Achieving Suspension of Disbelief in adventure games by twelve rules of thumb
Videogames are interactive, but they are not movies. The fact that people want to call them interactive movies just points out how lost we are. Movies came from stage plays, but the references are long lost and movies have come into their own. The same thing needs to happen to story games.
The desire to call them Interactive Movies comes from a couple of places. The first is Marketing. It is the goal of narrow-minded marketing to place everything into a category so it will be recognizable.
Story games are not movies, but the two forms do share a great deal. It is not fair to completely ignore movies. We can learn a lot from them about telling stories in a visual medium. However, it is important to [//]realize that there are many more differences than similarities. We have to choose what to borrow and what to discover for ourselves.
The single biggest difference is interaction. You can’t interact with a movie. You just sit in the theater and watch it. In a story game, the player is given the freedom to explore the story. But the player doesn’t always do what the designer intended, and this causes problems. It is hard to create a cohesive plot when you have no idea what part of the story the player will trip over next. This problem calls for a special kind of storytelling, and we have just begun to scratch the surface of this art form.
There is a state of mind called “suspension of disbelief”. When you are watching a movie, or reading a good book, your mind falls into this state. It occurs when you are pulled so completely into the story that you no longer realize you are in a movie theater or sitting at your couch, reading. When the story starts to drag, or the plots begins to fall apart, the suspension of disbelief is lost. You soon start looking around the theater, noticing the people in front of you or the green exit sign. One way I judge a movie is by the number of times I realized I was in a theater.
The same is true of story games (as well as almost all other kinds of games). As the story builds, we are pulled into the game and leave the real world behind. As designers, our job is to keep people in this state for as long as possible.
Every time the player has to restore a saved game, or pound his head on the desk in frustration, the suspension of disbelief is gone. At this time he is most likely to shut off the computer, at which point we all have lost.
The following set of rules of thumb will minimize the loss of suspension of disbelief. As with any set of rules, there are always exceptions.
Some people say that following these rules makes the games too easy to play. I disagree. What makes most games tough to play is that the puzzles are arbitrary and unconnected. Most are solved by chance or repetitive sessions of typing “light candle with match,” “light paper with match,” “light rug with match,” until something happens. This is not tough game play, this is masturbation. I played one game that required the player to drop a bubble gum wrapper in a room in order to get a trap door to open (object names have been changed to protect the guilty). What is the reasoning? There is none. It’s an advanced puzzle, I was told.
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.
Sub-goals need to be obvious
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 is not to say that all death situations should be designed out. Danger is inherent in drama, but danger should be survivable if the player is clever.
As an exercise, take one complete path through a story game and then tell it to someone else, as if it were a standard story. If you find places where the main character could not have known a piece of information that was used (the character who learned it died in a previous game), then there is a hole in the plot.
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. From the player’s point of view, there was no reason for picking it up in the first place. Some designers have actually defended this practice by saying that, “adventure games players know to pick up everything.” This is a cop-out. If the jar of water needs to be used on the spaceship and it can only be found on the planet, create a use for it on the planet that guarantees it will be picked up. If the time between the two uses is long enough, you can be almost guaranteed that the player forgot she even had the object.
The other way around this problem is to give the player hints about what she might need to pick up. If the aliens on the planet suggest that the player find water before returning to the ship, and the player ignores this advice, then failure is her own fault.
Puzzles should advance the story
Real time is bad drama (in 1988)
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.
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 there is an object on the screen that looks like a box, but the parser is waiting for it to be called a mailbox, the player is going to spend a lot of time trying to get the game to do a task that should be transparent. In parser-driven games, the key is to have lots of synonyms for objects. If the game is a graphics adventure, check proximity of the player’s character. 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.
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.
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.
Try to imagine this type of puzzle as a cage the player is caught in, and the only way out is to find the key. Once the key is found, the player finds herself in another cage. 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. A good indicator of the cage syndrome is how linear the game is. If the plot follows a very strict line, chances are the designer is caging the player along the path. It’s not easy to uncage a game, it requires some careful attention to the plot as seen from players coming at the story from different directions. The easiest way is to create different interactions for a given situation depending on the order encountered.
The first thing I’d do is get rid of save games. If there have to be save games, I would use them only when it was time to quit playing until the next day. Save games should not be a part of game play. This leads to sloppy design. As a challenge, think about how you would design a game differently if there were no save games. If you ever have the pleasure of watching a non-gameplayer playing an adventure game you will notice they treat save game very differently then the experienced user. Some start using it as a defense mechanism only after being slapped in the face by the game a few times, the rest just stop playing.
second, if the designer ever thinks the game might be too short, he throws in another puzzle or two. These also tend to be the worst thought-out and most painful to solve. If I could have my way, I’d design games that were meant to be played in four to five hours. The games would be of the same scope that I currently design, I’d just remove the silly time-wasting puzzles and take the player for an intense ride. The experience they would leave with would be much more entertaining and a lot less frustrating. The games would still be challenging, but not at the expense of the players patience.
in the end, the average guy spends most of the day failing at the office, the last thing he wants to do is come home and fail while trying to relax and be entertained.
An example. One of the worst design mistakes in The Longest Journey is this. WARNING: May contain spoilers!
In order to proceed through a certain area you need a pizza box. You will find this box in a bin. But the bad thing about it is that you have to wait for someone to put it in the bin. And this happens only once you have given a character, in a location far away, a completely unrelated item to the puzzle at hand.
What the designers should of done is this. When you visit the character far away before, which you have to do in order to gain access to the area with the bin, you should be prevented from leaving him until you have given him what must be given to him. For example, when you try to walk out your character can stop and say ‘I feel like I’ve forgotten to do something very important here’. This still may be a bit lame but it is much better than what was done. Actually, it probably wouldn’t have been so lame because of the story.
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Tramite il gruppo civico Cambiare partecipo ad un progetto di rinnovamento della classe politica di Ferentino. Con questo sito internet cerco di informare e creare una discussione trasparente circa le scelte operate dall'amministrazione comunale. Lavoro in architettura e restauro, progettando e realizzando ambienti, strutture, arredi ed oggetti tramite la mia azienda, Fornaci Giorgi, che produce pavimenti, rivestimenti ed elementi architettonici in cotto fatto a mano. Mi interesso di arti visive, interfacce uomo macchina, applicazioni internet. Ho il pollice verde ed amo mia moglie Domitilla e nostra figlia Charlotte. In passato ho collaborato con Wikipedia, Ubuntu, Live Performers Meeting, Il Cartello per la promozione e diffusione delle arti, Greenpeace, Festival Arrivano i Corti, Il Giardino delle Rose Blu, Il Gabbiano.