More on Riddles
Posted by Rem on June 4, 2011
In my previous post I made a few remarks on how riddles shouldn’t be viewed as inherently slowing and interrupting, how they should be part of the game world and the game experience as a whole. The comments made me realise that I should have emphasised that point much more.
The problem is that when we say “riddle”, what we imagine is having to stop and align a bunch of stones such that they light up or something like that. And all the time while figuring out how to align them, our gaming (levelling?) flow is kind of interrupted and we feel slowed down. Then there is an easy way to accelerate and bridge that interrupt, namely by looking up the solution. Which we promptly do. Here’s the thing: when I say “riddle”, I don’t mean the “align five rocks” sort of things, at least not exclusively.
What I mean is this. Usually, that is in an MMORPG you’re likely to play in 2011, you get a quest that tells you to do something. And how to do that something is laid out step by step: kill X, loot Y, apply to Z. A riddle, in the wider sense of the term, for me, is when you have a goal but no recipe how to achieve it – you need to figure out how to get there yourself.
This comes with a few issues attached. For one, if all goals in your game come with a recipe, except for some, which you consider your “riddles”, the reality is that the recipe-driven gameplay takes place at a particular speed, which is, by nature, higher than a riddle-based one can be. Thus when your players get to your “riddle”, they feel slowed down, their flow interrupted. For example in the early levelling game in RIFT, in Freemarch, there are a couple of (story related) quests that ask you to find something/someone, but don’t tell you where. That doesn’t add any sense of mystery, but only annoyance, because all other quests tell (or rather show) you pretty exactly where to go, so suddenly having to run around more or less blindly, suspecting that there is probably exactly one right spot to look in, but unless you end up standing on top of it, you won’t know, because there are no hits to work with, feels rather awkward. Which leads in nicely to the second point.
In the real world, figuring things out is fun (if you’re the inquisitive type, that is) and actually even just possible, because everything takes place in a highly consistent system: the laws of nature. Any knowledge you have about how a certain process works is universally applicable, everywhere and always – and you accumulate a lot of that knowledge. All those “brilliant heads” we watch in our favourite TV shows, solving crimes and difficult problems, are basically characters who are really good at connecting causes and effects. A game world doesn’t have this luxury. The laws of a game world are – inevitably and in significant parts also desirably – different from those of the real world and potentially arbitrary at that. Therefore, unless you make an active effort to relay the laws of your game world to the players and then stay rigorously consistent, the players won’t have a frame of reference to work with. This is the important difference between being able to figure something out gradually and trying things at random until something works.
To use an example from RIFT again, there is this awkward “puzzle” in Moonshade Highlands, the point of which is basically to open valves along a water pipe to fill target reservoirs with water. The reservoirs are aligned in a chain, filling up one after the other. You fill up all 10 – you win. Each valve, after being opened, stays open for about 10-12 seconds and cannot be interacted with until it closes again (so you can’t just keep them open continuously, they will inevitably close and you’ll have to reopen). So far so pretty evident from the arrangement you find – it should also be noted that there is no actual “puzzle” element at work here, unlike in the other puzzles we did so far there’s no actual secret to solve here, it’s basically a click-time game, which is bad in itself, but that’s not the point here. The point is that how the riddle, or shall I say the water behaves is not consistent with anything you could derive from real world or game world observation.
The water flows when all valves are open, through the pressure generated by the source – so far so good. We’ll also accept that the valves auto-close after a while, because that’s how they work, fair enough, such are the tools we’re given. But why is it that water already in the target canisters starts draining when there’s no fresh water being pumped in? Is there a leak somewhere? Possible, but I can’t observe it. All I can see is lights going on and off, and when one of them remains on while the previous ones turn off, I have no idea whether it’s just a bug in the game or actual information being relayed to me. I can’t tell because neither is consistent with any reference system I’d feel my actions and their consequences bound to. Also, while it’s understandable that the flow stops when any of the valves closes, because that cuts off the pressure of the source, it is entirely unclear why this causes all water that is already in the pipe but not in the target canisters yet to outright disappear. That doesn’t align with any law of physics or game world one would be aware of. Shouldn’t it remain in the pipe and be pumped forward once I reopen the previous valves again? It just disappears. This behaviour cannot be derived from any other process observed in the game, nor is it teaching me anything about “how water behaves in RIFT”. It is nothing more than an arbitrary mechanic of this particular riddle. No consistency whatsoever.
This example got a bit lengthy, but was important to explain what I mean when I call for consistent rule systems. If we want players to figure something out, we need to give them knowledge based on which they can make educated deductions. We can’t give that knowledge out all at once, at the moment when it’s required – that’s the recipe approach utilised by modern day quests. We need to introduce it gradually, letting the players (interactively) observe consistent and reoccurring processes and events, allowing them to learn about the game world and how it works. And then, when someone goes ahead and creates an online resource about the consistent laws governing our game, no harm is done at all. This is what community research should be all about, rather than providing players with scripts to success.
Besides, we need the game to take place at a slower pace, such that stopping to think doesn’t feel like an interruption. Of course solutions will still be discovered and gathered online, but here’s the thing, once again (cf. previous post): players don’t look up everything, they look up things they aren’t having fun doing on their own. When the players feel slowed down, they will look up the solution to accelerate back to their usual pace. When they’re used to a slower pace in general, the difference won’t be there to compensate for.
The modern raiding game is a good example of a bad riddle, in fact. Why does everyone look up strategies (and then follow them with a ridiculous rigour, not understanding why something may or may not be applicable)? Because the pace set by the rest of the game doesn’t align with the notion of stopping to think, attempting to observe and find a solution. At the same time, the raid encounters themselves don’t make much of an effort to provide observable cues, to allow you to grasp what’s going on without already knowing in advance. As Telwyn commented on the previous post, the developers pretty much expect us to know. We’re very rarely provided with analogies to established knowledge, because there’s very little consistent knowledge that could be referenced to begin with. Except, you know, don’t stand in the stuff on the floor. Unless it’s good stuff. Naturally.