Larry Hosken: New: Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere within and without the bounds of convention

A few months back, Ian Tullis talked about puzzles, specifically puzzle-hunt puzzles, and how they've evolved. The quest for novelty drives puzzlehunt designers away from the "plain" puzzles that most folks would recognize. But it's not all new: we keep using Morse code, Braille code, anagramming. But maybe there's a danger lurking there: if you keep leaning on those codes/techniques/thingies that folks "in the community" know, you risk creating challenges that are easy to us, but alienate the n00bs who don't know Morse, aren't sure they want to know Morse...

I ran into this same idea in other places a couple of times recently. Well, not this exact same idea. But folks in other brainy games chafing against the bounds of tradition.

Dan Hon used to work at Mind Candy. That was the company that made Perplexcity, that puzzle-based trading card game from a few years back. But it wasn't just a trading card game—it was one of those big games like I Love Bees with a web site and live events and... And now Dan Hon's speaking out against puzzles. No, he's not speaking out against our style of puzzles. Don't freak out. But he rants that those big ARGish games were leaning on their community's "standard puzzles" too hard.

An excerpt from an article about the talk:

According to Dan, there's a major challenge facing the traditional alternate reality game, something we might nowadays call transmedia entertainment: people seem to associate them with massive collaborative problem solving and puzzles. One of Hon's major complaints with current alternate reality game and transmedia development upon which he as waxed eloquent in the past is that ARGs are not mainstream enough because they "incorporate obscure shit that no one want to see or do" by relying on tactics such as steganography, cryptography and solving stupid puzzles. Hon chastises developers, saying,

Stop doing this! Your audience is not stupid. If you put a work of fiction in front of them, they will understand what it is and we do not have to pretend that "it is not a fucking game." The number of people who are interested in mathematical cryptography is very very small; instead, let's make stuff that just entertains people. I don't want to jump through hoops to enjoy something, I want to view Charlie bit my finger on YouTube.

What if, Hon posits, the first alternate reality game wasn't based on a scifi movie, catering to a geek audience? What if it was based on the movie Amélie, which also came out in 2001? An interesting question. What would have happened? It begs the question: are we are using the alternate reality gaming genre in the right way?

If you look at Dan Hon's slides, he talks about the recurring player experiences for the I Love Bees scene, experiences that he was tired of:

Viewing Source Code
More codebreaking
Esoteric Knowledge
Viewing more source code
Solving stupid puzzles
Buying stock in UV torch companies
More waiting
Not telling me what to do

It's not our palette of puzzlehunt fodder, it's a different palette. But they keep going back to that palette. And there are some people who will keep playing these games. But there are some people who might be put off by this.

And... what if our tradition's founder hadn't been a computer geek stopping off in the SF bay area for an education before heading off to Redmond? What if he'd been inspired by Amelie instead of a... Well, wait, that would involve time-travel. Anyhow.

I watched this documentary Get Lamp about the old text adventures: ADVENTURE and ZORK and all those. One section of this documentary is about the puzzles in those games: Their role in the games, and the puzzles themselves. There was tension between story and puzzles then, too. Pinsky talks about his experience writing a text adventure, him wanting to write an interesting story, but the folks who knew the audience knew they needed puzzles. And there were recurring puzzle types. The maze you had to map.

Paul O'Brian says

...hunger puzzles, light source puzzles. There were all these hallmarks of old-school IF [interactive fiction] that actually created, at least in my experience, mostly aggravation... They were more in there to make things take a long time than to really bring you into the world or to help you have fun.

Dave Lebling

That maturity of the form was an impediment. Because you know that there were hundreds of thousands of people out there who had played these games. And they knew that you're supposed to be able to do certain things. And they expect the plot, as such, to move in certain ways...

Andrew "Zarf" Plotkin had some great things to say that echo with Tullis (around 9 minutes in to the Playing the Game segment) about creating an experience that is novel to hoary veterans but doesn't lose the n00bs:

If you sit down in front of a text adventure for the first time, the first thing that is going to happen is that you type something and the computer's not going to understand it.

Do what - I don't understand


That's a real experience. The misconception is that that's the intended interaction of the game and that's what the author has spent all of his time thinking about.

The truth is, of course, that the author has this huge set of assumptions about what you know. The author thinks you've got a good grounding in how most of these games work. And he's spent most of his time thinking about how he can make this well-known text adventure interface unique and interesting for his situation. Which is great for our community because we're all familiar with it. It's a total failure for newcomers. I wish I had a fantastic story to tell you about how I solved this problem. I do not.

There is a solution, of course. Just as Brent Holman keeps pointing out that folks can go out on teh internets and learn about Morse Code puzzles and "indexing", there are text adventure walkthroughs out there. But Zarf points out that tension: writing with assumptions about the audience background, knowing full well that there aren't actually many people out there with that background.

How much homework does the n00b need to slog through to understand your game?

We are not the first designers to face this problem. We will not be the last. I guess the lesson is the usual: keep trying new stuff. Keep it fresh. Great art springs from interesting constraints, but if the genre's rules limit you, then break a rule. Yeah, I know, you were going to do that anyhow.

Tags: puzzle scene entertainment industry
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