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LotSN and Ron Gilbert's "Rules" (many spoilers)

posted by Bas on - last edited - Viewed by 1.1K users

A few years ago, Ron Gilbert posted his old article "Why Adventure Games Suck" on his blog. He states that he doesn't necessarily agree with all the rules anymore nowadays, but I've always found it to be very truthful, and when I dislike an adventure game I can almost always use the "Rules" to point out why it failed, in my opinion. Also, I think one of the reasons that the classic LucasArts adventures are the very best the genre has to offer is because they manage to pass every one of these rules of thumb.

So, having just finished Launch, I figured I'd see how it fares against Ron Gilbert's adventure game design rules from 1989. By the way, I won't be using spoiler tags, because that'd be incredibly tedious, so if you haven't finished the game yet, turn back.

End objective needs to be clear
It?s OK if the objective changes in mid-game, but at the beginning the player should have a clear vision as to what he or she is trying to accomplish. Nothing is more frustrating than wandering around wondering what you should be doing and if what you have been doing is going to get you anywhere. Situations where not knowing what?s going on can be fun and an integral part of the game, but this is rare and difficult to pull off.

This worked well. You instantly knew you had to get off the island.

Sub-goals need to be obvious
Most good adventure games are broken up into many sub-goals. Letting the player know at least the first sub-goal is essential in hooking them. If the main goal is to rescue the prince, and the player is trapped on an island at the beginning of the game, have another character in the story tell them the first step: get off the island. This is just good storytelling.

This also worked. Davey instantly told you that you couldn't get off the island because of the winds, and then provided you with the lead you needed to figure out how to do something about them.

Live and learn
As a rule, adventure games should be able to be played from beginning to end without ?dying? or saving the game if the player is very careful and very observant. It is bad design to put puzzles and situations into a game that require a player to die in order to learn what not to do next time

This has never been the case in LucasArts or Telltale adventures that I can recall.

Backwards Puzzles
The backwards puzzle is probably the one thing that bugs me more than anything else about adventure games. I have created my share of them; and as with most design flaws, it?s easier to leave them in than to redesign them. The backwards puzzle occurs when the solution is found before the problem. Ideally, the crevice should be found before the rope that allows the player to descend. What this does in the player?s mind is set up a challenge. He knows he need to get down the crevice, but there is no route. Now the player has a task in mind as he continues to search. When a rope is spotted, a light goes on in his head and the puzzle falls into place. For a player, when the design works, there is nothing like that experience.

The only time I can recall this happening in LotSN was with the pyrite parrot and the nasal cavity. I put him in there before having lured de Singe to the door, and I was kind of miffed that not only did nothing happen, but I had lost the parrot for no good reason too. The "see if you can open the door from the inside" thing was a bit of a cop out, really. The only thing the parrot ever did was lie around, so there was no reason to assume that it'd suddenly be able to work ancient doors. I think it would have been better if Guybrush had refused to put the parrot in there because he didn't want to lose it, until you had lured de Sing and it became clear that de Singe would open the door if he had reason to suspect Guybrush already being in there.

I forgot to pick it up
This is really part of the backwards puzzle rule, but in the worst way. Never require a player to pick up an item that is used later in the game if she can?t go back and get it when it is needed. It is very frustrating to learn that a seemingly insignificant object is needed, and the only way to get it is to start over or go back to a saved game.

Fortunately, I have never seen this happen anymore in the last 20 years or so of adventure games.

Puzzles should advance the story
There is nothing more frustrating than solving pointless puzzle after pointless puzzle. Each puzzle solved should bring the player closer to understanding the story and game. It should be somewhat clear how solving this puzzle brings the player closer to the immediate goal.

I think this all worked nicely as well. You knew you had to make a Dark Ninja Dave because you needed D'oro to find treasure because you needed Davey to divulge the whereabouts of Deep Gut, etcetera.

Real time is bad drama
One of the most important keys to drama is timing. Anyone who has designed a story game knows that the player rarely does anything at the right time or in the right order. If we let the game run on a clock that is independent from the player?s actions, we are going to be guaranteed that few things will happen with dramatic timing. When Indiana Jones rolled under the closing stone door and grabbed his hat just in time, it sent a chill and a cheer through everyone in the audience. If that scene had been done in a standard adventure game, the player would have been killed the first four times he tried to make it under the door. The next six times the player would have been too late to grab the hat. Is this good drama? Not likely. The key is to use Hollywood time, not real time. Give the player some slack when doing time-based puzzles. Try to watch for intent.

I think they pulled this off too, for instance in the scene with de Singe and the gun at the fourth idol. Something I particularly appreciated was that it only knocked you back to the previous screen, so you could walk right back in there when you failed, rather than towards a random point on the map like in Monkey Island 1.

Incremental reward
The player needs to know that she is achieving. The fastest way to turn a player off is to let the game drag on with no advancement. This is especially true for people who are playing adventure games for the first time. In graphics adventures the reward often comes in the form of seeing new areas of the game.

This worked too, if you ask me. The jungle divulged new locations at a steady rate of puzzle solving.

(I'll continue this in a second post, because for some reason I can't post any long posts. Posts.)

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    Bas

    (continued)

    [quote]Arbitrary puzzles
    Puzzles and their solutions need to make sense. They don?t have to be obvious, just make sense. The best reaction after solving a tough puzzle should be, ?Of course, why didn?t I think of that sooner!? The worst, and most often heard after being told the solution is, ?I never would have gotten that!? If the solution can only be reached by trial and error or plain luck, it?s a bad puzzle.
    [/quote]

    I think this is the one major failure of LotSN. There was no reason for the Club 41 card to be in the sock, and no way for the player to know. The only way you could have found a way into Club 41 was by randomly clicking stuff.
    Same goes for the Unbreakable Bottle Breaker: you knew the glass blower had it, and that he wasn't going to give it to you. With a bit of thinking you could also figure out that a cannon ball shot from a ship would be blown back to the island due to the winds. But how were you supposed to know that it'd land exactly on the glass unicorns, and that the glassblower would subsequently go inside while leaving the very bottle breaker he was so protective of outside? Was there really anyone who fired the cannon because they had a clue that it'd get them the bottle breaker?

    [quote]Reward Intent
    The object of these games is to have fun. Figure out what the player is trying to do. If it is what the game wants, then help the player along and let it happen. The most common place this fails is in playing a meta-game called ?second guess the parser.? If the player is standing right next to something, chances are they are trying to manipulate it. If you give the player the benefit of the doubt, the game will be right more than wrong. On one occasion, I don?t know how much time I spent trying to tie a string on the end of a stick. I finally gave up, not knowing if I was wording the sentence wrong or if it was not part of the design. As it turned out, I was wording it wrong.
    [/quote]

    Can't recall this being a problem.

    [quote]Unconnected events
    In order to pace events, some games lock out sections until certain events have happened. There is nothing wrong with this, it is almost a necessity. The problem comes when the event that opens the new section of the world is unconnected. If the designer wants to make sure that six objects have been picked up before opening a secret door, make sure that there is a reason why those six objects would affect the door. If a player has only picked up five of the objects and is waiting for the door to open (or worse yet, trying to find a way to open the door), the act of getting the flashlight is not going to make any sense in relation to the door opening.
    [/quote]

    The only time I experienced this was with de Singe's lab becoming available. You knew you couldn't get in during the first half of the game because he was seeing a patient. But later in the game, the patient is gone without you having anything to do with it. You have to discover that the lab is now available as a location yourself, and there's no reason to think that it might be because it doesn't become available through any of your actions.

    Alternatively, the bit with the Creepy Shack handled this well: you could find the shack on your own, but you couldn't get in because you need a password. When you do some stuff for Davey and get the map, you realise that you now have the password and can enter the shack.

    [quote]Give the player options
    A lot of story games employ a technique that can best be described as caging the player. This occurs when the player is required to solve a small set of puzzles in order to advance to the next section of the game, at which point she is presented with another small set of puzzles. Once these puzzles are solved, in a seemingly endless series of cages, the player enters the next section. This can be particularly frustrating if the player is unable to solve a particular puzzle. The areas to explore tend to be small, so the only activity is walking around trying to find the one solution out.

    A better way to approach designing this is to think of the player as outside the cages, and the puzzles as locked up within. In this model, the player has a lot more options about what to do next. She can select from a wide variety of cages to open. If the solution to one puzzle stumps her, she can go on to another, thus increasing the amount of useful activity going on.

    Of course, you will want some puzzles that lock out areas of the game, but the areas should be fairly large and interesting unto themselves. [/quote]

    I always feel that the first chapter of Monkey Island 1 is a great example of how to do this well. You know that you need to complete the trials, but the order in which you do them is completely arbitrary. If you're stuck solving the puzzles for the treasure hunting trial, you can just continue with the idol pilfering trial.

    In LotSN, I think this worked as well as an episodic game will allow. You could do Davey's 'trials' in any order you pleased, and the jungle puzzles didn't feel particularly linear either. Quite an achievement in a relative small area.

    So all in all, not a bad score for LotSN. The only real problem I see is the Arbitrary Puzzles rule (although that's an important one in my opinion), and to a lesser extent the Unconnected Events and Backwards Puzzles rules.

    What do you think? Perhaps the Telltale team could look into these when designing the remaining episodes?

  • SPOILERS

    @Bas said: Same goes for the Unbreakable Bottle Breaker: you knew the glass blower had it, and that he wasn't going to give it to you. With a bit of thinking you could also figure out that a cannon ball shot from a ship would be blown back to the island due to the winds. But how were you supposed to know that it'd land exactly on the glass unicorns, and that the glassblower would subsequently go inside while leaving the very bottle breaker he was so protective of outside? Was there really anyone who fired the cannon because they had a clue that it'd get them the bottle breaker?

    I fired the cannon before the glassblower so I knew that he was going to get inside his house after I broke his unicorn. When I found out that he had the glassblower I fired the cannon and I got the glassblower.

    @Bas said: The only time I experienced this was with de Singe's lab becoming available. You knew you couldn't get in during the first half of the game because he was seeing a patient. But later in the game, the patient is gone without you having anything to do with it. You have to discover that the lab is now available as a location yourself, and there's no reason to think that it might be because it doesn't become available through any of your actions.

    Every time I was stuck I check the lab if it was opens. It supposes to open after we found the shack. But correct is an unconnected event

    @Bas said: I put him in there before having lured de Singe to the door, and I was kind of miffed that not only did nothing happen, but I had lost the parrot for no good reason too. The "see if you can open the door from the inside" thing was a bit of a cop out, really. The only thing the parrot ever did was lie around, so there was no reason to assume that it'd suddenly be able to work ancient doors. I think it would have been better if Guybrush had refused to put the parrot in there because he didn't want to lose it, until you had lured de Sing and it became clear that de Singe would open the door if he had reason to suspect Guybrush already being in there.

    I don’t think that Gilbert was talking about for Backwards Puzzles, because you found the solution to the puzzle by luck.

    Yeah Guybrush should have refused to put the parrot before the doctor checked the door but on the other hand if he said he won’t do it and then change his mind it would be really frustrating because I would remember I tried the parrot with the door so I wouldn’t have try it again.

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    Bas

    @larys said: I fired the cannon before the glassblower so I knew that he was going to get inside his house after I broke his unicorn. When I found out that he had the glassblower I fired the cannon and I got the glassblower.

    See, that's the point. You could only really figure out the solution to this puzzle if you had already fired the cannon once. I think it'd have been a better puzzle if you had seen it be fired and hit the unicorns, or were forced to fire it, or at least in some way get a hint that it might hit dangerously close to the glassblower's house.

  • @Bas said: See, that's the point. You could only really figure out the solution to this puzzle if you had already fired the cannon once. I think it'd have been a better puzzle if you had seen it be fired and hit the unicorns, or were forced to fire it, or at least in some way get a hint that it might hit dangerously close to the glassblower's house.

    But this has nothing to do with Ron Gilbert (Arbitrary puzzles) rules. He said they need to be logical. Why do you need to have a hint to check the socks and the canon?

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    Bas

    @larys said: But this has nothing to do with Ron Gilbert (Arbitrary puzzles) rules. He said they need to be logical. Why do you need to have a hint to check the socks and the canon?

    Because the only other way of solving those puzzles is clicking stuff randomly?

  • Actually, the captain says that he lost his membership card while claiming the boat from its previous owner. So, it's slightly hinted towards it lying around somewhere close, at least.

    I agree regarding the cannon though, as I solved that by randomly clicking stuff as well.

  • But one of the questions is.. Why would you NOT fire a cannon on your ship? I immediatly wanted to do that, and many with me I'm sure.

    And the socks; well, I noticed the pink underwear and had a chuckle at them, and then noticed the socks next to them and saw I could interact with them. No problem either. Without the pink underwear though I probably wouldn't have given them much attention.

  • @Bas said: Because the only other way of solving those puzzles is clicking stuff randomly?

    It's an adventure game. I always click on everything at least once (sometimes more than once) just to see if something funny will happen.

    Telltale, on the whole, have done very well with their games by not having very many red herring objects you can pick up - almost every single item is used in at least one puzzle. Sure there's "red herring" hotspots (the machine in the Voodoo lady's shack, for example) but at least something amusing happens when you click on them.

    For the complaints in the first posts, I didn't find them a problem - Winslow said he'd lost his membership card, so clicking on nearby objects pretty much guaranteed you'd find it - socks or underwear or pants were my guess even before I clicked on them.

    When I became captain of the Screaming Narhwal, I fired the cannon just because it was there... and discovered it smashed the unicorn. Well before the unbreakable bottle breaker was available.

    And the parrot thing - As you say, perhaps Guybrush should have said "This could be a good idea... but I'm not sure why" and not pushed the parrot through before you'd got De Singe to visit the door the first time. I did this in the reverse order - taunted De Singe and got an aside from Guybrush about how he may open it if he thought he was already inside - which immediately sprung in my head to use the parrot. Well not immediately, I thought maybe first to use the U-tube as a ventroliquism-type voice thrower, but when that didn't work, the parrot was next :)

    There were other points - e.g. bomb in undies - where Guybrush says "good idea, but I should light it first" - i.e. you know you're on the right track, but there's one more thing to do before you can solve the puzzle. So perhaps if for the parrot-through-the-door thing you had to taunt De Singe to get him to come to the door the first time before you would be allowed to put the parrot through - but if you tried it first, then there would be a line of dialogue that indicated that the solution was the right one, but just not right now :)

    Er, I hope that last paragraph makes some sense. It's 1.20am and I'm possibly not all that sober :)

  • I disagree about the cannon and socks puzzles as, regardless how random they might seem, they abide by the 1st rule of any adventure game: click/look/explore everything. Besides, most of the puzzles were well designed so the inclusion of an arbitrary puzzle doesn't seem too harmful. Remember that tiny string inside the Voodoo Lady's swamp shack?

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