshelf guests Denis Moskowitz and Matt Sakai, as well as Gameshelf friends Jennie Hango and Lance Nathan, for taking first place among the 18 Boston DASH teams. My own Team OMGs (Jenny Gutbezahl, Doug Orleans, Amy Swartz, and myself) finished in sixth place.

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Follow the MIT Mystery Hunt on Twitter

I am once again participating in the MIT Mystery Hunt this year, playing on the team "Immoral, Illegal & Fattening", a group of 40 or so solvers out of the many hundreds of hardcore puzzle fans in attendance. This will be my seventh Hunt, but my first since I starting getting into the ol' Twitter, and as such I quickly became consumed by that question that held no meaning before 2007, but now occurs to me with curious regularity: What is the hashtag for this?

For lack of a more obviously correct solution, I decided last week to get all Wikipedia on the problem and boldly declare that the tag would be #mysteryhunt. And so, apparently, it is. Anyone - Twitter-using and otherwise - should feel free to follow that tag to see the latest chatter about this most unusual annual event. As I write this, the tag exists in that pre-event state where its tweets are mainly involved with complaints of air travel while all the players gather, so it remains to be seen how it goes from here.

Honestly, I don't know how well this will work, compared to, say, a hashtag attached to a conference. Because the Hunt is a competitive event, with teams generally not wishing to provide information that might accidentally help their opponents, it wouldn't surprise me if things clam up tight once the solving gets underway, and then burst out with a flood of mingled celebration and disbelief as soon as one of the teams wins. Then again... yeah, I have no idea.

Anyway, there it is. Enjoy!

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The longest day of the year

Today is the longest day of the year! And so is tomorrow!

Yes, I know the equinox was two days ago. Nonetheless:


[ed: not "twenty-second" -- thanks, Elizabeth!]

A tie, as you see, with 29 letters each. Or 31 symbols if you count the punctuation. Which I do; surely TWENTY-THIRD beats SEVENTEENTH by a hyphen?

The ideal candidate would be a WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER TWENTY-SEVENTH. But we won't have one of those until 2017.

For runners-up this year, we have several candidates:


Those are 30 symbols each. Much too common, really.

Let's stick with discussing today (and tomorrow). I would propose a new title for these two interesting days -- the ONLY 2009 DAYS WHICH NEED 31 SYMBOLS. Unfortunately my paradoctor is running towards me, waving some sort of paper and screaming, so I'll have to break this post off and find out what she wants.

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Bram Cohen's puzzle shop

photos-photo3773.jpgI recently discovered through Twitter that Bram Cohen, best known as the creator of BitTorrent, is also an aficionado of three-dimensional construction puzzles (e.g. the Soma cube). He has lately taken to designing puzzles himself, and now sells several original designs through Shapeways, a web-based service that offers 3D-printed objects based on their creators' uploaded spec documents.

Doubly interesting to me: it's always a delight to learn that someone unexpected is into puzzles -- let alone a designer of them -- and I find the Shapeways business model surprising and intriguing, as well.

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Matt is speedcubing again

My friend (and several-time Gameshelf TV star) Matthew Morse is getting back into speedcubing, the ancient art of solving a thoroughly scrambled Rubik's Cube wicked fast. He started out by buying a new cube, since his old one, while a source of nostalgic affection, is too worn for competitive play.

After I got a new Cube, I promptly set out to demonstrate that I still remembered the solution I had memorized. What I found was that for two related sequences, I had forgotten which sequence did what. Which sequence to use in response to which pattern is memorized by your head, and initially I had it backwards. Once I figured it out, executing them was no problem. Performing the sequences is memorized in the hands, and they hadn't forgotten at all.

Now I'm working on developing my understanding of how the solution works. I've filled several pages of notes based on the simpler case of a 2x2x2 Cube and I expect to be able to move up to the standard 3x3x3 once I have some more details worked out.

I also bought a 4x4x4 Cube at the same time I got the new 3x3x3 Cube. It's still in the package. Truthfully, I'm a little scared of it.

Full post contains reminiscing about his original childhood time with the cube, as well as mention of Jessica Fridrich, a teenage cube prodigy who grew up to become an engineering professor at Binghamton University, and who keeps her canonical speedcubing notes prominently linked from her academic homepage.

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Grim Fandango puzzle design document

Another in our series of historic game development trivia! (This is completely coincidental, stuff just keeps popping up.)

Tim Schafer at Double Fine has posted the puzzle design spec for his classic adventure game, Grim Fandango. It is that game's tenth anniversary; it was released on the Day of the Dead, 1998.

Read the Grim Fandango document (2.4 meg PDF).

This document is a first draft, dated April 30, 1996. It has lots of puzzles which didn't make it into the final game. Schafer also notes:

We didn’t have the last puzzle designed when I wrote that document, so I wrote two nonsense paragraphs and then overlapped them in the file so it would look like the final puzzle description was in there, but obscured by a print formatting error. That way I could turn the document in by the deadline.

Bonus: Grim Fandango cake.

EDIT-ADD (11/13): Schafer has taken down his blog post and the document, with no direct comment, but a very indirect hint that it wasn't his to post. Since we at the Gameshelf believe in historic preservation, I have put a copy on our own web site. So the link above works again.

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