Saucers of Mud

October 19, 2009

Some Thoughts about What I Like in Games

Filed under: IFComp — matt w @ 11:36 pm

But first, an admission: I’m probably not going to play any more games from the IFComp, even though some of the ones I haven’t played look interesting, and one (Broken Legs) looks like it might be one of the best games of the comp. From the first few turns it has great writing, voice, attitude, and characterization, and one of the best responses to “xyzzy” ever. (Interface’s response is pretty good too.) It also apparently has a puzzle structure kind of like Varicella’s, and I’m too intimidated to even start playing Varicella, because I know I will FAIL. And I suspect it won’t be the good kind of fail, where I get to see a lot of witty failure scenes and learn what I did wrong and improve, but the bad kind of fail, where I get to see the same failure scenes over and over. This is my fault (though it does connect into what I like in games, which I will discuss below).

Anyway, the main reason I won’t play the rest of the games, at least not right now, is that I’ve pretty much used up the amount of time I can spend on IF this month, and I still have to write six (gulp) more reviews. (Also, a couple of the games I have left won’t play online from the play online page — these are the ones that don’t have .zsomething extensions on the Java link. When I click the Java link it asks me to download something. Now I believe that this is because these are larger, non-Z-machine games, and the online interpreters only work on Z-machine games, but I barely understand that sentence. Anyway, I thought I’d mention it. It also may be an issue with my browser setup.)

So I thought I’d say a little about what I seem to like and dislike in games, which may help assuage the feelings of anyone whose game I’ve harshed out on because I couldn’t solve it.

Oh, and this entry contains a lot of links to TVTropes, because I hate your productivity almost as much as mine.

Something I don’t like: being frustrated, unless that frustration ends in a satisfying breakthrough moment (or at least a satisfying “aha!” once I look at the walkthrough). It’s a character flaw of mine that I get frustrated too easily, especially when combined with a stubbornness that makes me not want to stop doing the thing that’s frustrating me. (I’ve played through a game that killed me 1507 times in just over two hours. Which did feel good when I finished it, but that level of persistence may be a form of insanity.)

A corollary is that I’m unusually bugged by puzzles that I think are insufficiently clued — ones that send me to the walkthrough and make me ask “How was I supposed to know to do that?” This is a superset of guess-the-verb puzzles (which I think everyone hates), where the problem is often that you think “X can’t possibly work” because you think you’ve tried X, you just didn’t try to do X using the exact wording that’s programmed in. (cf.) If there are tons of synonyms for “give shirt to troll,” but no indication that you were wearing a shirt, it’s not a guess-the-verb but it’s still unclued. (This example comes from a game that was deliberately meant to be unplayable, so I haven’t hurt anyone’s feelings yet, I hope.) (And one of those links reminds me — when the PC is in bed or a chair or something, can we have “up” mean “out”? I realize that “up” usually doesn’t work because it’s used to move to other rooms rather than out of beds/chairs in the room you’re in, but this always throws me off.)

Timing puzzles also can get frustrating for me — partly because I tend to play online, which means I don’t save. And they can be good at raising dramatic tension. But they’re also good at killing me off and making me go through a bunch of steps again, or sending me to the walkthrough because I realize that if I keep trying various things that don’t work I’m going to be die soon. This is more of a personal preference than something I think designers should respect, although if the solution to the timed puzzle exceeds the undo buffer, you’re at least Tough on the cruelty scale. (Perhaps Nasty if it’s not obvious when the timer runs out.)

Naturally the combination of these two is particularly lethal, though I guess mileage varies — Sidney gave a rating of “superb” to a game that, from his transcript, killed him at least twice with a timed puzzle that sent him to the hints. When he tried the solution his thought was “I wasn’t thorough enough,” which probably marks him as a more tolerant (or experienced) player than me. Or at least one with save files.

What I do like: I do like story, setting, and plot. This may be seem odd given a couple of my reviews — I liked Gleaming the Verb fine even though it has no story, setting, and plot, or much of anything else, and I said some fairly tolerant things about the unimplemented stuff in The Grand Quest until they started making the puzzle impossible to do. That’s because these things don’t — or needn’t — lead to the kind of frustration that I don’t like. I could play through Gleaming the Verb fine. But story, setting, and plot sure make a game richer.

I like a game that gives you some sense of forward progress. That’s one reason for the dreaded plot coupons. It may be an artificial device to have to collect the nine Orbs of Fronulax (or the six colored masks or the three (symbolic) pieces of your wife’s heart) in order to defeat the whosis, but when you get one of those things, you know you’ve done something. And progress doesn’t have to be so blatantly coupony. If there’s a door you can’t open, you’ve made progress when you’ve opened it. Usually. Even Galatea has something of a progress meter — of course when Galatea turns around it’s all the more rewarding for the emotional work you’ve put into it.

[By the way, if you somehow have managed to read this post this far and have never played Galatea, do it.]

I also like a game that teaches you how to play it. That’s something that Anna Anthropy talks about here with the beginning of Super Mario Bros. and here with the somewhat more obscure game Star Guard. With games I’ve played, that’s something Cave Story is absolutely superb at. Just before the boss battle that I’m currently stuck on, there’s a bit where you have to make a curving jump onto a block that’s descending to crush you, from underneath that block. This is a reasonably difficult jump. But a screen before that, there’s a screen where you have to make a very similar jump up from an area that you’ve cleared, under no time pressure, with no bad consequences if you’ve failed. So before you have to do or die, you’ve had plenty of time to practice.

The “Blocks with Letters On” games also do that quite well. They gradually introduce new devices — using the explanatory text that Anthropy disparages — which open up new kinds of gameplay. And there are tricks that go with the new devices; you learn how to use two flying blocks as a moving bridge to ferry other blocks across gaps, and then later you have to figure out how to do it with only one flying block (and other stuff); or you encounter some devices that rotate blocks, and you have to learn where to drop your block so it rotates the right amount, and then what to do when you don’t seem to be able to drop a block in the right place. But this way of teaching you the game is far from hand-holding. Plenty of times you have to think laterally, because a lesson that you think you’ve learned leads you the wrong way here. (Levels 27 and 28 of the first game do this elegantly.) If I were tossed into one of the later levels, I wouldn’t know where to begin, but because of the way the game has taught me, I know how to pull off some complicated stuff.

[There’s one instance where I think the lateral thinking breaks an implicit contract with the player, rot13ed: hc gvyy yriry guveglgjb, gur tnzr unf orra ragveryl ghea-onfrq; ohg ng yriry guvegl-gjb, lbh unir gb gnxr na npgvba va erny gvzr (lbh unir gb zbir ba naq bss n tngr fb gung gur nffbpvngrq oybpxf qvfnccrne naq ernccrne va gvzr sbe n oybpx gb snyy guebhtu bar naq or pnhtug ol gur bgure. Also the animations for levels 47 and 48 are somewhat unpleasant in a sexist way.]

Blocks With Letters On can get away with its complexity partly because it’s a strictly rule-based game, and it follows the rules. The abandonware game Blobbo Lite, is a sort of Sokoban (or Load Runner) gone berserk — you have to manipulate all sorts of objects to get to your toy chests. For instance, you might push a bowling ball, which falls past an arrow, which shoots off and hits a mine, which blows up the wall next to it and the floor it’s on (and you, if you’re next to it). It’s tile-based, turn-based, and rule-based; but it doesn’t tell you the rules up front, and it sometimes breaks them. But it sets up the way it breaks the rules. For instance, there’s one (fiendishly difficult) level where some of the chests are sealed off behind walls. There’s no way to get to them, if the walls behave like every wall you’ve seen before; and that’s how you know they don’t. Some of the walls are passable. There’s obviously no other way the level could be solvable. Later on there’s a level that forces you to go along a winding path into many separate areas, with some puzzles that look impossible until you realize that you have to go on to (what looks like) the next area before you can solve this area. At the very end is what looks like an impossible area to solve; you can get the last chest, but only by cutting off the level exit. Did you have to do something different in the previous area? No; you can just walk through the wall to the exit. That level would’ve been a literal Wall Banger, if the previous level hadn’t forced you to figure out that you could walk through walls when you really needed to.

Back to IF. It can be hard for a single work of IF to teach you how to play it. For one thing, most puzzly IF is going to try to get you to do something counterintuitive sometime, in a way that somehow makes sense. Else it wouldn’t be puzzly. It still can be done. The Dreamhold does a good job, not just by the in-game tutorial, but by the sequence of puzzles. And one of the games in the comp, the best I think, teaches you to play it too. (Maybe Broken Legs teaches you accretively.) But I think IF in general teaches you through the genre.

For instance, when I played A Flustered Duck I was bemused by one particular location, which obviously had something important that I couldn’t find, even after examining every possible noun. It turned out that I had to search rather than examine. (This was still a moment of player-PC disjuncture, since the PC knew what was there and what it was for, and I did not know and, um, had not expected to be doing that. Which sounds NSFW but isn’t. The game has an excellent hint system, which makes up for it.) There’s at least one game in the IFComp that uses “search” a lot, and if it hadn’t been for AFD it would’ve born the brunt of my annoyance. — In fact, going back a bit, when I first played Metamorphoses I couldn’t find a crucial early object because I didn’t know you could make things show up by examining other things. Also I couldn’t figure out how to work the contraption until I looked at the walkthrough, but that’s just me being dense.

The upshot? Well, IF in general has a learning curve, and I may be close to the beginning of it. But the conventions of IF are not to be tossed aside lightly. A game that doesn’t respond to conventional probing, and doesn’t give you an idea of what it will respond to, can be like a book bound back to front, or one where you’re supposed to read the pages in alphabetical order (eight five four one six seven three two). The players may not be able to get started. Or they may — I have a post up about Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle. But watch out. And then keep cluing your puzzles; the basic vocabulary of IF may be enough to get the player going, but the game has to boost them along.

That’s why I was so positive about Interface and even about Gleaming the Verb. Interface sets you up in a situation, lets you know some of the things you need to do, and as you move around you gradually uncover more puzzles and more of what you need to solve it. It’s not profound, but it’s enjoyable. Gleaming the Verb doesn’t actually do any of the standard IF stuff (which may be why I liked it more than IF vets). But it does tell you what to do at the beginning, and then if you can make the leap to the next command (which is something I did kind of automatically) the rest of the puzzles build on that. So at least it teaches you what to do, if you can take the first step. It may be just a riddle, but it’s a fair riddle.

Anyway, that’s where I’m coming from, at much too much length. Probably the most important bits of it should be folded into a later post, “Why do people swear at IF?”



  1. […] game like this, which is a puzzle that you get or you don’t, can’t possibly fit in with what I said about how I like games that teach you how to play them. And to some extent that’s true. But […]

    Pingback by IFComp: Byzantine Perspective « Saucers of Mud — October 20, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

  2. […] I can't ride a bicycle, due to an early busting-my-head-open experience. But like I said here, most IF games presuppose you already know how to play IF some. Except for something like the […]

    Pingback by IFComp Review: Earl Grey « Saucers of Mud — October 23, 2009 @ 9:43 am

  3. […] reviews, but also partly because they have some thematic similarities. Some of which go back to my rant about how I like games that teach you to play them. The very short version is that Rover’s […]

    Pingback by IFComp: Rover’s Day Out and Grounded in Space « Saucers of Mud — November 10, 2009 @ 11:14 pm

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