Return to Adventure: C’mon, gimme a hint …

So, in the previous installments, I’ve talked about how adventure games have some of the things needed to capture the casual market, and pointed out at least one thing they need to improve on: customization. But there’s an even bigger issue that adventure games need to work on, a problem that’s basically what sunk them to the depths of obscurity that they now enjoy: puzzles and their difficulty.

Years ago, when adventure games were in their hey-day I, like a lot of people, tried to play them. What would invariably happen is that I’d get part of the way in, hit a puzzle that I couldn’t figure out, get frustrated, and quit the game. This ended up being so inevitable that I stopped playing adventure games altogether.

And then, a while back, a friend of mine sent me an E-mail that Sam & Max had returned in episode form, and that there was a free trial episode available. Now, I’d never played the original games, but I had heard a lot about them and thought that they’d be funny and entertaining. But the old fears returned. What if I got stuck early in the game? Would it be worth downloading and installing that just to end up grumpy and frustrated that I was stuck?

Now, at the time I had been using Gamefaqs to get myself around nasty RPG puzzles, and had used it and other FAQs to get part of the way through “Missing: Since January”. So, I gave it a try.

Sure enough, I got stuck in places where I either didn’t know what I had to do or how to solve the puzzle. But this time, I didn’t quit playing the game in frustration. Instead, I tried things until I couldn’t think of anything else to do and was getting sick of looking, and then tabbed out of the game to a handy-dandy FAQ, which gave me the answer to the puzzle, so that I could go back in, solve the puzzle, and move on in the game. I ended up loving the episode, and that was what got me to recently buy the 3 seasons that were currently available at Telltale Games.

So, essentially, Telltale Games gained a customer in large part because a walkthrough was available.

Ultimately, for most people who are not hardcore adventure gamers, frustrating puzzles are as much of a game stopper as too hard combat sequences or too hard platform sequences or too reflex-oriented gaming sequences. They all share the property that when you get there you start to fail to advance in the game, and if this goes on for too long you get frustrated with the game, and if this goes on for too long that frustration ends up making the game not fun, and so you quit. While puzzles are more generally accessible than combat most of the time, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be too hard. And if casual gamers hit something that’s too hard, they’ll stop playing … and stop playing your genre.

So, FAQs can save the world, right? Well, FAQs have a few problems. The first is that you have to get out of the game to read them, and it isn’t obvious in-game where to find them. If a player doesn’t know about Gamefaqs, then they have to search the Internet for it, if they really know how and want to go through the bother. Second, FAQs, in general, just tell you the answer flat-out; they don’t guide you through hints until you figure it out yourself. Third, FAQs and walkthroughs often contain spoilers for the rest of the game, which isn’t great. Fourth, someone else has to write them, which means that for more obscure games you won’t find a FAQ … which only ensures that those games will stay obscure.

So, what’s the answer? In-game hint systems. Let the adventure game writers write the hints, too. This means that a player never has to leave the game when they get stuck. All they do is simply ask the game for a hint, the game provides, and everyone is happy.

For this to work best, hints have to be progressive, starting from vague hints and progressing to the game just pretty much telling you what to do. And the hints should fit into the game style as well. If you’re doing Sam & Max, having it as funny conversations between Sam & Max is ideal. For a more serious game, you should keep it more serious and straightforward. The key, though, is to make it so that you never actually have to use them, but if you want to you will eventually become unstuck using them.

Properly implemented, a good hint system will mean that every player’s experience is tailored for the level of frustration they want to experience. People who like to be frustrated and eventually, through hard work and sweat, solve the puzzle can still spend days trying to figure it out before breaking down and asking for help, and people who tolerate less levels of frustration can get hints earlier and get on with enjoying the game. Everybody wins.

One of the big problems with adventure games has always been that if you don’t get what they’re going for with a puzzle, you’ll be stuck, unable to proceed, and likely to quit the game in a huff. Letting the game help you out is an ideal way to keep the intellectual challenge of the puzzles in an adventure game without exceeding the frustration tolerance level of your players. And so if this is done, adventure games should have overcome one of the biggest stumbling blocks in their return to gaming prominence.

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