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
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
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
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.
Comments? Send 'em to Michael (at) Glideunderground.com!
right here for everyone to see!