This week, we dipped back into 2014 with a review of The Talos Principle, a puzzle game from the Serious Sam developers at Croteam. Anthony John Agnello was way into its combination of spatial challenges and existential provocation. His only minor gripe was that Principle’s puzzles lack room for improvisation compared to Portal, one of its chief influences. Needlehacksaw pointed out that Portal’s sequel suffered from the same problem, and that if handled well, it’s not a problem at all:
I’m not sure the rigidness of the puzzles should be held against Talos, though. Puzzle games that give the player a real option to improvise solutions not foreseen by the developers are extremely rare—I guess developers are a bit afraid of players breaking their game—and the few exceptions, like SpaceChem, are sometimes so complex that they seem downright intimidating. Duncan Fyfe might have been on to something when he once described the rigid but brilliant Braid like this: “Braid creates circumstances which facilitate feelings of momentary genius. Playing Braid, I relate to high school dorks who select steroid-abusing vigilantes as their in-game avatars, except I am role-playing as a smart person.” It’s role-playing alright. The dopamine rush you get when you find a puzzle’s solution is, to some degree, a mere illusion. You’re not a genius. You just did what a smarter-than-you developer wanted you to do. But guess what? The dopamine rush is no illusion. The fact that you stretched your brain in new directions isn’t one, either. Rigid puzzles? They’re alright with me, if they are done well, as they seem to be in Talos.
Other commenters agreed: It’s just as valuable for a puzzle game to subtly lead players to its single solution. zebbart recalled the developers of Portal saying the same thing:
Playing Portal with the commentary track on illustrates just how true that is. Sometimes people would find alternative solutions that were way too simple and allowed them to basically skip the level, missing all the fun. Other times people completely missed the technique that would lead to the solution and quit in frustration. In both cases, the developers had to come up with subtle nudges to get the players to “do it right” without feeling forced.
And duwease pointed out another big design problem posed by open-ended puzzles:
I think, even more than developers being afraid of someone breaking their game, developers have to limit options in order to introduce challenge. Open-ended puzzles are fine at the beginning, but they eventually result in repeated solutions unless you introduce some limiters to push players in another direction. Look at how open Scribblenauts is. They’re not even really puzzles at that point, you just have a little fun challenging yourself to find the weirdest solution by the end.
The games that get around that (SpaceChem, as needlehacksaw mentioned, the recent gem Prelogate, and any CCG) generally give the players such a complex set of tools that the fun takes place outside of the game, over to brainstorming on forums as to how best “solve” the game in general. That’s fun for the dedicated players but probably not the best route for a story-based game.
Cartlon Hungus agreed and provided an example:
I think this is the problem with freedom. Given too much, players will naturally fall into a rut. They’ll find their favorite (or easiest) puzzle-solving mechanic and just reuse it over and over, despite the availability of and challenge in finding others. Even if it’s not breaking the game, I’m sure the creators would rather you try and use all the tools they created.
An example popping into my head is the Trine games (lovely and charming platformers, by the way). There are plenty of puzzles to be solved, but the wizard is overpowered in his obstacle-solving abilities. You can solve lots of problems just by leveling him up and conjuring up a stack of blocks, even though most of the challenges have solutions possible for the knight and rogue as well.
In a For Our Consideration op-ed, Jake Muncy talked about why Microsoft’s decision to hold back both Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach from The Master Chief Collection changes the Halo story for the worse. Austin agreed that those two missing games had something the numbered Halo games lacked:
Halo: Reach and ODST‘s doom and gloom stories were much better than the standard Chief ex machina fare. I liked feeling outgunned against the Covenant, especially after turned them into jokes in Halo 3. (The grunts screaming, in English, and running away started getting old.) They also managed to make them feel more threatening without including the Flood, which too a needed break after being introduced in the second act of every single other Halo game that came. Reach in particular stands out as my favorite Halo game because it really underlines that humanity was fucked against the covenant from the start, and it shows us the sacrifices that had to be made to even try and slow them down. They lend gravitas to Chief’s story, and hopefully we get more games like them.
Pgoodso pointed to one other bright spot in the series’ characterization:
The Arbiter is the most human character in the whole series, because his story isn’t one of “I always win” but “I lost terribly, and in trying to win again, found out my entire life and the entire life of my people for generations has been a lie.” That’s pretty awesome stuff there, but then Halo 3 said, “Too many 13-year-olds asked us ‘Where’s Master Chief!?,’ so we didn’t continue that far more interesting story.”
And on a similar tack, QoheletTzadak blamed the withholding of the series’ more intricate backstory beats on a fear of displeasing action-loving fans:
Ultimately, I decided Halo‘s story is the result of a bunch of intelligent people hedging their bets because they, with ample justification, believe their audience to be preverbal, sociopathic morons. (It is a tale told to an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying little unless you look it up later on the wiki.)
All you need do is consider the loopy poetry of the Covenant and Forerunner names (“Penitent Tangent,” “Mendicant Bias,” “Unyielding Hierophant”) to know that someone has a few lights on upstairs, but they have so little faith in the audience that most of the backstory is buried in hard-to-find terminals and info dumps, which themselves often make little sense without additional context. Unfortunately, most of that context is to be found within supplemental material that is, speaking generously, of somewhat erratic quality. It’s a thoughtfully constructed universe with all the ingredients for compelling sci-fi storytelling that is hamstrung, I think, by a certain lack of ambition (or the aforementioned lack of faith). That may change as the games and related properties continue to make embarrassing heaps of money. But then again, it doesn’t really need to.
That does it for this week, folks. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!