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Weekly Musings #38 The Limitations of Format
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: May 9th 2005

Earlier today, I made brief comment on a rant/editorial by Ben Croshaw at Adventuregamers regarding puzzles of the "Use Key on Door" variety. The focus of the rant was decently simple: that in bringing puzzles from the days of text parser adventures forward, game designers have gradually simplified game interfaces to the point where somewhere between 60 and 100 percent of all puzzles involve using inventory item X on environmental location Y.

Looking back on it, this phenomenon isn't all that unique to computer games. A similar phenomenon exists in tabletop pencil-and-paper gaming known as the "plot wagon." In this phenomenon, the game master (or the video game narration, or introductory FMV, etc) describes to the players how they have been hired to rescue a princess, or to guard a wagon caravan, or any sort of other task. This is known as the "adventure hook." Subsequent bends in the plotline are facilitated by an impassable object, or the need for a reference from another NPC or informational source, or occasionally just for the key to a gigantic stone door.

We've just come full circle.

Now, obviously Mr. Croshaw's not entirely wrong. There ARE games in which the entire mode of gameplay for solving puzzles is throwing every inventory item at a situation until something sticks. And this rightly qualifies as bad game design.

However, most of the time, "Use Key on Door" is not the goal, it's the plot wagon. It is the game designer's way of directing the player on what area to explore next, or of cordoning off areas that are too hard for the player at his/her current level. In First Person Shooters, it wouldn't be much fun if the entire level were available from the beginning; requiring the death of a miniboss (who just happens to have "The Key") or requiring a simple search through another section of the game to find such an item is the easiest way to direct the players towards the host of enemies that they are expected to fight.

It isn't dissimilar to the guards preventing players from entering certain areas in a Final Fantasy-style RPG, either; in those instances, the "key" is merely the advancement of game plot, which will ultimately (assuming the area is meant to be entered) open the door for the players of its own accord.

In these cases, it is hard to argue that the use of "Key" puzzles is unwarranted; players should rightly expect that they will (relatively speaking) go through the plot in sequence. Even in "sandbox" titles such as the Grand Theft Auto series, there is an overarching plotline which must eventually be played out with a relatively steady sequence of events, and along which players are driven by in-game knowledge and circumstances.

Of course, Ben Croshaw wasn't speaking of FPS games, or RPG titles, or even Sandbox titles. He was referring to Adventure titles, games such as Atlantis: Evolution, Return to Mysterious Island, and older titles as well such as Maniac Mansion, the Monkey Island series, and the Space Quest series. His complaint was that the death of the text parser has reduced the number of active verbs from a veritable thesaurus to the point where in-game activity is strictly limited.

In truth, the situation is not as bad as Mr. Croshaw feared. Yes, there are some bad Adventure titles out there that are nothing but "Use X on Y" puzzles. But there are also some tremendously good games to be found. Return to Mysterious Island's many puzzles require players to build the "Key" in question out of raw materials at hand, and provide multiple solutions to most puzzles. Aura: Fate of the Ages featured puzzles utilizing multiple keys, which had to be inserted into place and "used" in proper sequence.

I for one don't really miss the text parser. Yes, it gave the designer flexibility to use any verb they chose, but ultimately all text-parser games started including a "legal verb list" for when players got tired of thumbing through a thesaurus praying they could find the right combination.

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Musings #38: The Limitations of Format

Added:  Monday, May 09, 2005
Reviewer:  Mike Ahlf


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