Larry Hosken: New: Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, and yet you can be in the wrong place

Yesterday after work, I stood on a painted rectangle of sidewalk for about 45 minutes. I did this for what turned out to be no good reason. I thought that somebody was going to call me on a payphone. That didn't happen. I thought I was following some instructions from the Games of Nonchalance. But I wasn't really. I'd found a partial set of instructions, thought I'd found the whole thing. And thus I stood out on this patch of sidewalk in the Mission for the better part of an hour, waiting for a phone call from a member of Godot's equivalence class. This wasn't awful. It was an interesting corner. Neighborhood kids played with water guns, using me as cover. That was kind of fun. But overall, I was disappointed. I'd shlepped out to the Mission and waited around for nothing.

The silver lining: it was just me. On Sunday, I'd dragged Peter Tang around a few blocks of the Mission for about an hour. I thought we were following some trickily drawn clues on a map of the neighborhood. But actually, we were "solving" things in the wrong order. We were supposed to pick up something before we tried to navigate the map. Instead, we tried to follow a map that made no sense. How were we supposed to know the proper order to tackle these puzzles?

Standing still on that patch of sidewalk, I moved past some threshhold of distrust for the GC of the Games of Nonchalance. I was no longer eager to "explore" their world. (Don't worry, Girts; I'll still tag along on Monday.) If it was pretty obvious that going someplace would lead to something fun, then great. But if it wasn't clear, don't risk it. Maybe it's just another out-of-order half-clue that would leave me stranded.

I had plenty of time to think. I thought back a few years to when I was working in the video game industry, working on "New Legends". This was a 3-D game, you play a martial artist who runs around and beats up bad guys. But there were other things you had to do: disable gun turrets; push buttons to lower gantries, shut down force fields... Try to cross the bridge without disabling the gun turret first, and you'd get blown away. How is the player supposed to know the proper order in which to do things? The game had to "break the fourth wall": Pop up a list of objectives, show it as UI. Maybe the player can succeed if they carry out these tasks out of order. But if they carry them out in the order shown, they're guaranteed not to get stuck.

It's surprising how much direction you need to give the players. Do you wonder why, in a video game, you'll see a signpost saying "This way to the castle" while your AI wingman tells you "We need to storm the castle right now" and a text message blinks constantly at the bottom of the screen "GO: CASTLE"? In the first revision of that game, they just had the spoken dialog; players got lost. In the next revision, they added the signpost; players still got lost. Blinking text finally got the point across. As a game designer, you keep thinking "If we just tell them this then they'll figure it out and we don't need to break the fourth wall." You keep thinking that.

I kinda wished that this Nonchalance game would say "Don't try to follow up on this unless you've also seen the other thingy." It would break the fourth wall. But it would also mean I wasn't standing out on this little patch of sidewalk, gradually realizing I'd been set up to fail.

I had a lot of time to think about this and thus had time to embark on some self-improvement. Because, of course, the 2-Tone Game has had a similar problem. There were a couple of puzzles where players might think they could leave a puzzle site after they snapped some photos... But then they solve the puzzle and it asks them a question about the spot they left: "IN MURAL BOOKSHELF WHO AUTHORED RED BOOK?" Oh man, I guess we have to drive all the way back to Coit Tower. Some teams liked this; more of an excuse to run around the puzzle site. I liked this: one of those puzzles was so constrained, I was darned glad to get a halfway-coherent message out of it. But some players didn't like it. They'd gathered data, gone home, done some solving. And now they found out that they were supposed to drive across town again to pick up one last piece of information. They wanted those puzzles altered.

Nonchalance sends over-enthusiastic folks like me to puzzle sites too early, before we have all the information we need. But 2-Tone Game was luring people away from puzzle sites too early, before they have all the information they need. Flip sides of the same problem.

So anyhow, tonight I tweaked those 2-Tone puzzles, adding some text to them: "When you've figured this out, it will tell you to find something else around here." Instead of re-designing those puzzles, just break the fourth wall, warn the players what's going on. I'm a technical writer; I write documentation. You think I would have thought of that solution without having to stand on a patch of sidewalk for 45 minutes, but maybe I'm a little slow.

Tags: puzzle hunts 2tonegame
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