28 December 2010

Puzzles Should Have Clues - by Adam Bishop

      Posted 08/13/10 07:00:00 pm  

I'm not going to take up your time today to tell you what I thought of Limbo; if you want to know how I would review it, you can just read either of Mitch Krpata's pieces about it (1 / 2) as they say almost word-for-word what I would have said if it was my job to review games.  Instead, I want to examine Limbo from a game design standpoint.  I feel that the game fails pretty dramatically from a gameplay standpoint, but I'm not interested in just listing reasons that I didn't like it.  Instead I want to use Limbo as a learning tool, a way to demonstrate some ideas about game design - and especially puzzle game design - that I find to be particularly important.

I'm going to look at four particular areas here: the importance of clear/coherent rules, the importance of clues, the importance of respecting the player, and the necessity of context.

Lesson 1 - Rules Are Important
Limbo kills the player frequently.  A great many of these deaths could only be avoided with prescience, dumb luck, or superhuman reflexes.  A game in which the player character dies frequently is not necessarily bad, but one in which the player character dies because of poor communication most definitely is.

Communicating the structure and rules of a game is of vital importance.  Imagine trying to play a game of Risk without knowing that the defender (typically) rolls less dice than the attacker; imagine trying to play a game of Tetris without knowing that filling up an entire line clears that line from the screen.  You would figure it out eventually, sure, but it basically renders the game you've played up until that point useless, since the real beginning of the game is the point at which you actually understand what's going on.

Limbo takes this one step further though by constantly changing the rules.  Imagine that you've decided to attack an opponent in Risk because you know the numerical advantage favours you.  You win the first battle, but your opponent still has troops left so you attack again.  Only this time, after you've declared your attack, an observer suddenly informs you that on this roll, the defender gets extra dice.  Limbo has a puzzle that does exactly this - two identical looking platforms just a few feet apart operate in entirely opposite fashions; one of these platforms will kill you if you step on it so you must jump over it, while the platform a few feet away will kill you if you don't step on it.

Lying to the player and arbitrarily changing rules is not clever, it is cheating.  Games are about rules; they are about players learning those rules, and how they affect the structures within which the player must work, and then figuring out how to apply those rules to achieve some sort of desired result.  Arbitrary rules may work well for a prank (see: the quite funny Mornington Crescent) but they are the death knell of good gameplay.  Rules are what hold a game together.  Without them, you just have a bunch of unrelated experiences stuck together by a similar aesthetic.

This is not to say that mechanics can not be changed part-way through the game.  Braid changes one major rule in every single world.  There are two key differences though.  The first is that Braid explicitly tells you when you have changed rules with the introductory puzzle in each level, which is a simple demonstration of the new idea.  The second is that within each world, the puzzles all build on that idea.  Once you have learned what the idea is, the remaining puzzles require you to apply that idea in varying, often challenging ways.

My criticism is also not meant to say that there's anything wrong with throwing new things at players.  Metal Gear Solid 4 packs in more gameplay ideas in each of its five chapters that most games do in their entire running time.  But with a few exceptions for minigames, these ideas all operate within a defined, understood, and consistent set of mechanics and logic, which means that the player is able to learn how to accomplish later tasks by understanding and completing previous ones.

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