Game Development Reference
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run past while he is blinded. You could throw a stick nearby and sneak
past while he looks at the noise. You could fashion a weapon and kill him.
This game required that the player combine the sticks, string, and
mud into a mask so that the guard doesn't recognize him (seriously). While
this is possible in the game's fictional wrapper, there is nothing special
about it among the thousands of other equally plausible ways you could
use these tools to get past a guard. The result is that the player approaches
the puzzle while information-starved. Since he is denied the mechanics-
level understanding needed to make the decision, his only option is to
exhaustively try every interaction available to him. The game collapses into
a rote exercise in random flailing.
Even good games have these problems. A more recent, critically ac-
claimed adventure game has a puzzle that tasks the player with waking up
a pilot who ejected from his plane, got his parachute hung in a tree, and
fell asleep. The problem is that the pilot has headphones on, so he can't
hear anything. It being winter, some solutions are immediately obvious.
Make a snowball and chuck it at his face. Poke him with a long stick. Wait
until he wakes up naturally. Shake the tree. These all would work in the
fiction, but none of them works in the game. The real solution is to climb
into his crashed plane, twiddle some dials on the airplane radio until it
displays his frequency, then travel to a nearby radio station and transmit a
message through his earphones to wake him up. Again, it makes fictional
sense, but so do about a thousand other equally plausible solutions.
Puzzle design is the most obvious example of fiction-mechanics am-
biguity, but it's not the only one. Anything communicated through fiction
is vulnerable to this problem. Will that wooden plank protect me from
bullets? Will a fireball spell kill a person in one shot? Can I break that
glass? Can I open that door?
The solution is to take the puzzle out of the fiction. Instead, construct
puzzles out of well-understood mechanics.
Good game decisions, including good puzzles, are always based around
nonobvious uses of mechanics that work in obvious ways.
The player should know all the mechanics involved in a problem. The
decision is in figuring out how to use them to get to a solution.
For example, the Super Mario games have jumping puzzles. These are
arrangements of platforms and hazards over which Mario must jump to
get to some goal. But to do this, the player must find a good path. Finding
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