Feedback’s a bitch

Previously on Spectre Collie, I made the claim that the “state of the art” in story-driven games still treat storytelling and gameplay as two completely separate things. In even the best games, the player’s role is that of the guy who pushes buttons and/or shoots guys in the way; the key story moments happen in between my actions, not as a result of my actions. As a result, storytelling becomes increasingly superfluous and marginalized. Worse than that, because my actions don’t really have any bearing on the story, they lose any overall context, which is the whole purpose of having a framing story in the first place.

I went on to claim that instead of treating traditional adventure games as if they were an evolutionary dead end, we should be looking at how those games work to make the storytelling and the gameplay the same thing. The player’s not doing stuff and then watching a cutscene, and the player’s not doing stuff while listening to conveniently-placed audio logs that provide color commentary tangentially related to what he’s doing. Instead, his role becomes that of collaborative game designer. He’s not just doing what the objectives screen says to do, but figuring out what needs to be done in the first place.

The problem with that, says the internet, is that everybody knows that adventure games aren’t fun. They’re exercises in frustration, where you’re stuck trying random combinations of items until you stumble onto the one completely illogical solution the designers happened to choose. That’s the last thing that action games should be doing, you hear, because that’s the exact reason adventure games died out (and good riddance!). And even if they wanted to, action games couldn’t adopt that type of puzzle-solving, because they’re inherently different:

Myth 9: In an action game, all the activity takes place inside the game, but adventure games are solved in the player’s mind.

That’s a very rough paraphrase from Manveer Heir’s “Design Lesson 101” article about Sam & Max Season Two. Mr. Heir is a game designer at Raven who’s been writing fairly in-depth analyses of games on his own blog and Gamasutra. Now, since that article is about a game I worked on, anything I write in response is going to come across as reactionary and defensive. So I should make one thing clear up front: everything Mr. Heir says is a filthy lie, and his posts should be immediately stricken from the internet.

No but seriously: his main observation is dead-on accurate. Adventure games suck at giving feedback to the player. That’s true of every adventure game I’ve played, even my favorites. I think it’s the biggest obstacle for the current generation of games to overcome — not just adventure games, but any game that wants to engage the player on a level more interesting than “cross the finish line to get the next scripted event” or “press the button to trigger the next cutscene.”

There’s a lot I don’t agree with in Heir’s article — in particular, the idea that the adventure game model only works in small doses (in the “golden age” of these games, they were designed to last for several weeks); or that the episodes of Sam & Max Season One were far too easy because he was able to finish in two to three hours (that’s just slightly shorter than how long they were intended to last). But most of the criticisms are common to adventure games, and I would’ve probably agreed with them completely just a couple of years ago — in fact, the start-and-stop pacing of adventure games that Heir mentions was my biggest complaint when I started working in adventure games again.

But I think his observation that it all comes down to player feedback is insightful and extremely useful, for two reasons. The first reason is that it’s not just about difficulty — you can’t just say “Season One was way too easy, but Season Two got too hard in places,” because then you’re trying to hit a moving target, and it varies wildly from player to player. Earlier, I made the case that trying to find some objective measure of difficulty for logic-based puzzles is doomed to failure.

The second reason is that player feedback is something that’s common to all types of games, from so-called “cerebral” adventures to so-called “twitch” shooters. In any genre of game, we’ve got the same basic set of tools, but we’ve gotten so locked into our assumptions about certain game genres, that we’ve forgotten how to use them.

I can’t use these things together.

Go back to one of the most common complaint about adventure games: “I don’t like adventure games because I always end up having to use every item with every other item until I stumble on the one ‘right’ answer.”

Whenever I hear that complaint, my first response is: “Well, don’t do that.” The appeal of these games is in figuring out how to solve a problem and predicting what turn the story is going to take. If you don’t have an idea already in mind when you use the magnifying glass on the dynamite fuse, then why would you even try to do it?

And of course, that’s a lousy response. If you were to ask me what are the most memorable lines from adventure games I’ve played, the first ones that would come to mind are: “That doesn’t need to be painted white,” “I’m not putting my mouth on that,” and of course, “I can’t use these things together.” They’re not memorable because they’re particularly clever, but because I heard them over and over and over again. Because that’s how these games — all games — are played: you do stuff and see what happens. It’s the “interactive” part of “interactive fiction.”

We tend to have this silly idea of adventure games as being “thinking man’s games,” where the ideal player is the cliche of the guy who solves the New York Times Crossword Puzzle in pen. We watch a cutscene, then sit back in our easy chairs and mull over possibilities, then shout “Eureka!” and complete the puzzle. Not only is that insufferably pompous, it’s unrealistic and frankly, not very fun. You want to get in there and poke around and explore.

That’s yet another way Super Mario 64 gets it right: the first thing the game does is drop you into a playground and invites you to just run around and play. Climb trees, swim for a little bit, and learn how things work. It’s also one of the best design aspects of The Sims 2: most of the development time and creativity in those games goes into the failure states, the stuff that you wouldn’t see if you played everything the “right” way. Because learning how the game works is one of the most engaging parts of the game.

Type “HELP” for a list of commands.

There are several reasons why adventure games don’t do negative feedback well:

  • More stuff: In a shooter or platformer, the list of ways you can interact with the world is deliberately kept small. In adventure games, you tend to have a lot of different items at your disposal. It’s easier to cover every possibility of what happens when you shoot something or jump on something, than it is to keep track of dozens of objects and their interrelated uses.
  • Larger “possibility space”: Not only do you have more stuff in an adventure game, you’re usually expected to use it in an unconventional way. And as mentioned earlier, each player has his own idea of “unconventional.” What seems like a perfectly natural solution to a problem to one player might never have occurred to the game designers.
  • More dialogue: Gordon Freeman never speaks, so it’s not jarring when he tries to unlock a door and the game just beeps. It’d be really weird if Guybrush Threepwood tried to unlock a door in the game and didn’t say anything when it failed.
  • Managing difficulty: How do you respond when someone’s done the wrong thing? Do you just say “No?” Or do you say, “That’s a good idea, but wrong.?” Or do you say, “That won’t work, but using the magnifying glass might?” Or “That won’t work, but I bet I could use this magnifying glass to light that dynamite fuse?”

The thing to notice about those reasons is that none of them are unique to adventure games, and none are insoluble. (The closest to being damning is actually the “more dialogue” issue, since that depends on purely practical concerns like production time, voice recording budgets, and download size).

The one that sounds the most damning is the idea of a larger possibility space: how can a game give intelligent feedback when it’s impossible to gauge what the player’s thinking, how close he is to solving a puzzle? That’s the converse of the player’s frustration with adventure games, that it’s impossible to gauge what the designer was thinking when he came up with this stupid puzzle. To me, that doesn’t sound like the death knell of a game genre, but just a simple communication breakdown.

You can use these things together! Ask me how!

Although the hint system in Telltale’s games is almost universally regarded as A Good Thing — and I should point out here that not only was it not my idea, but I was actually against it at first and was proven wrong — it’s still a first step. It demonstrates that it’s not impossible to tell what the player’s thinking; we know the solutions to the puzzles, we know how people play adventure games because we play them ourselves, and it’s actually relatively straightforward to detect when the player’s stuck and what kind of information he’ll need to get moving again.

The issue with that, again as pointed out in Heir’s article, is that players sometimes stubbornly refuse to listen to hints because they feel like it’s “cheating.” The perception — which is unfortunate, but probably unavoidable — is still that the developers have the one “right” answer, and they’re guiding the player through the game, nudging him in the right direction when he’s too dense to figure it out.

I think a logical next step is to take the relationship with the player away from “we’ve got the answers, now you figure them out” and back to that idea of collaborative game design. In a game design session, nobody’s figured out the right answer yet. So the dialogue is one of “well, no, that won’t work for this reason… but what if we tried this other thing?” It’s less like a tutorial, and more like exploration and experimentation.

And the difference between that and something like a strategy game or The Sims is that there is still one right answer. It remains a conversation, instead of a toy or a playset. The developers go through the effort and frustration of coming up with a game that’s guaranteed to have some sort of satisfying resolution, instead of just giving the player a bunch of tools and then removing themselves from the equation. A big chunk of adventure game development is spent just figuring out valid alternative solutions to puzzles and then either implementing them, or explaining to the player why they won’t work in this case. It’s not that much of a stretch to extend that to an overall design philosophy: remembering that we’re not always trying to funnel players towards the one right answer, but keeping an open dialogue with them, guiding them towards the answer that we happen to have generated cutscenes for.

It’s my hope that this would extend past adventure games. If we can figure out how to engage the player in the actual storytelling without getting hopelessly stuck, then we can have more engaging stories in any type of game. And developers of more action-oriented games can include more significant story moments without being so terrified that they’ll frustrate the player and ruin the pacing of their game. And then I can finally play a game that forces me to think about what I’m doing, instead of just telling me to go here and press this button.

0 thoughts on “Feedback’s a bitch”

  1. “The issue with that, again as pointed out in Heir’s article, is that players sometimes stubbornly refuse to listen to hints because they feel like it’s “cheating.””

    I still have an old Infocom Invisiclues pen. I haven’t used it much lately, but I keep it around in case of emergencies.

  2. Erm, yeah, those players didn’t set up a second monitor mostly to make sure and the like were always handy. What can I say, Fallout 2 would have taken the better part of six months without a walkthrough.

    That said, nice essay. I’m hoping that with emergent design, things will evolve to be less procedural and more spontaneous. I was always frustrated by the fact that “real world” logic often had a tenuous connection at best to “in game logic,” and when it did, it was generally inconsistent.

  3. I’m hoping that with emergent design, things will evolve to be less procedural and more spontaneous. I was always frustrated by the fact that “real world” logic often had a tenuous connection at best to “in game logic,” and when it did, it was generally inconsistent.

    Well, one of my frequent arguing points is against the notion that emergent gameplay and narrative are going to fix all the problems that people believe they will. I’m all in favor of more systematic game design and predictable outcomes for the player’s actions, but I think it’s just part of the toolset of game design, and not the natural and inevitable evolution. I see it kind of analogous to how improv theater never replaced scripted performances.

    That said, I still think that chasing after some universal standard of “logical” is a lost cause, because there’s always going to be something that doesn’t make sense to somebody. (Case in point: I’ve seen several people claim that “Braid’s” puzzle design was sheer perfection, a perfect antidote to adventure game anti-logic, but I found it arbitrary and frustrating. So who’s right?) That’s why I think that if we’re going to have interactive stories that are at all complex and unpredictable, we’re going to have to get even more involved with what the player’s doing step-by-step, instead of just building a system and then saying, “Them’s the rules. You figure them out.”

    And Larry: I’m hoping more people remember Invisiclues. The reason should become clear next Monday.

  4. Of course in game hints are a good idea. Leaving them out harkens back to the days when you had to back up flight sim characters in dos in case they might die.
    As to the rest of the essay, you complain about players having to guess what I’m thinking. Not only are adventure games puzzle games they are totally abstracted maze games. There can be no argument on that point. So if you really want to advance the art of nteractive storytelling you must abandon the tech and the form of adventure game. You can’t have innovation and cling to a structure designed to make up for weak processing power. Don’t be an apologist, get out and actually try making that something new.

  5. Jonathan, did you really say “there can be no argument on that point” on my weblog? Haven’t you learned by now that there is no inconsequential topic that I can’t argue about?

    I’m always in favor of innovation, and I don’t believe in sticking to an old format for its own sake — we’re not using text parsers or on-screen verbs or even verb coins anymore. And after I played Dark Forces and Jedi Knight and Half-Life, I thought that those types of games were going to be the next step in story games, and they’d render adventure games obsolete.

    Except it’s been 8 years, and not only have they not incorporated what really makes adventure games cool, but they’re going in the opposite direction. They’re all about removing complexity for fear of messing up the pacing, removing opportunities for meaningful interaction with the world, and giving the player no chance to think about what’s happening. For “action” games, they’ve become completely reactionary and passive. No consequences, no planning a course of strategy, just shooting, getting killed, respawning, and plunging back in until you get it right.

    Portal is the closest a non-adventure game has come to this in recent memory, and it still kind of falls apart the moment they try to take it out of a test chamber and put it into a “realistic” scenario. It turns back into a linear sequence of hallways with a boss fight at the end, and you stop interacting with the world with any more complexity than “find where to open a portal.”

    You say that adventure games are totally abstracted maze games; I say that’s because people are too stuck on the idea that adventure games are about adventure game puzzles. That is the old way of thinking that we need to get rid of. The real potential of adventure games isn’t solving arbitrary puzzles, but putting together pieces of a story, and interacting with characters on a level deeper than just shooting them or getting mission objectives from them.

  6. Darn it, I hate it when we agree. Now, in the immortal words of Malone from “The Untouchables”: “What are you prepared to do about it?”

  7. “What are you prepared to do about it?”

    Well, I thought I’d start by getting a job at a story-driven videogame company that puts out games quickly (albeit sometimes too quickly), and gives me a level of creative input I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. And then see what kind of stuff we could do with the episodes to change up the presentation and puzzle format to make everything fit into a larger story without seeming too gamey and puzzle-driven. And then write about what I like and don’t like on a website, inviting other developers to join in.

    Also, now that I’m thinking of it: “In game hints are a good idea” wasn’t where I was getting at with this post, but that’s enough material for a whole nother post in the future.

  8. Actually, the quote was: “What…are…ggghhh…you….aahhh…prepared..todo! Eeagh…”
    I haven’t played the Strong Bad games. What about them differs from classical puzzle structure, other than they are shorter?
    Mini-games go way back, though Sam and Max is probably the first adventure to use them a great deal.

  9. “I’m not interested in playing your games, but I can already tell they look like a retread of the same old thing but with less of it, so defend them to me.”

    Was that comment not supposed to sound like that?

  10. No, not intending to be a troll at all. Also, I played Sam and Max. However, if you’re going to espouse this grand unified theory of game/stories, I would expect you as a practitioner of the craft to be working it into your current product. I read most of your posts (however long) on story games, but I’m looking to a concrete example of the theoretical game utopia at least at a micro level. You use words like “hope” which are appropriate in this Obama era, but when empowered, hope should turn to action, no? I don’t think it’s rude, nor too much to ask how your theory is applied. It is not in Sam and Max, so I expect it is in Strong Bad.

  11. And just so you don’t take that comment the wrong way, that is not a critique of Sam and Max. I use the same, old form when I design adventure games.

  12. I’m still not clear on how saying I don’t practice what I preach isn’t a critique of the Sam & Max games, but whatever. I purposely avoid talking about the Sam & Max or Strong Bad games in detail on here, for a few reasons: 1) they should stand on their own merits, unless I’m responding to a direct comment; 2) I’m only one of several designers at Telltale, and I don’t want this blog misinterpreted as the Overall Telltale Design Vision; and 3) the Sam & Max episodes were largely designed by Brendan Ferguson and Dave Grossman, so I’m not in a position to be giving post-mortems.

    That said, the stuff I’ve been writing about most definitely is in the Sam & Max games. Whether you can see it or not depends on whether you’re looking at them as puzzle games, or as attempts to take the basic SCUMM model and use it to make games where story & character drive everything. It’s the difference between taking a cool story and inserting themed puzzles at key moments, like Monkey Island 1 & 2, Sam & Max Hit the Road, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango; or thinking of the puzzles AS the key moments, like Day of the Tentacle and most of Monkey Island 3. (Whether that was the intention of MI3 or not, I dunno, since I wasn’t there).

    The strongest moments are when the puzzle itself is a joke (e.g. the dueling banjos in MI3, or the Devil Went Down to GA parody in S&M 205, or the Very Special Episode of Midtown Cowboys in S&M 203, which is just the gag that Europeans love outdated American TV, turned into a puzzle). Or when it’s character development (e.g. tricking the COPS into thinking they’ve perfected their AI in Sam & Max 106, or the very simple strategy game at the end of Strong Bad 102 where the solution is based on knowing the characters’ relationships). Or when it’s crucial to the plot (getting Max elected President in S&M 104, preventing the bad guys from recreating The Original Sin in S&M 205, or any of the time-travel gags in S&M 204 and DOTT).

    The goal is to make it so that the puzzle doesn’t just depend on figuring out the mechanics of what’s in the immediate environment (like insult swordfighting in the Monkey Island games, using the messaging tubes in Grim Fandango, fixing your bike in Full Throttle), but it doesn’t make any sense in any other context, if any other character is attempting to do it. Ideally, you shouldn’t be able to pull the puzzle out of one story and stick it into another and have it still make sense.

    (And of course, that’s reason 4 I don’t talk about specifics: because inevitably someone will assume I’m saying the puzzles I mention in MI 1&2, Grim Fandango, or Full Throttle are bad or somehow worse than what we’re doing with Sam & Max. Even though I’ve said repeatedly that most of those are my favorite games. They’re not bad or broken, just doing something different than what I’m talking about).

    What the Sam & Max games don’t do particularly well is interactive feedback, which I can say because that’s mostly a writing task. Instead of treating the in-game help like a static walkthrough, it needs to be more aware of what the player’s trying to do, and respond with something helpful. That’s one of the things I want to focus on for season 3.

  13. And for comparison/contrast: Strong Bad episode 102 hardly does this at all; except for the strategy game at the end, and possibly the effigy puzzle and the Homsar translation puzzle, none of the puzzles are story- or character-based.

    And while I’m at it: every single puzzle in Strong Bad 105 is just a joke about one videogame cliche or another.

  14. Chuck,

    Great analysis and I will state some of the points I made in my original article I’m not sure I 100% believe anymore. Consider it a young designer slowly figuring out how he feels about design of different genres and trying to put it on paper (or e-paper as it were). My own thoughts are pretty fluid on a day to day basis… part of learning and growing I suppose.

    Is the core problem really that puzzles act as full gating mechanisms usually? Look at a game like Super Mario Galaxy… you don’t need to get every Star, just enough to open the next area. As long as you can get SOME you are good to go. But in adventure games, usually you have to solve puzzle X, then Y, then Z. Is there a non-linear way to give the player puzzles but still tell a story(Sam & Max started to do it in Season 2, and I liked those moments the best)? I don’t know the answer to this – I grew up playing the old Sierra and LucasArts adventure games and I love the genre, but I’ve never actually designed one (maybe I should do that).

    And I want Sam & Max Season 3! 🙂 Hurry up and announce it!

  15. Manveer,
    I think whenever you see anyone on a blog talking about game design, it’s an ongoing process of forming and refining ideas about why stuff works or doesn’t. At least, I’m using “I’m making this up as I go along” as my excuse for why these posts are so rambling.

    There’s non-linearity throughout the Sam & Max (and Strong Bad) games, for the reason you mention — you want to make it so that the player always has something to accomplish even if he’s stuck on one particular branch. We originally had a joke in the finale of Season 2 where 333 was the number of the beast, and that’s why there’s always three things you have to do in adventure games: 3 pirate trials in Monkey Island, 3 Soda Poppers to defeat, 3 ways to win the presidential campaign, 3 ways to get Max declared High Priest of the Ocean Chimps. It’s not really X, then Y, then Z, as much as A+B+C, then W+X+Y, then Z.

    But — and it sounds like a nitpick, but I don’t think it is — I wouldn’t say that the puzzles are gating mechanisms for the game or the story. If an adventure game is designed well, the puzzles are the story. Ideally, you’re not solving a puzzle to get to the next story moment, but you’re actually completing the next story moment. When you think of it like that, it doesn’t make as much sense to have “best 3 of 5 to progress” type goals, since that leaves you with 2 extraneous story moments. In a Mass Effect-sized game, maybe you can get away with that, but especially in an episodic series, you’d just be wasting development time on something many players would never see.

    So I say it’s good to keep it non-linear, but not essential. (Portal and Half-Life 2 are both completely linear, and there are few I’m-stuck-so-I-give-up-forever moments in those). Even if you have 3 branches to solve, being hopelessly stuck on one branch is no fun. I think the real problem is finding how to avoid that binary feeling of either moving too fast or being completely stuck, that you mentioned in your original post. We need to find better ways to let the player chip away at a puzzle and gradually solve it, feeling like he’s making progress the whole time.

  16. That’s a really good point about the puzzles BEING the story that I hadn’t considered. It doesn’t feel like that often in adventure games… the few I can think of that felt like that through are usually the best of the genre (Grim Fandango for example and the Monkey Island games).

    Appreciate the discourse – just found the blog through my StatTracker and I’ve enjoyed the handful of posts I’ve gone through so far, so don’t worry you’re not too rambly.

  17. Well again, I disagree that Grim Fandango falls into that category. From what I remember of it, it’s a prime example of a story that’s separated by puzzles — most often, you were fiddling with some type of machinery in order to get to the next story moment. No matter how cool a story and setting are, if you can see it as “a story with puzzles,” then you’re driving a wedge between story & “gameplay,” and in videogames, story is going to lose.

    For adventure games to have relevance instead of just being an evolutionary dead end, we need to keep asking the question, “Would this be just as good if we released it as a non-interactive movie?” I think ideally, your game should be broken if you can watch it without the puzzles.

  18. Hey Chuck–

    Nice rumination. Your brain chews stuff good.

    I had this thought: in an adventure game, the player’s ego is on the table. So it’s maybe not as important to design smart puzzles as it is to design puzzles that make the player feel smart.

    I’m playing through Strong Bad episode one on the Wii right now, by the way. The interface rocks!

    My favorite line so far is “Rats Like Metal! …apparently…”

    And I can’t stop saying “Savé/load” the way SB does on the title screen.

  19. Chuck–

    I thought my comment was pithy and clever but now it seems obvious and gauche. I’ve got commenter’s remorse. I hope I didn’t come off as an ass, and if I did, darn, sorry.

  20. I’m glad no assery was committed. I get worried because I haven’t read all your posts, or even all the posts you link to, and I fear I’m saying stuff that’s already been covered to death.

    Anyway. I’m thinking about the the “I used to like adventure games, but not anymore” thing right now. Almost all analyses seem to start like that, and then almost all of them proceed to talk about all the things they don’t like. One acknowledgement of affinity, followed by lots and lots of hate.

    Where’s the love? That’s one thing I enjoy about your ruminations: you’re completely willing to say “here’s the reasons adventure games suck, and here’s a game does all those things but I love it anyway.”

    You know, the Aristotle there, he says to himself, why do I like some plays and not others, and what do the really satisfying ones have in common? And then he basically sets down a set of observations from which we get all modern ideas about dramatic structure. So what do we get if we take adventure games, go back to first principles, and get all Aristotle on their ass? I mean, what’s the common ground between Gabriel Knight and Monkey Island?

    Let’s talk about what we loved and why we loved it.

    I bet you have some ideas…

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