Challenge Accepted: The puzzle roadblock
I recently found myself playing through Half-Life 2 again for reasons that are not clear to me. But that’s not the important point right now; what’s more important is that I was struck, not for the first time, at how tedious stretches of the game could get. The tense, brutal firefights were great, but then suddenly I’m in Ravenholm and dealing with millions of small enemies nipping at my heels without any ammo to be found. Or I have to piece together another physics-based puzzle. Or I’m doing anything related to the game’s vehicles. Or the goddamn antlions and sand.
None of these are segments that are unfamiliar at this point. I know how to get through all of them with a minimum of fuss. But they wind up feeling tedious for various reasons, and every time I hit another one of these roadblocks I rolled my eyes in irritation. Which seems an apropos condition, because in some games, the puzzles evolve naturally from the existing gameplay, but in others they’re just a way of padding out the game until you get to the next good part.
The funny part is that this has nothing to do with how easy or difficult the puzzles actually are. Long Live the Queen is nothing but one long puzzle, placing you as a sort of gameplay-related Laplace’s Demon, trying to work out how to properly navigate all of the potential endings while at the same time avoiding the many, many pitfalls that surround your every action. You know that one event or another is coming; how do you manage your time to ensure that everything works out? How can you fight off threats? What happens if you make this choice? The world is not kind, and you are never out of danger.
Everything there is a lot more difficult than stacking a few blocks in Half-Life 2, but it’s the latter that really irritates me. Because the challenge isn’t part of what I’ve been playing up to that point. Leaving aside the fact that putting jumping puzzles of any sort in first-person shooters is a terrible idea, Half-Life 2 is not a puzzle game. It is a game in which the main character shoots a lot of people for various reasons. That’s why I get annoyed when I have to start stacking blocks, because damn it, this is not what I signed up for.
By contrast, Portal uses the same engine and features far more robust puzzles. But no one cares about those, since that’s, again, the whole game.
An obvious part of whether puzzles are annoying or not is right there, naturally – whether or not it’s part of what you came to the game to do. But then we have games like Silent Hill 2, which is not a puzzle game but certainly features plenty of puzzles. Yet those don’t break up the flow of the game nearly as much, despite generally being complex. Why? Partly because they aren’t tedious.
The “puzzle” of “stack objects to avoid ever stepping on the stand” is pretty simple. So is “arrange ballast so this ramp faces the right way.” The problem is that actually doing these things takes a bunch of time. In this case, simple puzzles are almost a detriment. To stop picking on Half-Life 2, the Towers of Hanoi portion in Mass Effect received a lot of scorn simply because even if you already know the very simple solution, it’s slow. The time between figuring out what to do and actually getting it done is boring as hell.
Tedium and continuity aren’t all that factors in, though. You also have to consider placement. A puzzle that hits in the middle of a long run-and-gun segment is going to feel very different than one that’s in an otherwise slower part of the game. And that’s not even considering that challenge does factor into whether or not the puzzle is worthwhile, which is especially difficult if it is not immediately obvious whether or not a player will know certain things. A baseball trivia question is kind of out of place in non-baseball games, after all.
An oddly excellent example comes from Final Fantasy VIII in the form of the game’s promotion tests once you become a member of SeeD. The tests aren’t tedious, they rely upon game lore and mechanics that you have been learning throughout play, and they’re placed on your menu whenever you want to do them. Nor are they mandatory, but they do offer plenty of bonuses if you manage to pass. It fits in nicely with the game and doesn’t feel like an arbitrary roadblock, or at least not more than anything else in the game feels like an arbitrary roadblock. (This is, of course, the game wherein you never want to level up.)
When done correctly, weaving puzzles into gameplay works as a good way to mix up the nature of the challenge in a game, a bit of a deviation from the norm and a good way to keep players engaged. They are, however, also a pretty quick and easy way to bulk up the game’s runtime without actually including more gameplay. It’s why some games either eschew puzzles altogether or make the most puzzle-like elements part of the core gameplay – DmC doesn’t really have puzzles so much as it has a few platform-ish segments that test your reflexes, which are a bit weak but also turn out to be short and keep you on your toes, just like the rest of the game.
As long as a puzzle keeps down the tedium, fits in with the game up to that point, make sure the puzzles come during a lull time, and make the puzzle reasonable for the game rather than in an absolute sense. And keep out jumping puzzles in FPS games, too.
Next time around, I’d like to talk about challenging the player in more meta ways, which is also distinct from meta challenges which I discussed a few weeks ago. After that, let’s talk about a game’s methods for teaching players.